When you say the word poetry, most people either draw a complete blank or they start rattling off famous poets like Tennyson, E.E. Cummings, or Milton. Historically, poetry has always been considered one of those long lost literary arts, something that is rarely appreciated in contemporary times. This may seem like it’s the case, but it’s not; We’re just not thinking outside the box. Poetry is most definitely an art form, and if you want to try your hand at becoming an accomplished poet, there are a lot of contemporaries before you that you’ll have to try and live up to. It doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying your hand at traditional forms of poetry, but if you’re searching for something more relevant, what about song lyrics?
What’s your favorite rap song? Maybe it’s something with an infectious beat or something that makes you want to get up and dance, but if you stop bobbing your head around and listen for a moment, you’ll find that some of the world’s most successful rap artists are in fact accomplished poets. Take Jay-Z for example. Have you ever stopped to listen to any of the songs off his Blue Print albums? They’re not just about slinging drugs and getting ‘hoes’, although, there’s nothing wrong waxing on about it, it was a very realistic part of his life. But why shouldn’t it be considered poetry? Well the Jigga’ himself seems to think so. Stephen Harowitz interviewed the New York native a year ago to get his perspective on the contemporary perceptions of rap music, and the release of his book, Decoded:
“I hope readers take away from this book that rap is poetry. It’s thought-provoking; there’s thought behind it,” he said. “There’s great writing in rap as well. You never hear rappers being compared for like the greatest rap writers of all time. You hear Bob Dylan”.
I’m going to admit it right now, and inform you my view is most certainly biased. As an Afro-Canadian kid growing up in a predominately white, blue collar neighborhood, I was constantly turning to rap and hip hop to affirm my identity as a person of color. Before Jay-Z, there was Fresh Prince, Busta Rhymes, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and a whole slew of artists that were using their poetic talents to get their point across. The Fresh Prince, or Will Smith for those of you who might not be too familiar with this particular genre of music, was a central artist in the game because his lyrics were completely devoid of profanity. His poetry was light, comedic and relate-able, a stark contrast to his rougher contemporaries. His lyrics were more pure, but they were no less powerful or influential in telling the story of the American black man.
I think where we all sort of get stuck, is when we flick on MTV and we’re inundated with images of giant gold medallions, expensive cars, scantily clad women and piles of cash. These are certainly images that can potentially take away from the credibility of analyzing rap music as a viable source of poetry, but we can’t let it interfere with our examinations.
If you’re still not buying my argument, let’s do a little experiment. If you don’t already own a Public Enemy album, go to iTunes and download the song F*ck the Police. It is considered one of the most controversial songs of all time, but this wasn’t a song that was written for shock value. This was a song that culminated years of racial profiling, brutality, homophobia and any number of other offenses committed by crooked cops against the black youth of America.
I don’t want to take away from the brilliance of Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, and there are definitely those scholars out there that wouldn’t dream of adding the likes of Jay-Z to their list of classic poets, but each to their own I say, and if you don’t think rap is a form of poetry, you need to open your mind.