On most school days, you can find Gilbert Perkins teaching business and economics to students at Howard University. Dressed in a beige suit, Perkins seems like a typical business teacher, but if you talk with him one-on-one, you'll find a whole new side.
"My name's Gilbert Newman Perkins. That's my birth name," Perkins says. "Sage Salvo is sort of the artist moniker and stage name that I've been using for about 10 years now as a performance artist. And that's doing things like at an open mic, recording songs, going around the city to different programs. That's the name I've used for around a decade now."
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 says the lyrics in the song were like nothing he'd ever heard before, and when he heard them, something changed in his brain.
"He takes the role of a gun," Perkins says. "So he places himself so that he is an actual gun and he tells the story of the gun being used from a human perspective. In classical literature, we call that anthropomorphism. He changed his state and gave us a narrative from the position of this inanimate object, this gun. It was completely brilliant. It completely boggled my mind!"
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 behind literature and music to study business.
"It's a real tough position to be in," Perkins says. "That you have this strength. And you have folks encouraging you to go with this natural ability. But then you have this practical, logical influence that's saying you're spending thousands of dollars on college, you need to get a job, you need to be practical. So it was a definite, definite conflict. And the practical side went out."
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 business man. His artistic passion slowly bubbled further and further to the surface.
Finally, it all came together a few years ago, when Perkins realized his calling wasn't just hip hop, but education, too. That was when he came with an idea for a program called Words LiiVE.
The basis of the program is simple — Perkins wants high-school students 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 weren't so different from classic literary works, like Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe.
"I wanted to paint hip hop in a different light," Perkins says. "I wanted to show mass culture that we are exhibiting literary genius! Look look look! It wasn't until a few years ago that I saw this could be, like, an education."
Recently, Perkins took the program to Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., where he worked with a 12th grade English class on "Beowulf," the 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.
"Usually when you give them texts like Beowulf, Shakespeare, they seem to be intimidated almost before they read it," Zaslavsky said. "So I wanted them to see that all of these things are timeless. The themes keep repeating themselves. The language, the word order might be different than we speak now, but it says the same things we say."
To explain that story to the students, though, Perkins used a new approach — comparing the epic tale of Beowulf with a modern story: the rapper Kendrick Lamar's own epic tale — his fight against peer pressure and violence on the streets of Compton.
Perkins acknowledges that the program's not for everyone. But he's seen results from past students, and he believes in it.
"Some of the students wrote letters afterwards, sending me poems," Perkins says. "They were 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.' And that was when I was like, 'All right, I need to package this and provide some functionality.'"
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 LiiVE even further, bringing the curriculum to schools like TC Williams and Duke Ellington High School. Perkins says that by connecting Jay-Z with William Shakespeare, or "Beowulf" with Kendrick Lamar, he wants children to understand how important this literature is, so they can get that same feeling he got back when he heard that Nas song when he was 13 years old.
[Music: "Coming of Age" by Blue Collar, The Knife from The Walking Sick]
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