During the first King’s virtual Night FYP presentation of the semester, hosted by the Foundation Year Program (FYP) in September, Roman historian Dr. Brandon Bourgeois played The Trilliad, a video of himself rapping lyrics that he had crafted from Homer’s poem The Iliad. His goal? To show the connection between rap and the ancient Greek poetry tradition.
“This project is about breaking down class divisions and showing that Homer isn’t only for a certain elitist class of people,” says Dr. Bourgeois, Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Southern California (USC), Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “By bringing these similar traditions together, which are both rooted in oral storytelling, I’m hoping to involve two different communities that don’t normally speak to each other.”
Night FYP connects to FYP’s main curriculum but also involves some aspect of performance. Dr. Eli Diamond, the Acting Chair of Dalhousie’s Department of Classics and FYP’s Section 1 co-ordinator, thought Dr. Bourgeois was an obvious choice and felt fortunate that his schedule allowed his participation. “Within the world of Classics, there’s a huge buzz around his Trilliad translation,” he says. “His wonderful presentation seriously enriched our students’ appreciation of Greek poetry.”
When Dr. Brandon Bourgeois was earning a PhD in Greek and Latin in the Department of Classics at Ohio State University, one of his professors mentioned that there were articles exploring the relationship between ancient Greek history and hip hop. “I thought, no way!” he says. “But I checked it out. It was fringe stuff, but I was intrigued.”
Dr. Bourgeois’ curiosity was so piqued that, while studying for a languages exam, he decided to procrastinate by changing a two-line fragment from The Iliad to rap. Once he had done so, he put the piece of paper into a drawer and resumed studying. Every now and then he’d translate a few more fragments. “I did that repeatedly, but it wasn’t until Hamilton came out that I thought, holy, there’s an audience for this!”
Now The Trilliad is on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. In addition to the 55 lines of The Iliad Dr. Bourgeois turned into rap lyrics, he also produced the music on Garage Band on his computer and performed his own choreography.
Thanks to the video, much attention has been paid to Dr. Bourgeois for his creative take on the Classics, but he modestly dismisses it. “It isn’t about me,” he says. “The main emphasis for the project is to get more people into Homer. There are jokes in it—Homer is a funny guy!”
After watching the video, some of Dr. Bourgeois’ USC students approached him to admit they had been passively reading The lliad. He was pleased to learn that they were now re-reading the poem with renewed interest.
“Homer’s poems are repositories of communal knowledge,” says Dr. Bourgeois. “Rap is at its best doing this as well. Both portray real people who—yes, may lie, cheat, steal and murder—but they make these choices as they grapple with fate, their loves and hatreds, and their hopes and fears.”
Dr. Bourgeois also hopes to secure funding to produce a collective collaboration with rappers, musicians, dancers and producers to translate more ancient Greek poems into hip hop performance pieces. “All of this is supposed to turn into a hip hop audio book,” he says. “I want to present Homer’s poems and frame them in such a way that Homer is doing the teaching, not me.”