Mos Def Lesson Plan

As part of our mission to bring hip-hop into the classroom, we’ve been searching through our music collections in search of totally classroom-safe rap music. For each song, we’ll provide the lyrics and a short lesson plan.

The first song is Mos Def’s “Habitat.” The song is a series of reflections on the idea of home, as well as memories of Mos Def’s childhood in Brooklyn. This song contains no swear words, and no references to the n-word. It does mention witnessing drug use, but it does not glorify it in any way.

You can download this song on iTunes. iTunes will note that it has “explicit lyrics,” but that label is about the whole album, not the song itself, which does NOT have explicit lyrics.

Do you have lesson plans related to Flocabulary or hip-hop in general? Please email them to blake[at]flocabulary.com to be considered for publication on the site.

Download a printable PDF of this lesson plan

Lesson Plan for Mos Def’s “Habitat”

  1. Before distributing the lyrics, asks your students to write two or three sentences that define the word “home.” They can include their impressions of “home,” as well as a definition.
  2. Distribute the lyrics, and play the song (if you have the recording).
  3. Ask students if they have any questions about what specific lines mean. If they do, direct the question to the rest of the class or consult the guide above.
  4. Use the discussion questions for out loud class discussion or as a writing assignment.
Lyrics

[Chorus, sung:]
We’ve all got to have, a place where we come from
This place that we come from is called home
We set out on our travels, we do the best we can
We travel this big earth and we roam

We all got to have, a place where we come from
This place that we come from is called home
And even though we may love, this place on the map
Said it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at

[Simultaneously with talking:]
Home: a place where someone lives, a residence, the physical structure within which one lives, such as a house, a dwelling place with the social unit that occupies it, a household, an environment offering security and happiness, a valued place, a native habitat, a place where something is discovered, founded, developed or promoted, a source, a headquarters, a home-base, of or relating to a teams place of origin, on or into the point at which something is directed to the center or the heart.

[verse one]
I came up in the streets around some real wild brothers
With more than one name and more than one baby mother
More than one chase, been on more than one run
Got more than one enemy and more than one gun
What, what now? All that is less of one is more
While these cats that’s less privileged is just more raw
Less space cause the project is laced with more floors
Less sleep cause the nights ain’t peace, it’s more war
The can is raw like thirsty, rainy season thunder claps
On the block with your old pop plead a number at
To the spot with the red top fiends is huddled at
To the crib where the little kids spend their summers trapped
With the jungle cats, lions and tigers, leopards and cheetahs
For gazelles you get chased like a zebra, they blaze cheeba-cheeba
And dominate the weaker on the street
Hungry bellies only love what they eat and it’s hard to compete
When they smile with your heart in their teeth
And the odds is stacked high beyond and beneath
Son I been plenty places in my life and time
And regardless where home is, son home is mine

[chorus]

We’ve all got to have, a place where we come from
This place that we come from is called home
We set out on our travels, we do the best we can
We travel this big earth and we roam

We all got to have, a place where we come from
This place that we come from is called home
And even though we may love, this place on the map
Said it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at

Some people live out in-New York City
Some people live out in-Atlanta
Some people got to live-Chicago
Some people do live-Miami
All my people at-California
And other people got to live-London
And everybody got to live in the whole big world
Together just you and me

[verse two]
When I think of home, my remembrance of my beginning
Laundromat helping ma duke fold the bed linen
Chilling in front my building with my brother and them
Spending nights in Bushwick with my cousins and them
Wise town and Beat Street, federal relief
Slowly melting in the morning, grits we used to eat
Sticking to your teeth and teeth is hard to keep
With every flavor Now & Later only a dime apiece
Old timers on the bench playing cards and thangs
Telling tales about they used to be involved in things
Start to drinking, talking loud, cussing up and showing out
On the phone, call the cops, pick’em up, move’em out
[ooh-ohh-ahh]And it’s all too common to start wildin’
I’m a pirate on an island seeking treasure known as silence
And it’s hard to find
Block parties in dark lobbies
Funeral homes packed with only dark bodies
I can’t sleep hardly, stirred up like Bob Marley
Marley Marl played the symphony, remember we recall
Son I been to many places in my space and time
and whatever my home is, son home is mine.

[chorus]

Mos Def Biogaphy

Mos Def is a rapper from Brooklyn, New York. He originally worked with Talib Kweli (another Brooklyn rapper) and the duo released Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Blackstar. The song “Habitat” comes from Mos Def’s first solo album Black on Both Sides. He has since worked as an actor appearing in movies 16 Blocks and A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. His rap songs are often personal, political and smart.

Explaining the Lines

With more than one name and more than one baby mother

The guys in Mos Def’s neighborhood had lots of nicknames and lots of children with different women (baby mothers).

While these cats that’s less privileged is just more raw /
Less space cause the project is laced with more floors /
Less sleep cause the nights ain’t peace, it’s more war /

This is an example of contrast and juxtaposition. Mos Def is also demonstrating that more is not always better: More floors in the building means less space to live. More warfare on the streets means the local residents get less sleep. *JUXTAPOSITION*

For gazelles you get chased like a zebra, they blaze cheeba-cheeba

Gazelles are both an antelope-like animal and a brand of Puma shoes (that some people might try to steal, thus chase you). To blaze is to smoke, and “cheeba-cheeba” is marijuana. *WORDPLAY*

With the jungle cats, lions and tigers, leopards and cheetahs /
For gazelles you get chased like a zebra, they blaze cheeba-cheeba /
And dominate the weaker on the street /

This is an extended metaphor. Mos Def is comparing life on the streets to life in the jungle (or the Serengeti). Just as with most animals, a pecking-order arises and people know their place. The tougher guys “dominate the weaker on the street.” *METAPHOR*

When they smile with your heart in their teeth

Mos Def is playing with the expression “have your heart in your mouth,” which is an expression invented by Homer in the Iliad. When your heart is beating so hard that you can practically feel in in your mouth, you are scared and nervous. Here Mos Def is saying that these street guys have his heart in their teeth. They are making him scared. *WORDPLAY*

Spending nights in Bushwick with my cousins and them

Bushwick is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Mos Def grew up.

Wise town and Beat Street, federal relief

Housing projects (or ‘projects’) are federally subsidized to accommodate low income residents.

teeth is hard to keep with every flavor Now & Later only a dime apiece

Now and Laters are a hard chew candy that you might lose a baby-tooth trying to bite.

I’m a pirate on an island seeking treasure known as silence

This is a (beautiful) metaphor. In fact it is two metaphors together. Mos Def is a pirate, and his treasure is silence. But, as he notes, silence is hard to find. *METAPHOR*

I can’t sleep hardly, stirred up like Bob Marley

One of reggae star Bob Marley’s popular songs is Stir it Up. *WORDPLAY*

Discussion Questions

*Make sure students back up their points with references to specific lines in the text.*

1. Who is the speaker? What voice is he speaking with?

The rapper who wrote these lines is Mos Def and it is his voice, but that is not the full answer. Every time an author, poet or rapper writes or performs a piece of art, they become a narrator and that narrator may be just like they are in real life, or he might be different.

In this case, Mos Def is speaking with an adult’s voice (“my remembrance of my beginning”) but with a child’s focus on the world. He is portraying his life as he actually felt it when he was young. He doesn’t necessarily know what the strange guys are doing in their “huddle” (“the spot with the red top fiends is huddled at”). All he knows is that they have “red tops” (hats? hair?) and that they are “fiends” (doing something frightening, probably drugs).

He takes the word “crib,” which a lot of rappers use to describe their home (i.e. MTV Cribs) and brings it back to the meaning it has for children: a baby’s bed. He speaks almost from the perspective of the baby, “To the crib where the little kids spend their summers trapped.”

He really takes on a child’s point of view when he notes that, “sticking to your teeth and teeth is hard to keep with every flavor Now & Later only a dime apiece.” If at first we think that “teeth is hard to keep” is a reference to fights, we soon learn that these teeth are baby-teeth, and thing that’s going to knock them out is candy.

So the speaker is an adult man from Brooklyn, but his point of view is closely related to a child’s.

2. What is the setting?

The setting of this poem is Brooklyn. The poem moves freely throughout the areas of Brooklyn, sweeping in and out of Mos Def’s memories. It moves from the street (“I came up in the streets…”) to the tenements (“Less space cause the project is laced with more floors”). It then goes back “On the block with your old pop” then to a corner (“the spot with the red top fiends is huddled at”) and then inside a house, where a baby is kept in a crib (“to the crib”).

In the second verse, the poem takes us from a Laundromat with the narrator’s mom to “chilling in front of my building with my brother” to a sleepover at his cousins’ house. It swoops to a candy store (“Now and Later”) and then to the old men sitting on benches in the park “playing cards.”

3. How does Mos Def define “home”?

According to the song, home is many things. It is both the place that you come from and the place that you are currently. He notes that we all grow up somewhere, but then “We set out on our travels, we do the best we can, We travel this big earth and we roam.” Home, then, has a fluid and personal definition. The definition of home changes as we get older (“it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at”).

4. A home is different than a house. What is important about the idea of a “home”? [reflection question]

If you have comments about this lesson plan or would like to offer improvements, please email info@flocabulary.com.

Lesson Plan copyright Flocabulary.com, 2006.

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