Sunday, November 9, 2008
Is there any such thing? And if there is, is anybody doing it well?
Clearly this is a subject on which I’m very much not an authority.
Just to clarify what I’m looking for, I’m not asking about rap musicians whose lyrics might be called poetry or could be said to be poetic. Nor am I looking for sophisticated rap artists and theorists like DJ Spooky, whose work partakes of many of the same ideas that motivate contemporary experimental literature. Nor am I looking for contemporary experimental poets, like for instance the fantastic Julie Patton, whose art is clearly informed by hip hop culture. And I’m not simply looking for spoken word poetry either, or other African diaspora poetries like dub poetry, about which I know a fair amount.
No, I mean rap poetry: poetry made up of the same rhyming, word play, inflections and slang that comprise rap lyrics, and doing it in a way that works as poetry.
Although I’m nothing like an expert on rap music, I’m hardly completely ignorant of it. My taste runs more towards classic first generation rap like Public Enemy than it does later manifestations, although that maybe as much because I lack information as for any other reason. But in any case I know enough about rap music to hold a conversation about the subject.
Why am I asking about this? Every year, I have at least one student, and occasionally more than one, who comes to an interest in poetry through rap. Oddly enough perhaps, although it’s not really that surprising given the broad success of rap, the student is often, although not always, a white male.
When I have students of this kind, I’m never entirely sure how I should be trying to help them. Of course, I can work with them on rhythm and other sound effects in poetry as well as I need to. But what I don’t know is how to point them to writers and performers who are doing rap rhythms well simply as poetry, writers and performers who might be used as models or influences. And lacking those reference points, while I want to encourage students to go farther on whatever path they’re taking, I don’t entirely know what going farther might mean. Of course I already suggest that they consider broadening their palate of working sound effects and can show them many examples along those lines, whether it be Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Linton Kwesi Johnon or many others. But rap poets as such? I got nothing.
Which is why any names and ideas that you have would be really helpful.