Rap Genius and Tomorrow’s Education

Posted June 11th, 2013 at 9:24 am (UTC-4)
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Interview With the Co-Founder of Potentially Disruptive Education Technology

Ross Slutsky | Washington DC

Ross Slutksy is a former VOA intern and current Digital Frontiers contributor. Ross is also a research intern at the Center for Democracy and Technology; the views expressed here are solely his own and not representative of CDT. You can reach him at rslutsky@cdt.org

When it comes to reading aids for English classes, many students have traditionally turned to resources such as Cliff Notes or Spark Notes.  These study aids serve to summarize the contents of readings and help students with understanding broader thematic issues that pervade various works.

However, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes are no longer the only options.  Though not everyone would think to look in such a location, Rap Genius can also help unlock the meaning of classical texts.

For those unfamiliar with it, Rap Genius is a website most commonly known for crowd-sourced annotation of the lyrics to rap songs.  The site enables users to click on a line in any given song and see a user generated interpretation of the text.  However, the website’s interpretive ambitions extend beyond song lyrics; Rap Genius also includes books ranging from The Great Gatsby to War and Peace.

And unlike study aids that merely summarize the content of chapters and sometimes cause students to read summaries instead of the actual content of books, Rap Genius provides line by line analysis that can help the reader interpret difficult passages.

Sharp observers in Silicon Valley seem to be clued in on Rap Genius’s disruptive potential: renowned venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in the start-up late last year.

Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam was kind enough to take the time for a Q & A with Digital Frontiers on his site’s forays into education.

Q & A with Mahbod Moghadam


Q: I feel old.  Back in the late 2000s when I was in high school, we used Spark Notes. However, the advantages of Rap Genius should be immediately apparent to anyone who toys around with the site.  How did you know when the Rap Genius community was ready to extend its reach beyond song lyrics?

Moghadam: This was the 10th track we explained on the site, no joke.

We always knew Rap Genius could annotate all texts…we started with rap because it is at the cutting edge, the forefront of global youth culture (also our personal favorite art form).

Q: When used effectively, it seems like Rap Genius can eliminate reading comprehension issues that stem from lack of contextual information. However, player haters might argue that struggling to interpret difficult or ambiguous lines is part of the process of becoming a stronger reader and developing critical thinking skills.  What would your response to the haters be?

Moghadam: I get happy when I read on Twitter the same tweet, every day: “I just Rap Genius’d it and now I’m even more confused!” Rap Genius does not “explain” s–t – it is an academy, a place to trip about the vast genius of art.

Q: In an interview with TechCrunch, Mahbod cited Lawrence Lessig as a major influence.  Have there been any efforts to create any collaborative projects (beyond license usage) with the staff of Creative Commons?

Moghadam: Yes he is the BEST! He even has a Rap Genius account! Lessig is my hero, muf–ka has a huge cranium, smartest person I’ve ever met.

I wanted Lessig to explain the DMCA on the site, but he is OVER it! He explained a rap about campaign finance reform (luckily his homie IP expert Mark Lemley explained it!)

Q: It seems like part of the reason Rap Genius has been so successful is that it built a community around shared interest in lyrical interpretation.  Though there is definitely some overlap between those who want to interpret lyrics and those who want to interpret books, what plans do you have for building up the critical mass of literature interpreters that will be needed to take down Spark Notes?

Moghadam: The FIRST STEP: follow Poetry Genius on twitter!  – separate sites are coming, Poetry Genius and StereoIQ (aka “Rock Genius”) are my BABIES!! I mean, check out the explanations of “Call me Ishmael” – so bomb!!

Q: On a separate note, I thought I read somewhere a while ago that the Rap Genius staff were thinking of branching into entertainment law by providing representation for artists.  Is that something you are considering?

Moghadam: Oh you mean Rap Genius LLC?? Nah, at this point we are more focused on building a “LAW GENIUS!” Who is gonna run it?? We gotta find the Law Genius…

Q: Years from now, will my future wife (still working on meeting her) get angry messages from a future high school teacher about how my future kids got in trouble for using Rap Genius to better understand Crime and Punishment?

Moghadam: Only if the teacher is a stupid caveman moron. Rap Genius illuminates texts – it is not “cheating” like Sparknotes, it is a tuition-free university.

Q: Finally, is there anything else you think VOA readers should know?

Moghadam: SIGN UP YO and let me know your username and what cool stuff you are explaining! I am at mahbod@rapgenius.com. PS – FOOD GENIUS!!!!!

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