Getting to the Heart of it (The Poetry of Rap)

In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap by Alexs D. Pate

I used to think that rap music was just poetry set to music. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. Rap music can be more powerful than poetry. There is something created in the marriage of beats and rhymes that cannot be done with rhyme alone.

That being, said, I study lyrics and pay attention to the words. That’s why a book like this is intriguing to me. Here are a few of the passages I highlighted while reading it.

Hip-Hop is For All

“Rap is certainly a black art form, as I and others have clearly established. But this art form has proven to be exportable like the sestina or haiku. Rap/poetry is an art form that has grown past its racial boundaries. It is wholly adaptable to use in any racial or cultural reality. We do not want to forget its roots in African American culture, but we must also acknowledge its global usage.”

Words are Alive in Rap Music

“What differentiates the language of rap from the language of classical poetry, however, is that the actual words rap/ poets use is very dynamic. The words they use are alive and are constantly morphing, triggered by popular television programs, characters, gangsters, mistakes, boasts, and bravado.

The words of rap/poetry sometimes exist for only brief periods of time. They transform in spelling, in sound, in definition. Indeed, the specific definition of words is more fluid than set. “Dope,” for example, has many definitions, from idiot to cool. And the reality of all of those meanings can disappear at any moment. As a result, while they must be immediately learned and memorized, they cannot be expected to exist forever. Words in rap disap-pear. They simply drop out of usage. And if you don’t know that or miss the moment when a certain word ceases to function in rap, you are marked by this ignorance. Indeed, for the rap/poet, by the time a word becomes commonly known (e.g., can be heard on a television situation comedy show), it is no longer useful to the rap/poet.”

Kids are Listening, Let’s Tap Into That

“Why should we let the threat and the actuality of profanity be the reason we ignore so much information and truth communicated in rap/poetry? I’ve been at high schools where I could not talk specifically about rap/poems that had some negative or immoral messages. I couldn’t talk about them because I could not quote from them in school without the likelihood of offending some child or parent. And, invariably, at the end of the period, as the students filed past me, already cranking up their “pods” or Walkmans, I am always deflated to hear that particular rap/poem blaring from their headphones. What are we doing when we make it so that we can’t talk to our children specifically about the words they listen to?

And why shouldn’t we be able to brave up past the threat of profanity and obscenity to find out what lies on the other side? Once we are strong enough to step through the paper veil of profanity, there is much to see. Once profanity is not the point of resistance, our eyes may open to the yearnings, fears, joys, and anger that swirl in the hip hop world.”

We can use the music our students are listening to, to teach them about poetry, history, and social studies. The author even provides us with a list of questions we can pose to them. I really want to try this in school but know that the explicit content and language in those songs would be a problem. But should it be? Really? The kids listen to this stuff anyway. Having an adult help them break it down could be very beneficial.

It’s Already an Educational Tool

“One of the by-products of rap/poetry is often instruction. It provides a kind of educational tool. It teaches its reader/listeners how to talk, how to act, and how to be. When the meanings of rap/poems are positive and helpful, they are a wonderful tool.”

Exactly! Hip-Hop is didactic and it’s the voice of the youth. As educators, we should use it.

Have High Standards – Choose What You Listen to Carefully

“There is so much rap/poetry from which to choose that eliminating poems that don’t stand up to our highest standards doesn’t significantly diminish our ability to enjoy rap and participate in the discussions that are going on among these hip hop griots.

I think all objectifications of women, all gratuitous violent images, all use of homophobic language, and all outright racist statements, unless employed to interrogate their use and existence, work against a poem’s quality and significance. It disappoints me when talented rap/poets reveal gross, unsophisticated, and offensive gaps in their intellectual capacity. And I strongly encourage listeners of rap to match their rap/poetry with their moral, ethical, and political sensibilities. There is so much rap out there, one need not compromise one’s values for the experience.”

Don’t Forget the Roots

“Because of rap’s popularity and the ever present hip hop culture it speaks for, rap consumers are perhaps more diverse in terms of gender, age, class, race, and ethnicity than any other market segment. That diversity has its pluses and minuses. One plus is that young people are sharing experiences across all manner of borders. One minus is that as the market has grown, the consumers have become less demanding of the poets. Indeed, many ardent consumers of rap do not know and might not believe that it is an African American art form (or at least has its roots there); consequently, the issues of struggle and oppositionality that would naturally fit into that art are not necessarily expected, which makes it possible then to create rap/poems that are derivative, simplistic, and worst of all, demeaning.”

Rap Music Provides Voice

“Rap/poetry is an amalgamation of individual spirits speaking, expressing themselves. In this society, that is an important thing. It may be sad or dangerous, but it is important. We should care about the values being expressed, just as we should about the loneliness, despair, and fear in rap/ poetry.”

Read a Book

What a great read. I didn’t even need to add much commentary here. The words speak for themselves. I took a lot of notes while reading it. I hope to use some in my teaching practice. Hopefully you will too.

My List of 2020 Reads – my annual reading (b)log