Visiting Lecturers Daniel Levin Becker and Nafkote Tamirat Discuss “Notes on Rap”


One of the hallmarks of an AUP education is exposure to industry professionals through hands on classes taught by visiting lecturers. By immersing themselves in outside perspectives, students grasp new ways to put theory into practice. At a recent event hosted by AUP’s Center for Writers and Translators, two visiting lecturers in the creative writing major, Daniel Levin Becker and Nafkote Tamirat, came together in conversation: providing an important extra perspective on the creative process for students in their class.

Levin Becker is an author and translator who was recently longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 for his work translating Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party from French to English. This AUP event focused on Levin Becker’s recent book, What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, which explores the ways in which rap music engages with lyrical expression. Levin Becker is teaching Literary Translation and Creative Writing at AUP. Nafkote Tamirat is the author of The Parking Lot Attendant (Henry Holt 2019) and a graduate of Yale and Columbia universities. She is teaching Writing and Criticism at AUP this semester.

After an introduction from Daniel Medin, Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and English, Tamirat began by asking Levin Becker about his previous writing and translation work. His first book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, explores the Oulipo movement, a French literary collective of which Levin Becker is a member, which seeks to produce written work using self-imposed literary constraints. The Oulipo movement is interested in “potential literature,” a term that refers to writing generated via a mathematical structure. “It’s essentially outsourcing the labor of literary creation to an external system,” he explained.

Some Oulipo constraints are simple, while others are complex, involving algorithmic generation and other mathematical concepts. “Writing with one hand behind your back forces you to put aside concerns about quality,” argued Levin Becker, “It makes the whole process not unlike solving a puzzle.” Perhaps the most famous example of an Oulipo work is Georges Perec's 1969 novel, La Disparition, which is 50,000 words long but does not contain the letter “e.”

The discussion then turned to Levin Becker’s work on rap lyrics. What’s Good considers how rap’s use of language operates and evolves. Though the book was a conscious move away from the Oulipo movement for Levin Becker, he still found certain connections between the Oulipian tradition and rap music. “They both test the forms of what we think of as writing,” he explained. “The lyrics themselves are what continue to excite me about rap.”

In 50 short chapters, each exploring a different rap lyric, Levin Becker praises the unique, creative nature of how rap music uses language. “I had a will to tinker with what a book about rap might look like,” he explained, when discussing the book’s format. One chapter, for example, explores the evolution of a line from the song “My Melody” by Eric B. and Rakim, released in 1987: “I take seven emcees, put 'em in a line.” The lyric has been rewritten and recreated in more than a dozen rap songs since it originally emerged.

Tamirat then questioned Levin Becker on the cultural positioning of rap; on what the medium might gain and lose as it obtains more mainstream, institutional capital; and on Levin Becker’s position as a white man writing about a historically Black artform. Following the discussion, the audience raised further questions; Professor Medin, for example, brought the discussion back around to Levin Becker’s translation background. Levin Becker explained how an emphasis on rhythm and word choice in both translation and rap linked the two disciplines. Both also attempt to convey image through symbolism or suggestion rather than straightforward description. “Thinking like a translator is the closest I’ve come to thinking like a rapper,” he explained.