Exploring Literary Synergy Between Hip-Hop and Shakespeare

In the summer of 2017, after graduating from the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) with an associate’s degree, Lydia Coley was selected for the Mellon Scholar Summer Research Experience, a 10-week paid residential program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) that is part of the Humanities for All program and aims to support community college students seeking a degree in the humanities at four-year baccalaureate institutions.

She credits the experience with improving her research skills and elevating her scholarship. During the program, Coley and other participants started off by applying close reading and investigative research techniques in an analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Later during the program, she put her new abilities to the test in an innovative project that compared expressions of protest in hip-hop lyrics to those within Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “One of the most important lessons I learned last summer was how to take a stance and defend it,” she says. As a scholar and student, Coley drew on a wide variety of inspirations in a project that explored the thematic and literary synergy between hip-hop and Shakespeare—all with the goal of spotlighting the intersections of, and social attitudes on, race, literature, and music.

Lydia Coley presents her research at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium.jpgLydia Coley presents her research at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

Born and raised in Maryland, Lydia now attends the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she is pursuing a degree in American Studies with a concentration in elementary education. Passionate about literature and culture, she hopes to attain a PhD, become a teacher, and eventually explore education policymaking and reform.

What clubs and organizations were you involved in at CCBC and how did you become involved in the Humanities for All program?

Far too often, community college is viewed as “13th grade”—and an extension of high school. That means too many students simply attend class and work towards attending a four-year school, without capitalizing on the full scope of opportunities and experiences available. That’s not the way I approached it. I tried to get a full experience at a two-year institution. The resources exist and the opportunities abound,  so I took full advantage of them.

One of the organizations I was a part of at CCBC was the honors committee, first as an officer, then as a student ambassador for the program. I was successful at CCBC largely because I actively sought guidance and mentorship, especially from the director of the program, Dr. Rae Rosenthal. But I was also successful because professors and administrators saw potential in me. The relationship was two-way.

It was through that relationship that I became a Mellon Research scholar. In the spring, Dr. Rosenthal informed me that professors from Johns Hopkins were coming to CCBC to hear from honors students as part of a possible Mellon grant, and I was selected to be on a panel to tell my story. By taking full advantage of the resources at CCBC, I was able to be in the right place at the right time, and to have access to this life-changing opportunity.

What factors did you consider when looking at four-year institutions?

I wanted to go to a school that had a diverse community. CCBC itself was very diverse and I believe learning from others always enhances an overall educational experience. I was also considering becoming a teacher, so I looked closely at education programs as I did my search.

What inspires you to become an educator?

Put simply, it’s a desire to help people. That’s something I’ve always had. Back in high school, alongside my English teacher, I served as an aide and advisor for younger children. I would work with tenth grade students who, at first, didn’t believe they could write a quality essay, struggled with basics, and needed mentors who believed in them. But after offering encouragement, providing help, and serving as a resource, I saw clear progress. That’s when I said to myself, “I really think I want to become a teacher.” The experience showed me that, to grow and reach their potential, younger students needed support and guidance—and when they had it, the possibilities were limitless.

What are your research interests and what do you hope your work conveys?

My work as a Mellon Research Scholar was rooted in a straightforward question about a complex topic:   "If hip hop and Shakespeare use similar literary devices and share overlapping themes, why is Shakespeare canonized while hip hop is ostracized?"

I set out to demonstrate that universal themes and literary devices weren’t limited to literature, but were fundamentally a feature of hip hop. Jay-Z's song "Marcy Me,” for example, uses a reference from Hamlet, while Drake's song, “The Resistance,” uses the extended metaphor of a garden to represent the artist’s professional success. At its core, hip hop is guided by the same rhetorical devices used in timeless literature.

So, by examining different artists, from three different points in time during the genre’s evolution, my research spotlighted how hip hop has complex artistic value. But it also had broader implications, because it examined the intersection between race and how our concept of “knowledge” is constructed, who it’s constructed by, and who society thinks has knowledge – and who doesn't. Ultimately, my objective was to contribute to a broader social justice conversation by looking at this individual question. And I think I achieved that.

How have your life experiences and education shaped this work?

I grew up listening to rap and hip hop music, and I recognized that there’s powerful inspiration, complex themes, and genuine art within the lyrics. When you appreciate those literary devices embedded within so many songs, it’s hard not to ask why hip hop, as a genre, has falsely pejorative connotations while Shakespeare is widely celebrated. That’s deeply problematic from a social standpoint.

I was also inspired to focus on this work because of my American studies courses at UMBC. One course I took was entitled The Critical Analysis of Gay and Lesbians in America, while another class asked and answered the question, What does it mean to be American? These classes sparked an intellectual curiosity in me for deep social questions, and made me a believer that we always need to have a critical eye, and we always need to challenge the status quo.

Lydia Edited for Site.pngLydia Coley visiting Washington, DC for a cultural tour. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopking University.

How was the research process and what resources did you use to conduct your research?

I started by searching and reading extensively. One article leads to another, which leads to another, until you discover more in-depth pieces aligned to your research question. The beginning felt overwhelming, because I had an idea that I was passionate about, and I had a thesis I felt was strong, but I was faced with the challenge of finding research to inform and support it.

So I leaned heavily on Shannon Simpson, librarian for Student Engagement and Information Fluency, at Sheridan Libraries and Museums, who helped me navigate the landscape and get to the root of the scope of my argument, so we could take the next step and determine what exactly to look for. Her help was invaluable— the program didn’t just teach me important research skills, it also taught me to leverage the knowledge and experience of those around me.

What was one of the highlights of the Mellon Scholars Research Program?

That had to be The Leadership Alliance National Symposium,  a conference where scholars met and interacted with former and aspiring graduate students. It was an eye-opening, life-changing moment for me personally.

The Leadership Alliance helps minority students advance in academia, so it felt like a support system that could spark ideas—and a new personal vision for the future—for many of us. Before joining the program, I never even thought about getting a doctorate. I figured I would have to get a master’s degree if I were going to become an educator, but I had never thought about getting a PhD. That changed at the conference, and because of this fellowship.

Here’s why. It was through exposure to and interaction with those who had achieved their PhD that I considered new possibilities. It helped me realize I should set my sights high, and challenged me personally to figure out who I want to be and where I want to go—questions I’m still asking myself.

For now, because I plan to be a teacher, I think it would be beneficial to work in the field as an educator, do work in the classroom, and identify and understand the real issues on the ground by getting first-hand experience before getting a PhD, doing research, or exploring policymaking as a career.

How have your experiences at CCBC prepared you for UMBC?

Community colleges are so important for so many students. I gained invaluable research skills and have become more comfortable working independently. I now have the confidence to share my ideas with others. More than anything, my experience at a two-year college helped me grow personally by fostering my intellectual curiosity. And now that I have this research under my belt, if I approach a professor at my new university and express my research interest, I now have the experience, background, and know-how to be taken seriously and to be successful.

But more than anything, CCBC and the fellowship have made me more of a well-rounded student. What I learned through both experiences—through research techniques and more—will stay with me throughout college, graduate school, and the rest of my life.

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