Howard Professor Juggles Economics With Love Of Literature And Hip-Hop (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Howard Professor Juggles Economics With Love Of Literature And Hip-Hop

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll head south from Chevy Chase now, to D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood. That's where you'll find Howard University and a guy named Gilbert Perkins. Perkins is an Economics professor, but his world isn't limited to spread sheets and theories of supply and demand. Perkins also has a passion for literature and hip-hop. And part of his own coming of age process involves getting a new generation of D.C. kids to see the connection between those two worlds. Robbie Fienberg brings us his story.

MR. GILBERT PERKINS

00:00:32
So, Michael Porter invented Five Forces.

MR. ROBBIE FIENBERG

00:00:35
When I first meet Gilbert Perkins, it's in a cramped classroom at Howard University School of Business. Dressed up in a beige suit, Perkins is here to teach an Economics class to about 15 students. He seems like a typical business teacher, but when we leave the classroom and talk one on one, his whole identity changes.

PERKINS

00:00:54
So, full name, Gilbert Newman Perkins. That's my birth name. Sage Salvo is, sort of, the artist moniker and stage name that I've been using, I guess, going back about 10 years now. Just, sort of, as a performance artist, and that's doing things like the open mic, recording songs, going around the city with different programs. That's been sort of the name that I've used for about a decade now.

FIENBERG

00:01:17
That transformation, from Gilbert Perkins to Sage Salvo, from Business professor to rap performer, is a long, complicated story. And it begins before Perkins even entered college, let alone started teaching. It started when Perkins turned 13, and he heard a particular song. "I Gave You Power," by Nas.

PERKINS

00:01:41
And he takes the role of a gun. So, he places himself as if he is an actual gun, and tells the story about the gun being used. You know, from a human perspective. In classical literature, we call that anthropomorphism. You know, he changed his state and gave us a narrative from the position of this inanimate object, a gun. It was completely brilliant. It just completely boggled my mind.

FIENBERG

00:02:15
As he grew up, Perkins started to see those same literary devices like repetition, personification, foreshadowing in all kinds of music, from Jay-Z to John Mayer. Soon, he was writing poems, raps, you name it. But, for him, that creative side was almost like an alter ego, a side of himself he had to hide away. He never thought it could turn into a real career, so when it came time to head to college, he left literature and music behind to study business.

PERKINS

00:02:40
It's a real tough position to be in is that you have this strength, this natural ability. You have folks who are, you know, encouraging you to go with this natural ability, but then you have this practical, logical, you know, influence that's saying, you know, you're spending a thousand dollars on college. You need to get a job. You know, you need to be practical. So, it's, it's -- it was a definite, definite conflict, and the practical side won out.

FIENBERG

00:03:07
Perkins kept taking Business classes, eventually teaching Economics at Howard. But he could never quite shake the feeling that maybe he was more than a businessman. His artistic passion slowly bubbled further and further to the surface. He started producing open mic performances. He wrote raps. He even formed a Go-Go band. It all finally came together a few years ago, when Perkins realized his calling wasn't just hip hop, but education, too. That was when he came up with the idea for a program called Words Live

FIENBERG

00:03:36
The basis of the program is simple. Perkins wants high schoolers to get as excited about literature as he does, every time he hears a new song. And he figured the best way to do that was to teach those children that hip hop songs aren't so different from classic literary works, like Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe.

PERKINS

00:03:52
I wanted to paint hip hop in a different light. Like, I wanted to show pop culture and mass culture that we're exhibiting, like, literary genius, like, look, look, look, and let's get the guys onstage, and let's through their lyrics. And it wasn't until, like, the last couple years where it was like, whoa, this is a powerful education tool. So, we want to talk about, and break down, the elements that make up this oral thing called (unintelligible). And we're gonna talk about folk music...

FIENBERG

00:04:21
On a Friday afternoon, Perkins, or, as he goes by in here, Sage Salvo, brings his Words Live curriculum to Cardozo High School in D.C. Today, he's helping a 12th grade English class read Beowulf, an ancient epic poem. It's an important text, but as the class's teacher, Lea Zaslavsky says, ancient words and phrases make it tough to get through.

MS. LEA ZASLAVSKY

00:04:40
Usually, when you give them texts like Shakespeare or Beowulf, Chaucer, things like that, they seem to be already intimidated before they even read it. So, I wanted them to kind of see that all these things are timeless. The themes keep repeating themselves. The language, the word order might be different than we speak now, but it's still saying some of the same things that we do say.

FIENBERG

00:05:04
That's why Perkins is here, to try to make the poem a bit more accessible. Today, he's comparing the epic tale of Beowulf with a more modern story, the rapper Kendrick Lamar's own epic tale -- his fight against peer pressure and violence in the streets of Compton.

PERKINS

00:05:19
So, he's setting up what the battle is in this song. He's setting that up. He's made a statement that, A, I have value. Look inside my soul, you can find gold. Look inside your soul, you can diamonds you didn't know exist. All right? So, he's setting up this adversarial battle right now, where he's gonna be the hero, and he's gonna conquer this pressure that's engulfed the city.

FIENBERG

00:05:41
Perkins acknowledges that the program's not for everyone. But, he's seen results from past students, and he believes in it.

PERKINS

00:05:46
It's like, some of the students write letters afterwards, and they give me poems. And it was just like, dude, I don't know. I've never seen that before. Can you write down my number, my email? Can we stay in contact? I've never looked at language like that before. I had no idea what I was listening to. And that is when I was like, all right, I need to really package this and develop some type of real functionality.

PERKINS

00:06:06
So, now, that's what he's doing. Perkins is still teaching Economics at Howard, but, slowly, his creative alter ego is taking over more and more. He's working to expand Words Live even further, bringing the curriculum to schools like T.C. Williams and Duke Ellington High School. Perkins says that connecting Jay-Z with William Shakespeare, or Beowulf with Kendrick Lamar, he wants children to understand how important this literature is so that they can get that same feeling he got back when he heard that Nas song, when he was 13 years old. I'm Robbie Fienberg.

SHEIR

00:06:49
You can find photos of Perkins in the classroom, as well as more info about Words Live on our website, metroconnection.org.
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