Verse by Verse: Tramere Monroe Blends Passion for Hip-Hop and Academics

Tramere Monroe has long been a poet and lover of Hip-Hop and the English language. In his time at Mary Baldwin, he’s found a way to combine all these interests toward his life dreams and career goals.

Tramere Monroe and his dogs, Dash and Ginger, at home where he completes his studies

A Curriculum Grounded in Passion

“I’ve been writing rhymes since I was nine,” recalls Tramere Monroe (pronounced Tra-Meer), an online student studying English at Mary Baldwin University. “I was obsessed with rappers like Tupac, Nas, Biggie, everything I heard. I had an uncle who taught me a little about writing rhymes and how to mark out my rhymes and the flow of the raps I was writing.”

Flash forward to the present day, when Monroe is a featured spoken word performer at a fellow poet’s release event in Roanoke. In addition to friends and family who came to support him, there was his MBU professor, Dr. Adam Fajardo, in the crowd.

Monroe studies with Fajardo as he works toward his English degree through MBU’s online program. They especially bonded in Fajardo’s May Term class The Poetics of Hip-Hop.

Monroe credits the coursework for deepening his understanding for the art form he’s pursued since childhood.

“If I had to choose, I would pick The Poetics of Hip-Hop as my favorite class. Even though Adam and I are really different people, I was able to relate to him through the poetics of Hip-Hop,” Monroe explains. “It was inspirational to learn the different techniques, technical things in Hip-Hop like the use of double entendre, Greek terms like anaphora and anastrophe, stuff I never knew I was interested in. I had never studied poetry academically, and getting the tools to understand what poets like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman are saying — through these rappers and poets I already knew — helped me relate to it more.”

The Poetics of Hip-Hop

The class, The Poetics of Hip-Hop, is a perennial May Term offering from Fajardo, who is passionate about the artistry driving rap and its most profound artists.
Poetics of Hip-Hop is probably the class that I am proudest of designing. As a lifelong fan of the genre, I’d always wanted to teach a class about it. I think a lot of people misunderstand rap because they get put off by unsavory content on the surface. But when approached through the lens of classical poetics, as we did in the course, it quickly becomes apparent that rappers are sophisticated lyricists who craft complex and nuanced texts that are just as worthy of critical study as any other body of literature. ”

What does The Poetics of Hip-Hop teach?

Monroe explains the layout of Fajardo’s class: “The class goes through the history of Hip-Hop, even back to Gil Scott-Heron through some of the progenitors of Hip-Hop like KRS-One, Public Enemy, De La Soul. Then we dove into more familiar rappers like Nas, Biggie Smalls, some of the conscious rappers like Talib Kweli and Common and then we also spent lots of time with MF DOOM. the class really focused on annotating the work of these artists and comparing them to each other, to other famous poets of history.”

An example week from Dr. Fajardo’s Poetics of Hip-Hop course schedule:

Fajardo continued, adding, “In designing the course, I tried to incorporate elements of hip-hop culture into the experience. For instance, we could gather in a ‘critical cypher’ almost daily in which I’d share the lyrics of a song on Google Docs and give students time to annotate it live in class.” A “cypher” is a common term in hip-hop culture that refers to a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakdancers in a circle, where participants perform in turn to freestyle over a beat. This format encourages improvisation, with each artist showcasing their skills in turn while others listen or wait for their turn.

“Before our eyes the Doc would light up with color coded annotations and comments that manifested the students’ critical ideas in a lively, playful manner,” Fajardo concludes about the class.

As for Monroe’s contribution in class, Fajardo gushed: “Tramere’s background as a poet gave him a lot of insight into the lyrics we discussed, and he was an outstanding student in the course. We all learned a lot from his insights because he has a great ear for language. He is hard working and always eager to keep learning.”

Words to Action — Monroe’s Vision for His Future

Monroe never pictured poetry as more than a hobby, however. He graduated high school and initially studied at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, working toward an associate’s degree in general studies. At that time, he was unsure of exactly what he might pursue as a career. 

But by the time he enrolled at MBU, a vision for his future had started to manifest: teaching English in Japan. It’s become a popular vocation for Americans interested in immersing themselves in Japanese culture. Like many young Americans, Monroe traces his interest in Japan to a clear influence:

“Childhood. Childhood childhood childhood. I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z, and all the anime I could. Video games like Final Fantasy, food like Japanese rice dishes and ramen. I’ve always been interested in Japan ever since. Getting the opportunity to live there and immerse myself in this culture that I’ve spent so much time with would be incredible.”

Monroe enrolled as an online student just after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and found an instant connection with his professors — even through the computer screen. In addition to Fajardo, Monroe was inspired by the knowledge and talent of other members of the English department, like Dr. Sarah Kennedy and Dr. Katherine Turner.

It was in Turner’s classes that Monroe faced some of those forms of poetry that he was less familiar with — works from historical greats like Milton and Chaucer. For Turner, it was clear that the lessons Monroe learned from Hip-Hop (and Fajardo’s class) informed his approach to this unfamiliar work.

“I’ve been super-impressed by how Tramere bridges the gap between literary analysis and creative engagement,” Turner said. “He can not only dig into the complexities of Middle English alliterative verse, but also find inspiration for his own poetry in the ancient beauty of poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Kennedy, a poet herself and professor of English at MBU, taught Monroe in some poetry-focused courses: “Tramere was a wonderful student, and I’d say what I recall most is the enthusiasm and authenticity of Tramere’s work. A truly individual expressiveness in an undergraduate is rare, and Tramere certainly has a unique voice.”

Read on for a glimpse of Monroe’s “unique voice” in one of his favorite poems.

Left: Monroe performing his spoken-word poetry at a live poetry event.

Against the Winter

I am a black sky

I am a body of punched holes

Made not of bullet wounds

But bullies words

And if you probe deep enough

Maybe you will see the stars hum

Maybe you will see

How the light lingers a fire

And dances against the shadows

How a boy

If he allows

The opportunity to uncoil himself from fetal position

Shifting into a bloomed flower, open

Sometimes I wonder

How does one go against the tempest wind of a season

Could it be that the trees are that strong?

That the flowers are that rooted?

It’s obvious

That it takes someone, or something strong enough

To survive the blows of winter

How crazy is it that many things that live

Wither against something that doesn’t

Yet I am glad I can say

I am one who survived it

by Tramere Monroe

Interested in English at Mary Baldwin? Mary Baldwin offers majors in English to both residential and online students (like Tramere Monroe!). For more information, visit the English major page and inquire today!