At Skyline College, Janice Sapigao teaches students to find their own voice through the study of hip-hop. Photo: CJ Raygoza
At Skyline College, Janice Sapigao teaches students to find their own voice through the study of hip-hop. (Photo: CJ Raygoza)

A Cipher Grows in San Bruno: Hip-Hop's Poetic Education with Janice Sapigao

A Cipher Grows in San Bruno: Hip-Hop's Poetic Education with Janice Sapigao

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“I really like the phrasing ‘an imperfect English.’ I like it, and at the same time I think that there are so many types of English and it’s going to be innately imperfect depending on the person, you know what I mean? I like that it presents this tension,” says Janice Sapigao, a second-generation, Filipina American poet and educator who teaches hip hop education at Skyline College in San Bruno.

“And I think that’s the opening, it’s the opening for when students think about: how do you use English in a hip-hop classroom?”

Janice grew up in Northside San Jose with what can be described as ‘an imperfect English,’ and yet she is mindful of that phrase, because the English is imperfect to whom? Is grammatically correct, fluent English the language of the free, or of the oppressed? Must we strive for ‘perfect English,’ or can we break it down to suit our evolving needs?

Growing up as a second-generation American, you become familiar with the cuts, jumps, false starts, and flow of speaking a language that isn’t your mother’s tongue, nor panders to the paternalism of whiteness. Instead, your language and how you speak is entirely your own: and it mirrors exactly why hip-hop came to be.

Janice Sapigao and student at Skyline College.
Janice Sapigao and CIPHER Counselor Kimberly Davalos at Skyline College. (CJ Raygoza)

When speaking about her CIPHER class that she teaches at Skyline, Janice says, “I always teach and start with Kanye, and I start with The College Dropout Kanye because students today know him and because I really like to use Kanye to illustrate poetry, and the way that music is poetry, and I talk about poetic devices that rappers use like caesura, rhyme scheme, meter, stress and unstress.”


If you look at a Kardashian-clad Kanye today, it can be challenging to remember him as someone whose existence was once inherently political. From stating that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV to rapping about economic and racial inequality in the South Side of Chicago, Kanye was once a symbol for working-class black people. And yet his rhymes and way of using language still hold their weight and can be used in the classroom to help students learn to cultivate a voice that is distinctly their own.

Janice, 29, knows directly what it is like to grow up with ‘an imperfect English,’ and her reality is the reality of her students. The demographics of her community college are largely second-generation Filipino and Latino students whose immigrant parents work and live in the shadow of Silicon Valley. Their parents' jobs are largely in manual labor, or in factories like her mother. Each of her students carries the weight of the dreams of their families on their shoulders; and yet for many of them, their parents’ dreams are not their own.


      “ma is always on the frontline

      of the silicon valley’s shadow

      one of thousands of women

      whose nimble fingers and

      silenced grumbling spin

      microchips for millions

      powering laptops and

      cell phones that she herself

      does not find intuitive enough to use”

Assembly Line, Janice Sapigao

In her latest chapbook toxic city, Janice remembers what it was like to have a mother who worked 14-hour days, and whose coworkers died of cancer from making microchips out of toxic materials. And yet the microchip itself is a symbol of Silicon Valley, a symbol that was made on the backs of underpaid minority workers who now face displacement in the very cities whose wealth they helped create. Meanwhile, for every student who struggles to meet their ends and has parents whom they never get the privilege to see, their narrative is lost amongst the onslaught of hateful headlines:

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It is against the backdrop of these headlines and anti-immigrant sentiments that Janice works to (un)teach, (un)cover, and (un)brainwash the minds of students of color and immigrant communities who have been taught to metabolize hate, and to never see themselves reflected in their history books. In her classes, Janice teaches books like Questlove’s Mo’ Beta Mo’ Blues alongside albums like Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. An essay on Black Lives Matter is deconstructed and analyzed in the same way as “You Got Me” by the Roots featuring Erykah Badu and Eve. And in so doing, Janice’s students learn to value English in all of its imperfect forms, and to find the courage to experiment with their own voice.

Janice Sapigao and student at Skyline College.
Janice Sapigao and student at Skyline College. (CJ Raygoza)

“It [hip-hop] helped me create my English, it helped me create a proper structure for my grammar and know how to speak correctly because of the flow that it had," says Alejandro Carbajal, a 21-year-old Mexican-American student who grew up in Daly City and now goes to Skyline. "It didn’t just help develop me into who I am, but it also really helped me with my education. I wasn’t always the best student when it come to subjects because my parents didn’t know that much English.”

As Alejandro speaks about his experiences in CIPHER, he discusses how for the first time in his education, he could relate to the material. “I was able to study something I’m already interested in," he says. "It helped me understand the material, it wasn’t just about regurgitating the information I learned.”

Instead of rote memorization, CIPHER gave Alejandro the tools to think critically and make up his own mind, and it’s done the same for many of Janice’s students.

Janice Sapigao at Skyline College.

“I feel like CIPHER helps us connect to stories, and what we study," says CIPHER student Shannen Vergara. "It’s not just about your basic English [material], it’s about gentrification, what’s happening right now in SF, the Black Lives Matter movement, and things like that.

“Another thing with CIPHER is that you have a safe space where you have the freedom to express yourself, and I feel like that’s hard to find in a classroom," Vergara adds. "A lot of students are afraid to speak up, because they’re afraid that they’ll be wrong, whereas in CIPHER you can’t be wrong, and it’s about how you feel about something, and our community actually matters.”

At CIPHER, students are given the opportunity and space to find their words, explore their identities, and for the first time, have license to connect with others about their harsh realities through hip-hop. To hear students tell it, the class gives them a way to communicate feelings that they didn't know they had the license to feel.


“I wonder if you have ever... cried.
If your two pendulums for left and right arms
get tired of swinging sometimes.
I want to ask you:
“Manny, how does it feel to carry a country on one
and its future in another?”

Re-Imagining Manny Pacquiao, Janice Sapigao

I read this poem and I think of how I and the other children of immigrant families feel. Like we could all be Manny Pacquiao, and must match his strength and spirit and generosity.

Or we are ungrateful. Unworthy. Unamerican.

If we do not spin gold out of our circumstance, we should go back to where we come from -- our mother’s native land. Where we speak our native tongue as broken as our English.

Janice Sapigao at Skyline College.
Janice Sapigao at Skyline College. (CJ Raygoza)

Janice is not spinning gold but, like Spinderella, she uses records and words and beats to decolonize her students’ minds.

When I read Janice’s poems, I think of them as raps that

                     travel the page

and don’t quite          fit       in

with what we think good writing should look or sound like.

In her

you can hear a Fela Kuti rhythm      a Lauryn Hill sway

    and we are not bound by 2Pac and Kendrick and Compton

    but instead

    we hear a quiet voice that asks questions

    and though soft at first    builds like the CIPHER

    that she has grown.

“Everyday I war with being an English teacher -- and being a writer, and trying to figure out what exactly am I teaching," says Janice. "Like, am I teaching students to be a part of or to create, or know, or be aware of, or to fight against a master narrative or multiple master narratives?”

“I just want to help students find and write out their voice so that it reflects what they think and how they sound and I want them to make strength and make meaning out of their own voice. I don’t want them to make it out of what I think it should be, or what other teachers think it should be. I want them [my students] to be able to write down and reflect and recreate their best self through their writings and through their words.”

For Janice, she hopes that her CIPHER class gives her student the confidence to find their voice, to make strength and meaning in it. To make space for their imperfect English. To embrace their own narrative.


Or, as Sapigao says: "To write down and reflect and recreate their best self."