MAXWELL:  Rap music has taken a place in the house of poetry

4/9/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


At night the windows were speakers, pumpin’ life out

A fight, people screamin’ cause somebody pulled a knife out

So I look at this poem

I’m hooked to this tune

Every night the same melody

Hell sounded so heavenly.

_ Lyrics from Project Windows

by rap artist Nas

While straight-laced Americans, especially we snobs of the Dead White Male literary school, were looking the other way, a whole new poetic form emerged right in plain sight. Indeed, rap music, the spine of American hip hop, has busted loose everywhere. Even in parts of Japan, teenagers dig rap, wear hip-hop attire and swagger like their favorite stars.

We delude ourselves if we continue the pretense that rap is simply the noisy funk of African-American thugs. The real truth is that rap is poetry, some of it brilliant, some as lyrical as the best of Wordsworth. Much of it is introspective, and all of it records a slice of life in contemporary black America.

Listen to the opening of Respiration, a song on Mos Def’s debut album: The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis./Shinin’, like who on top of this?

In the March-April issue of Black Issues Book Review, Def, 26, explains the source of the above lines and displays his knowledge of the genre:

“Good poetry must convey a sense of place, feeling, relationship. A longing, a yearning for something _ of expression, of understanding. . . . You see, I live in Brooklyn, right on the water. And one night I was over by the water, just looking out on one of those nice, spring nights, and the moon was just smack dab in the middle of the sky. It was over everything. All of these skyscrapers, all of this steel and metal monuments to money _ the moon was above it all. The city sometimes, with all those peaks, looks like a crown. It was like the moon was in the metropolis’ crown.”

Like many other rappers, Def is a devoted student of black literature. His familiarity with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and other periods would impress any university English professor.

“Chester Himes is one of my strongest influences, because he was documenting real street s_- in a very eloquent way, in a way that was not heady,” Def said in Black Issues Book Review. “Walter Mosely and John Edgar Wideman do that a lot. They draw relationships to things that everybody experiences, but they articulate them so freshly. Like in Philadelphia Fire, Wideman talked about night and said, “Spaces open which haven’t been there before.’

“And it’s true, things open in the night that don’t happen at any other part of the day: Spaces for opportunity, spaces for trouble. The hallmark of a good writer is to be able to make a deeper commentary or draw a relationship between things that we all may have noticed but may not have been able to articulate, or may not have noticed at all.”

Because many rappers, especially the gangstas, focus on unsavory subject matter _ crude sex, criminality, drugs, self-loathing, ego-tripping _ and because they lace their lyrics with profanity, they have only themselves to blame for being dissed by much of mainstream society. Then, too, headlines announcing the slayings of superstars such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. and the violent antics of other rappers such as Sean “Puffy” Combs’ recent arrest for having a handgun in his SUV undermine the seriousness of the art.

That is too bad, because many rappers employ the same literary devices _ rhyme, figurative language, meter (remember iambic pentameter?), controlled line length _ used by traditional poets.

Ironically, said Kalamu ya Salaam, a hip-hop expert, while traditionalists dismiss rap lyricists as commercial hacks, this new breed has single-handedly “reintroduced and innovated the use of rhyming and meter in modern poetry. Before rap, meter was virtually extinct and rhyme was discredited as old-fashioned.”

Salaam argues that rap is a victim of the so-called “stage versus page” debate. In other words, we have been educated to place more intellectual currency in the written word than in the uttered word. Rap is also a victim of our belief that free verse is superior to rhyme.

“Once one strips away the so-called sophistication of free verse and actually looks at the substance of what is offered, it is easy to comprehend that most free verse confuses cerebral gymnastics with being deep and socially relevant,” Salaam said. “In reality, the majority of free verse is no more deep than is the majority of rap, which just focuses on different concerns and uses different poetic conventions.”

Listen to the haunting verse of rapper Kweli:

A day is measured by the sun, but the sun was made on the fourth day/Such mysterious ways/Without the sun, man, those must have been some serious days.

Here is Def:

Threw dirt on the casket, the hurt, I couldn’t mask it/Mixin’ down emotions, struggle, I hadn’t mastered/I choreographed seven steps to heaven.

In the song Do You See, Warren G demonstrates a deep understanding of America from the perspective of a young urban black male:

The Blues has always been totally American.

As American as apple pie,

As American as The Blues,

As American as apple pie,

The question is why.

Why should The Blues be so at home here?

Well, America provided the atmosphere.

Is this poetry? Absolutely. Is it good poetry? You bet.

And what about these lines from Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise? Do they represent good poetry?

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

I take a look at my life and realize theres not much left

Cuz Ive been blastin and laughin so long

That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone. . . .

Good, bad or ugly, rap is here to stay, and it is inspiring another generation of hip-hop lyricists who will take the art form to new levels of uniqueness.