Jay-Z, ‘Decoded,’ and why rap is not poetry
Now that the synthetic marketing fanfare that tainted the roll-out of Jay-Z’s first book, Decoded, has passed, the time has come to consider his contention that “hip-hop lyrics–not just my lyrics, but those of any great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.”
As Kelefa Sanneh notes in an excellent New Yorker piece, this claim — rap is poetry — is not restricted to the hip hop side of the spectrum. Academics make it, too.
Take Adam Bradley, who earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and now toils as an associate professor of literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s the author of a “manifesto” called The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. (He has a cool website, too.)
As Sanneh reports, Bradley is given to writing things like: “The best MCs — like Rakim, Jay-Z, Tupac, and many others — deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry. We ignore them at our own expense.”
Or: “Thanks to the engines of global commerce, rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world.”
And he believes, observes Sanneh, that “examining and dissecting lyrics is the only way to ‘give rap the respect it deserves as poetry.'”
So what’s so bad about saying hip hop is poetry?
Alas, pleas to add hip hop to the canonical level of poetry assume that rap is in inferior to poetry, which it is not. That’s like saying cats are better than dogs. Both are household pets, but they are not the same. Comparing them is specious.
The problem: Any attempt to equate hip hop with poetry ignores the defining characteristics of each genre. Both are musical, but the music of rap is external to the words. That means its wordsmiths have much more in common with songwriters than they do with poets.
Poetry, by contrast, must generate its music solely from poetics alone. No DJs. No beats. No samples.
Performance is an irreducible part of what makes hip hop work so splendidly. Poetry still functions on the page (often better than in recitation). But hip hop, like all music, comes to full flower only in performance. Consider this verse by Tupac Shakur:
Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’
Besides, why should hip hop have to snatch the label “poetry” in order to earn the respect that it deserves? I say, let hip hop be hip hop, and poetry poetry. What’s wrong with being an MC? I see no reason why it should be thought inferior to being a poet.
Consider the dynamic between poetry and traditional songwriting. Carl Sandburg, poet; Woody Guthrie, songwriter. Robert Frost, poet; Cole Porter songwriter; Allen Ginsberg, poet; Bob Dylan, songwriter. Significant artists, the lot of them. For my money, it adds no lustre to Guthrie, Porter or Dylan to argue they are poets, too.
And I don’t know about you, but I’d as soon be the guy who wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the one who wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” And well all know what Faulkner said about mothers and Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Near the end of his essay, Kalefa Sanneh decodes this bogus striving for respect in a paragraph on “cachet,” and shrewdly segues into a brief consideration of Finishing the Hat, the new book by Broadway lyric genius Stephen Sondheim. As hip hop matures, it will achieve the explicit disdain for poetics exhibited by Sondheim, Sanneh thinks.
Admirable though Sanneh’s essay is, I find it curious he makes no mention of spoken word or peformance poetry, which is where hip hop, poetry, and the oral tradition come together in a vital subculture. Only a few hundred generations ago, all poetry was spoken word. Homer, after all, was blind, probably illiterate, and performed the Iliad from memory (all 15,000 lines).
One elite poetry venue that has long recognized and honored spoken word is the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which is coming up January 7-22 in Delray Beach. You can not only see and hear poets the likes of Robert Pinksy, former U.S. poet laureate, but also past National Poetry Slam champions D. Blair and Taylor Mali.
I’ve heard both these guys at previous Palm Beach Poetry Festivals. It’s in the work of such artists that poetry and performance becomes intertwined. Some of their stage poems are the equal to anything you’ll find on the page.
For more info, see the poetry festival website.