Infusing ancient lit with hip-hop to create an epic mashup

Assistant Professor Alexandra Pappas is seated in her office; the bookcase in the background is lined with books about Greek art and literature and also features a kylix, a Greek vessel used for drinking wine.

Assistant Professor and Raoul Bertrand Chair in Classics Alexandra Pappas, who teaches "Ancient Epic Tales" at SF State says, "What I'm trying to do is pretty big picture. The exercises I put the students through are all geared toward larger ideas of 'education for life.'"

Move over Kanye, Jay-Z and Eminem -- Virgil and Homer are in the house.

"Ancient Epic Tales," a class taught by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor and Raoul Bertrand Chair in Classics Alexandra Pappas, breathes new life into Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" and Virgil’s "Aeneid" by exploring the similarities between the classics and contemporary hip-hop and pop music.

Though the two genres may seem an unlikely pairing, Pappas explains in a Q&A interview, a closer examination of hip-hop and ancient text provides insight into the essential aspects of the human condition.  

How are the two genres similar? Virgil and Homer lived more than 2,000 years before today's recording artists were born.

Just as Homer's and Virgil's poetic songs investigate honor, glory, pride, valor, status, power, authority and justice, so, too, do the lyrical stylings of Jay-Z, Eminem and Lorde. 

In the hip-hop genre, in general, there's a focus on language and word play and ingenuity in language, and that's very much a feature of Homer -- there's an enduring connection in how one treats language and how one plays with language.

Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were originally sung. They were performed live with rhythm and melody. One huge disconnect today is that students come in contact with these stories as text, as words on a page. One of the reasons I bring music into the class is to reinforce the idea that these stories were originally performed as song.   

I'm committed to helping students see the continuity in the big themes. Although ancient Greece initially might seem really remote, the struggles, challenges and stresses that these characters experienced and the issues they dealt with -- home, loyalty, pride -- are still present in our daily lives.

What inspired you to pair ancient Greco-Roman epic tales with hip-hop and other contemporary music?

As a professor of classics, it's a challenge to get students to connect to the material I teach, which can often seem irrelevant, outdated, boring and dusty. It is a telling metaphor that the languages we teach, ancient Greek and Latin, are themselves called 'dead,' so as a classicist I have quite a lot of invigorating to do.

The initial impulse to connect ancient and modern poetic song came when I was planning to teach the class for the first time. I wondered how to get students interested enough in these texts that they would endure the sometimes stilted or obtuse English translations, the always challenging ancient Greek and Latin names, and the pace of the assigned readings -- and actually get something out of the whole exercise.

How do you structure the class?

I play a hip-hop or pop song that relates to whatever we're reading that day at the beginning of each class as the students are walking into the classroom. The lyrics are displayed on a screen in the front of the classroom. I can see them trying to figure out why I'm playing that song as they settle in. I also ask them in advance to think of songs that may be applicable to a reading. 

By starting every class with a song, my goal is to reinforce that our reception [reading the text] today is totally different than the ancient reception. 

They hear the music, they talk about it and they read the text. I believe that the more senses we can tap into, the more we're fully experiencing things.

What do you hope your students learn by taking this class?

I want to teach them to be curious, to seek wisdom and to look internally for wisdom. Homer offers a lot of complexity. There are very few of his characters that are clearly very good or clearly very bad. There's a lot of gray area. My hope is that if students can actively engage that gray area then they'll start to see themselves more clearly in the world and use their skills to navigate those complexities.