Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!


If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.

8 thoughts on “Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

  1. One thing that drives me absolutely insane in church is when our hymnal (the new Trinity Hymnal) has “updated” the words or put a new tune to an old hymn. I get very un-Christian-like feelings and refuse to sing! Completely un-sanctified of me, I know, but there it is! Just proof that I need a Savior! It also makes me growly that the new Trinity left so many good hymns out so they could include a bunch that have those awful anthem-y tunes from the 1970’s or some others that just have sappy melodies! I’m a traditionalist when it comes to church music, and living in France for 11 years just gave me more of an appreciation for the old Psalms. In this day and age, it’s hard for me to find a worship service where I love the music and am truly able to worship through it.

    Sorry, I’m getting off my soapbox now . . .

    1. You’re entitled to a soapbox now and then. I have pretty diverse musical tastes. Love classical (instrumental) but don’t enjoy opera. Like good quality hymns, but cringe at much of what’s in the typical hymnal. I really enjoy contemporary Christian music (CCM) and find it sadly humorous that many hymnals include the choruses from the seventies thinking that forty year old music is “contemporary.” Whoops… better get off of my own soapbox now!

  2. “Mouskewitz!”

    “That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!” Careful, this sounds like a challenge! No worries from my quarter, though.

    I find myself singing prayers and praise extemporaneously sometimes (when other people aren’t around to hear me). There is something very freeing about it. Sometimes words aren’t even a part of it, but I feel like they aren’t needed. I highly recommend it. :)

  3. Make a joyful noise. I love the old traditional hymn..not mournfully sung…not always by trained expert singers – just people happy and singing.
    Yep, “come for the singing and stay for the sermon” – as they used to say in rural east Texas…that and “all day singing with dinner on the grounds”. Might have been a bit rough, but heartfelt and sincere.
    Now old songs appear when needed. Comforting more than mere words sometimes.
    (and I could go into the science of music, but does that really matter? smiles.)
    Terrific post

  4. Pingback: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Music « Mere Inkling

  5. Pingback: From Mere Inkling – Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and music – sevennotesofgrace

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