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High school junior Jonathan Chriswell has studied poetry, literature, and expository writing -- all part of his preparation, he said, to become a great rapper. And Chriswell is not alone in his belief that improving his reading and writing today will help him write better rap lyrics tomorrow. On September 25, Chriswell joined 11 others in the basement of the West Philadelphia Regional Library to hear a four-member panel discuss "Rap and its Impact on Literacy." Among the topics covered were the recent censorship of the rap group 2 Live Crew, rap and responsibility, and the question of how long rap will last. At 4 p.m., the panel, which included a poet, a young rapper, and both the president and music director of WPEB radio station, opened the talk with a serious debate about profanity in rap music. They questioned whether certain lyrics should be censored. Opinions were mixed. Poet and playwright Kummika Williams said that she was opposed to the "blatant way" in which profanity is "exposed to everyone." But rapper Jamal Miller, a senior in the high school program Bartram Motivation, disagreed, insisting that rap lyrics are not the only place one can find profane words. "If you're going to take this [profanity] out of rap, then you better take it out of cable, the movies, everything," he said. And audience members fueled the debate. Tim Williams, a junior in John Bartram High School, asked why the library's rap contest, scheduled for October, prohibited profanity. "I don't want to have to cut those words out because then I'm not going to feel good about the song," he said. Tuesday's presentation was the second of three rap-related events sponsored by the library and the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. The "Rap Attack" program seeks to encourage West Philadelphia teens to use the library's resources. After the hour-long discussion about profane lyrics, Kummika Williams brought the panel's talk back to literacy. Before rap, she said, it was not "cool" to study. "You were a geek if you read," she said. But many of Tuesday's audience members confessed to owning rhyming and regular dictionaries. "If they started changing the word 'bitch' in rap for 'cur', then maybe we would all look it up," Kummika Williams said. And Miller echoed her statement saying that rap music encourages people to learn new words. "When you don't know something in the song, you look it up," he said. Kummika Williams noted the potential of rap music for teaching students. "If only we could put one of Malcolm X's speeches to rap," she said. "Wouldn't that be intense?" By 6 p.m., most of the issues had been discussed, and both audience and panel members said they felt that they had come to an understanding of what rap was and what rap will be. A few participants even created on-the-spot verses to express their enthusiasm. "Rap is here, and it's here to stay, and it will boom in a positive way," sung Sister Atikah Hashim Bey, president of WPEB. Bruce Siebers, the librarian who created the "Rap Attack" program of which the panel discussion was part, said he realizes that a lot of people still don't understand what true rap is. "Everybody in Wisconsin, they think that the New Kids on the Block is a rap group," he said. Then he, too, rapped a verse. "I think it will reach the rest of the nation, and I think the key word is education," he sung. The October rap contest, with the theme "The Free Library of Philadelphia," will culminate the events.

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