Using Hip-Hop Music and Music Videos to (1)

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Communication Teacher
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Using Hip-Hop Music and Music Videos
to Teach Aristotle's Three Proofs
Nick J. Sciullo
Published online: 01 May 2014.
To cite this article: Nick J. Sciullo (2014): Using Hip-Hop Music and Music Videos to Teach Aristotle's
Three Proofs, Communication Teacher, DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2014.911341
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Communication Teacher
2014, pp. 1–5
Using Hip-Hop Music and Music Videos
to Teach Aristotle’s Three Proofs
Downloaded by [Nick Sciullo] at 10:07 05 May 2014
Nick J. Sciullo
Courses: Argumentation, Rhetorical Theory, Public Speaking, and Persuasion
Objective: Students will explore the ways hip-hop music and music videos illuminate
Aristotle’s three proofs.
Introduction and Rationale
Aristotle’s three proofs remain central to students’ understanding of argumentation
and persuasion. They are fundamental for those just beginning rhetorical study,
as well as being of interest to experienced scholars. Investing time in learning
the proofs supports students’ future practice and study of rhetoric. Unfortunately, the
vocabulary of classical rhetoric can be daunting for undergraduates (Brummett,
2010). Yet, there is hope. Research suggests that when students and teachers agree on
learning styles, learning is more likely to occur (Dunn & Dunn, 1993). In other
words, creative pedagogues can find ways to demonstrate the importance of classical
rhetorical theory for unlocking the persuasive power of discourse in popular texts.
One way to do this is to use hip-hop as a pedagogical lens to make Aristotle’s proofs
current and interesting.
Many young rhetorical scholars, as well as many of our students, have grown up
listening to hip-hop. Hip-hop mogul and journalist Dan Charnas (2010) argues,
“Hip-hop changed our society” because of its far-reaching impact through album
sales and branding (p. xi). Indeed, Kitwana (2003) describes people born between
1965 and 1984 as making up the hip-hop generation, and Asante, Jr. (2009) argues
that the following generation is keenly interested in reclaiming and reshaping hiphop. These generations map on to the 66% of college students under the age of
40 (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2012). Therefore, hip-hop likely
resonates culturally for many of today’s undergraduates, as well as many of the
graduate students and young scholars teaching them.
Nick J. Sciullo Ph.D. candidate. Correspondence to: Nick J. Sciullo, Department of Communication, Georgia
State University, 25 Park Place, Atlanta, 30303 USA. Email: [email protected]
ISSN 1740-4622 (print)/ISSN 1740-4630 (online) © 2014 National Communication Association
Downloaded by [Nick Sciullo] at 10:07 05 May 2014
N. J. Sciullo
Scholars across disciplines have written about the ability of music to instruct and
enlighten (Attali, 1997; Pratt, 2004). Increasingly, rhetoric and communication
scholars have pursued music as a means of instruction and a site of rhetoric (Marsh,
2012; Waite, 2008; Sellnow & Sellnow, 2001). Scholars in other disciplines have
discussed the ways in which hip-hop has been pedagogically effective (Akom, 2009;
Alim, 2007; Turner, 2012). Yet, save for Marcia Dawkins (1998), rhetoricians have
not applied hip-hop to rhetoric, a problem because both classical rhetoric and hiphop are salient in today’s rhetorical environment. In short, hip-hop can be an
effective pedagogical strategy for teaching rhetoric. It behooves educators to consider
how hip-hop can help today’s students understand classical rhetoric.
The activity described below will help students better understand the music they
listen to by unpacking the ways in which arguments exist in music and music videos.
This activity will also make Aristotle’s proofs current, illustrating the ways classical
rhetoric remains relevant. One note of caution is necessary: hip-hop music often
contains messages some students and instructors may find inappropriate. Faculty
should be mindful of these concerns, explaining, for example, the ways hip-hop often
reflects realities of urban life, and alternatively, that many artists utilize considerable
wordplay and artistic license in creating music. Professors should also stress that
rhetoric functions regardless of how some interlocutors may judge the message or
The Activity
This activity is a single class activity to be completed during part of one class period.
Teachers should select three songs (or, to address potential teacher credibility issues,
have students bring in songs, screened by the teacher), preferably with corresponding
music videos to enhance the opportunity for rhetorical investigation. Each song
should highlight one of Aristotle’s proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. Teachers are
welcome to tailor their selections to their specific classroom settings. Instructors
should ask students which artists and types of music hold the most resonance. In
some instances, certain artists or sub-genres may not carry the same significance for
certain students. For example, Southern crunk music may not resonate with students
who favor West Coast hip-hop.
The instructor should play each song or music video, making sure students can
observe the video unobstructed. Depending on the dynamics of the class, instructors
may wish to discuss songs in turn or discuss all three after they are played. Discussion
after each song may allow for closer rhetorical analysis, whereas discussion after all
three are played may allow for better comparative analysis.
Songs and music videos usually last between three and seven minutes. If teachers
plan for five minutes of discussion for each song, the total elapsed time for this
activity is roughly 30 minutes, allowing ample time for other lessons and discussion
of additional texts in a standard 50- or 75-minute class.
Communication Teacher 3
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I typically choose a song and video where a hip-hop artist describes some aspect of
their life story. Much has been said about braggadocio in hip-hop (Dube, 2010; Reed,
Franti, & Adler, 1992), but a more rhetorical approach to hip-hop boasting examines
this phenomenon as a carefully crafted rhetorical move (Klauss, 2004). Songs such as
Kendrick Lamar’s (2011) Ab-Soul’s Outro and DMX’s (2001) Who We Be are both
sound selections. In each song, the rappers articulate an ethotic position in order to
persuade the audience of the artist’s authenticity and ability to speak on issues
presented in the song, and in the album as a whole.
Hip-hop artists often make ethotic claims. I usually ask students questions such as:
What is the artist’s expertise in the subject of the song? What experiential claims is
the artist making? Does the artist contrast his or her ethos with someone else’s (a
common practice in hip-hop music)? Students are usually quick to find appeals to
ethos because of hip-hop’s reliance on street credibility (street cred). Hip-hop exposes
students to different ethotic claims, so students learn to consider more than formal
lists of degrees, professions, and experience.
Emotion has long been central to music. Hip-hop’s precursors—blues, jazz, and
R&B—all relied on careful pathetic appeals in order to move audiences and
encourage affective responses. B.B. King, Charles Mingus, and Marvin Gaye all
approached pathos with a feverish passion. Hip-hop follows this tradition of pathetic
appeal (Kelley, 1997). To demonstrate pathos, I often play a song like Tupac Shakur’s
(1995) Dear Mama or Eminem’s (2002) Kim. Both artists are popular across the
spectrum of college-age students. Each song depicts an emotional appeal about
complex issues of familial relationships and domestic strife. Pathetic appeals are
further complemented by music videos. Students often come to understand pathetic
appeals better when the visual rhetoric of videos complements the songs’ lyrics.
Eminem’s music videos, often heart-wrenching, provide further opportunities to
understand pathos.
Lest students think hip-hop is alogical or illogical, I always play a song that makes an
explicitly logical argument, often by numbering the argument’s steps. In The Lox’s
(1998) Money, Power & Respect, Lil’ Kim explicitly explains the way in which
someone can achieve respect according to the artist’s calculations. Dru Hill’s (2002)
I Should Be… demonstrates logos’ value by providing four interconnected steps for
the song’s addressee (a past lover) to follow in order to rejoin a lost love. The logic of
this song resonates, as many students have experienced similar circumstances.
Teachers should be able to find many examples of logical argument. Take for example
Lauryn Hill’s argument on How Many Mics from The Fugees’ The Score (1996),
N. J. Sciullo
through simile, indicating the necessity of hip-hop in her life: “Me without a mic is
like a beat without a snare.” Furthermore, students are able to see how logos, ethos,
and pathos function together as artists make rhetorical appeals.
Students respond favorably to hearing rhetorical ideas applied to contemporary
popular culture. Furthermore, I ask students to relate the use of logos in a song to
circumstances in their own lives. Students are more likely to share in class when they
feel as though the lessons impact their daily lives. Seeing and hearing rhetoric in hiphop provides this connection. Finding logos in hip-hop suggests the relevance of
Aristotle’s proofs to today’s undergraduate students.
Downloaded by [Nick Sciullo] at 10:07 05 May 2014
Students have responded favorably to analyzing hip-hop music as rhetorical texts
(One student remarked, “I liked seeing this old stuff in stuff I listen to.”). They see
rhetoric in popular texts and apply Aristotle’s proofs in new ways. This gives students
more accustomed to hip-hop than Aristotle a way to access the Greek rhetorical
Teachers should strive to make rhetoric relevant to their students, and in so doing,
they should consider the benefits of engaging popular music to produce significant
learning outcomes (Brummett, 2010). My students indicate popular music helps make
classical rhetoric make sense. Indeed, my students have consistently applied classical
rhetorical analysis in more accurate and meaningful ways, often citing the proofs’
demonstrations in earlier exercises. (Another student said, “I hear rhetors appealing to
logos by using analogies just like when we listened to that music video where the singer
explained why he and his girlfriend should marry.”). Hip-hop effectively demonstrates
the importance of Aristotle’s proofs to today’s undergraduates.
Hip-hop’s pedagogical potential lends itself to teaching other ideas from classical
rhetoric. For example, students may find logical fallacies easier to understand if they
are illustrated by hip-hop’s braggadocio. Teachers may want to select a freestyle battle
or diss song to demonstrate the uses of fallacies. Furthermore, Cicero’s canons could
be used to uncover compositional elements of songs. Hip-hop promises to make
classical rhetoric pertinent and enriching for today’s undergraduates.
Song Lyric Resources
A–Z Lyrics Universe,
References and Suggested Readings
Akom, A. A. (2009). Critical hip hop pedagogy as a form of liberatory praxis. Equity & Excellence in
Education, 42, 52–66. doi:10.1080/10665680802612519
Downloaded by [Nick Sciullo] at 10:07 05 May 2014
Communication Teacher 5
Alim, H. S. (2007). Critical hip-hop language pedagogies: Combat, consciousness, and the cultural
politics of communication. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6, 161–176.
Asante, Jr. M. K. (2009). It’s bigger than hip-hop: The rise of the post-hip-hop generation. New York,
NY: St. Martin’s.
Attali, J. (1997). Noise: The political economy of music. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Brummett, B. (2010). Rhetoric in popular culture. New York, NY: Sage.
Charnas, D. (2010). The big payback: The history of the business of hip-hop. New York, NY: New
American Library.
Dawkins, M. A. (1998). Voices underground: Hip hop as black rhetoric. The Literary Griot, 10,
DMX. (2001). Who we be. On The great depression [CD]. New York, NY: Ruff Ryders.
Dru Hill. (2002). I should be…. On Dru World Order. [CD]. New York, NY: Def Soul.
Dube, S. I. (2010). Hate me now: An instance of NAS as hip-hop’s self-proclaimed prophet and
messiah. Religious Studies and Theology, 29, 171–190. doi:10.1558/rsth.v29i2.171
Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1993). Teaching secondary students through their individual learning styles.
Boston, MA: Pearson.
Eminem. (2002). Kim. On The Eminem show [CD]. Santa Monica, CA: Interscope.
Kelley, R. D. G. (1997). Yo’ mama’s disfunktional! Fighting the culture wars in urban America.
Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kitwana, B. (2003). The hip-hop generation: Young blacks and the crisis in African-American culture.
New York, NY: Basic Civitas.
Klauss, P. (2004). Brag!: The art of tooting your own horn without blowing it. New York, NY:
Warner Business.
Lamar, K. (2011). Ab-Soul’s outro. On Section.80 [CD]. Carson, CA: Top Dawg Entertainment.
Marsh, C. (2012). Hip hop as methodology: Ways of knowing. Canadian Journal of Communication, 37, 193–203.
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2012). Snapshot report: Adult learners. Herndon,
VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Pratt, R. R. (2004). Art, dance, and music therapy. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of
North America, 15, 827–841. doi:10.1016/j.pmr.2004.03.004
Reed, I., Franti, M., & Adler, B. (1992). Hiphoprisy. Transition, 56, 152–165. doi:10.2307/2935047
Sellnow, D., & Sellnow, T. (2001). The “illusion of life” rhetorical perspective: An integrated
approach to the study of music as communication. Critical Studies in Media Communication,
18, 395–415. doi:10.1080/07393180128090
Shakur, T. (1995). Dear mama. On Me against the world. [CD]. Santa Monica, CA: Interscope.
The Fugees. (1996). How many mics. On The Score. [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
The Lox. (1998). Money, power & respect. On Money, power & respect. [CD]. New York, NY:
Bad Boy.
Turner, K. C. N. (2012). Multimodal hip hop productions as media literacies. The Educational
Forum, 76, 497–509. doi:10.1080/00131725.2012.708617
Waite, L. (2008). Rock and roll! Using classic rock as a guide to fantasy-theme analysis.
Communication Teacher, 22, 10–13. doi:10.1080/17404620801914491
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