When the literacy program Gilbert Perkins developed made a teacher cry tears of joy, he knew he was onto something. “It was during our pilot project in a 10th grade class, and this teacher warned me about two students,” says Perkins (MBA 2011), the founder of Words Liive, which aims to get kids reading and writing by linking rap lyrics with classic literature. “They were close to dropping out. But by the end, one of them was writing away and answering questions more than almost anyone else.”
Perkins’ path to that classroom began when he was almost 10, and trying to find his place in the educational system. Growing up in predominantly black, inner-city Washington, D.C., he was in his school’s gifted program. “Our teachers pushed us to exceed any self-imposed limitations,” he says. Wanting to maximize his potential, his parents moved him to a top-rated school district in nearby Fairfax, Virginia – a predominantly upper-income and white county – but the move backfired. “I wasn’t expected to perform well, and I lived up to the low expectations.”
Feeling alienated by his teachers and disconnected from the coursework, he almost gave up in eighth grade. Then he discovered poetry – including the abundance of it within hip-hop lyrics – and this passion helped him regain his confidence. School didn’t change; he did. “I fell in love with writers and poets,” he says. Some favourites were authors Chinua Achebe and T.S. Eliot, and songwriters Nas and Jay Z.
Perkins earned a business degree and worked in finance, but also felt a pull to address the negative school experience he had, and that many others faced. His thoughts on education, literacy and urban music crystallized during his MBA at U of T. “The Rotman School’s integrative-thinking philosophy – finding bridges between worlds – gave me the intellectual courage to start Words Liive after graduation.”
The company creates customized educational programs that teach students – and teachers – to build competency in reading and writing by comparing literary devices in hip-hop lyrics with those in required school readings. In the pilot project, Perkins explored epic poem structure in the songs of hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and Beowulf. “Students struggle with formal texts, but once they see the exact same literary patterns and themes in music they like, their comprehension increases,” he says. Words Liive is in five schools in D.C. and Virginia, with plans for expansion. “We’ve found something that can make a difference – now I want to get it to as many students as possible.”
Watch: Gilbert Perkins’ (a.k.a. Sage Salvo) 2012 TEDx Talk on understanding literature through hip hop