A room of classics students is about to get a lesson in ancient literature via a very unexpected method: Instructor Brandon Bourgeois — clad in black, a gold medallion depicting the face of Medusa slung around his neck — is ready to rap.
3,000 years ago, a Greek poet whose name was Homer composed a flow for his feta, he was a real rov-uh.
He spun and spread a tale of lust, war, rage and revenge.
A tapestry, a masterpiece, words stitched together without a pen.
A story — rather gory in detail:
10 years of bloody battle waged by Greeks over a female — hell, you heard-uh Helen.
She sailed to Asia with a prince named Paris already married to a Spartan king named Menelaus.
Ran to his brother — the great king Agamemnon: “What happened to my queen?!” The brotha told him to stay strong: “We out for blood!
“Grab your weapons, spread the message to all the kings in Greece. We’ll have your Helen home in no time, a matter of weeks.”
The lyrics are his hip-hop adaptation of the prologue to The Iliad, delivered as a rap lecture in staccato bursts to music Bourgeois composed using Apple’s GarageBand app. It’s his way of making the classic poem — one of the foundational texts of Western civilization — relevant to a modern audience. But it’s also more than that.
Ancient literature and the spoken word
For centuries, The Iliad passed from generation to generation by spoken word. Homer lived in the eighth century B.C. and told a story that dated from the 12th century B.C., Bourgeois said. It wasn’t until the third or fourth century B.C. that scholars in Alexandria committed the sprawling epic to the page.
Bourgeois believes that the oral tradition that kept The Iliad alive bears remarkable similarities to modern rap. Both tell tales of everyday life, hardship, violence, love lost and gained. Both are histories.
[Homer] happens to do things with the stories that no one else has done before.
“Homer is at the end of a long line of bards just like him,” Bourgeois noted. “And he happens to be the best at it. He happens to do things with the stories that no one else has done before. It’s like having Jay-Z. Jay-Z’s not the first rapper ever, but he’s in the tradition.”
Bourgeois arrived this summer at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a freshly minted assistant professor of classics. His primary area of research focuses on Roman political tradition.
Bourgeois acknowledges that the classics have long been considered the domain of white scholars. The glory of Greece and Rome have even been invoked by white supremacists to allege their superiority. But he notes that the classics have also been used as a tool for emancipation.
Frederick Douglass was inspired and informed by a primer on classical oratory that he spirited from the room of his owner’s son. Enslaved Africans across America in the 18th century absorbed the classics to promote insurgency.
And it didn’t end there. Bourgeois added that Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton reportedly taught himself to read by reading Plato’s The Republic; Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, is actually modeled on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
The Hype 4 Homer project: rapping the entire Iliad
It’s hard to imagine that Bourgeois would end up as a classics professor, much less an accomplished rapper, based on his early academic aspirations. The son of a nurse and a pharmaceutical executive, Bourgeois headed to the University of Chicago as an economics major.
“I wanted to be filthy rich,” he said. “I wanted to be one of those guys that you would see in a limo or something, and people would shout down the street, ‘Die, you capitalist pig.’ I wanted to be that rich.”
There was only one problem: He hated economics.
The project is not just a marriage between hip hop and ancient Greek poetry, but a marriage between Homer and I.
His path began to change thanks to a fraternity friend who spoke 16 languages and dabbled in classics. That led Bourgeois to courses in the subject and, ultimately, a PhD from Ohio State University.
Bourgeois’ ability to translate The Iliad into rap lyrics comes from more than his knowledge of ancient tomes. He was an avid actor in high school, even becoming the national president of the Junior Thespian Society. He also plays guitar and plinks the piano when he visits his parents.
Those diverse talents and interests have coalesced into his performance project, which he calls Hype 4 Homer. His ultimate goal is to render the entire Iliad in rap — what he calls “The Trilliad” (“Trill” is hip-hop slang for true).
“The project is not just a marriage between hip hop and ancient Greek poetry,” he said, “but a marriage between Homer and I.”
Watch Brandon Bourgeois perform “The Trilliad”: