The Artists Dismantling the Barriers Between Rap and Poetry

From The New York Times:

THE ATLANTA-BASED RAPPER Mulatto collects scraps of language on her iPhone, words and phrases that come to her suddenly, or that she’s picked up while performing online during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, one of the words that has come to mind during the past year is “pandemic”; the 22-year-old M.C. has used it twice on record so far: once last summer during a cipher — a competitive and collaborative freestyle session with other rappers — when the hip-hop magazine XXL named Latto (as she’s known) to its 2020 “freshman class” of breakout stars; and again on the opening track from her major-label debut, “Queen of Da Souf,” released last year.

“I just dropped a hundred on jewelry during a pandemic,” she raps, give or take a word. It’s standard-issue braggadocio, in praise of her newfound wealth. But boasting about spending $100,000 on a diamond-encrusted chain and watch amid a global health crisis also rates as particularly brazen, even in a musical genre that often centers the self and celebrates conspicuous consumption. Latto is aware of this. A few bars later, in her cipher verse, she adds: “I donated, too, so don’t mock me!”

Listen to Latto perform and you understand what she heard in that word. On the XXL freestyle, she raps “pandemic” fluidly over a lazy instrumental, so the word sounds like urgent speech. On “Youngest N Richest,” she raps it more deliberately atop a frenetic track fretted with a tense violin sample. “Pandemic” becomes “PAN-demic,” the stress displaced from its natural position. In reaccenting the word, Latto charges it with her Southern drawl. She puts Atlanta on it. She also does the very thing that makes rappers poets: She works the language. “Rap is definitely poetry,” Latto tells me. “We just do it on top of a beat.”

Many poets would agree with her. Nonetheless, a line of demarcation persists between rap and poetry, born of outmoded assumptions about both forms: that poetry only exists on the page and rap only lives in the music, that poetry is refined and rap is raw, that poetry is art and rap is entertainment. These opinions are rife with bias — against the young, the poor, the Black and brown, the self-educated, the outspoken and sometimes impolite voices that, across five decades, have carried a local tradition from the South Bronx to nearly every part of the world.

Yet today, a new generation of artists, both rappers and poets, are consciously forging closer kinship between the genres. They draw from a common toolbox of language, use the same social media platforms to reach their audiences and respond to the same economic and political provocations to create public art. In doing so, rappers and the poets who claim affinity with them are resuscitating a body of literary practices mostly neglected in poetry during the 20th century. These ghost appendages of form — repetition, patterned rhythm and, above all, rhyme — thrive in song, especially in rap.

But the story of rap and poetry’s reunion is as much about people as it is about language. Many of the artists in both realms who have come to prominence between 2010 and 2020 were raised during hip-hop’s golden age, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The poets Reginald Dwayne Betts and Kyle Dargan were born in 1980, the same year as T.I. and Gucci Mane. The poet Saeed Jones and the rapper J. Cole were both born in 1985. The best-selling poet alive, Rupi Kaur, born in 1992, is the same age as Cardi B. By the time they all reached elementary school, and well before they published a single line, hip-hop had gifted them a rich cultural inheritance. Earlier generations of rappers had won major battles for artistic legitimacy, established — though certainly not maximized — rap’s profitability and produced a catalog of music and lyrics that a new generation could revere and revile, remix and reject.

. . . .

MEANWHILE, A PARALLEL evolution is underway in poetry, spurring a renaissance of sorts. In 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 6.7 percent of adults reported having read poetry in the last year. By 2017, the number had nearly doubled, with the largest increase (from 8.2 to 17.5 percent) occurring among 18- to 24-year-olds.

Several factors have contributed to poetry’s resurgence: the influence of Twitter, Instagram and TikTok as performance and promotion platforms; the proliferation of small presses and online journals publishing increasingly varied work; the pull of poetic language, as both balm and bludgeon, during periods of national struggle. Poetry’s growing readership is no doubt also tied to its expanding authorship, as a diverse array of voices are now choosing to express themselves in patterned words. “Access is all you need,” the poet Morgan Parker says. “People just don’t know that they like poetry.”

Parker’s revelation came when she discovered that poetry didn’t only have to sound like Robert Frost; it could speak in words and tones familiar to her, a Black woman born in Southern California in 1987. Writing in 1944, one of Frost’s contemporaries, William Carlos Williams, defined a poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words,” by which he meant to emphasize the precision of form over the profundity of meaning. “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship,” he continues. “But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” Economy of language remains one of poetry’s hallmarks. By contrast, language in rap is usually abundant, functioning on the rhetorical principle of copia, which Erasmus defined in 1512 as a practice of amplifying expression through variation, adornment and play. It’s no wonder that rap inspires writers like Parker to think more expansively about what their own work could be. A poem is “no longer just a nice thing to say at a wedding,” she says. “We’ve reached cultural acceptance of a broader definition.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG has always held the old-fashioned opinion that poetry should be made to be spoken, performed. Homer’s poetry, originated about 800 BC, comes down to us because it was spoken, recited, performed.

4 thoughts on “The Artists Dismantling the Barriers Between Rap and Poetry”

  1. PG, I cannot agree with you more. Poetry on the page is not dead – but it is not yet alive. It is in the passionate speaking that it comes to life, and exhibits its power, for good or for ill.

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