Poetry has always been regarded as a highly sophisticated art form, a talent that requires mastery of structure, articulation, and impeccable prowess. Historically, poets were lauded as historians, philosophers and storytellers; their writings served as vital streams in the life blood of social awareness and consciousness. But in the second half of the 20th century, poetry was primarily relegated to the halls of universities and was considered a private art form for introverts. Yet with the advent of Slam Poetry, it has grown astronomically and propelled poets back into national notoriety. One of the issues slam poets initially encountered was opposition from purists and academics; they looked at slam poets as if they were from another world boisterously screaming and performing in order to appease a crowd. Antagonists of the Slam longed for the days of dimly lit coffee houses where non-threatening poets quietly recited their work.
In spite of the negative attention, slam poets have found their respectable niche and are widely held in the same regard as traditional poets. Of course, there was no reason that they shouldn’t have been considered in the same class as poets in the first place, the only significant differences are in performing style and the competitive nature of slamming. The question is, if slam poets are included in the traditional poetic canon, where do rappers fall?
It would be an understatement to classify Hip-Hop as a cultural phenomenon; it is a genre that has transitioned nicely from its humble beginnings to international success. But unlike its musical counterparts, Hip-Hop has lacked artistic and academic validation. Sure, there have been classes focused on analyzing Tupac’s lyrics, and Jay-Z’s prosperous ascension from drug dealer to millionaire entrepreneur, but those are classes inspired by the unorthodox minds of individual professors, not enlightened academic institutions in a rush praise rappers for their artistry. Calling Adele a poet amongst academics would be much more acceptable than giving Kanye West the same title. Academics are reluctant to include Hip-Hop in the poetic conversation, but rappers deserve the recognition.
There are some MCs like Nas, Common and Mos Def that are generally recognized as “Hip-Hop Poets,” but the genre as a whole is looked down upon. The problem is that a majority of main stream Hip-Hop isn’t thought provoking, but poetry at its core is intricate and complex. It is highly unlikely that the average academic professor would be exposed to some of the more lyrically impressive MCs; they are most likely restricted to mainstream Hip-Hop artists like Gucci Mane and Rick Ross. But poetry is also full of eclectic work and includes radical poets that deviated from the common forms and structures of classic poetry. The Beat Poets, which included acclaimed writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, took the genre to an entirely different level with their style and creativity. So although we may not be enamored with the content of mainstream Hip-Hop artists, is it fair to say they aren’t “poets”?
Rappers should be considered poets, and like other forms of poetry, artists may differ greatly in style and content from their contemporaries. Wacka Flocka may not be the most in depth rapper lyrically, but it does take talent to develop a rhyming style, lyrical cadence, and structure to produce a song that enthralls a crowd. While on the other side of the coin, I can find a Nas verse that is just as intricate and multifarious as a Syliva Plath poem. Lupe Fiasco is another artist that has a myriad of in depth verses that require an analytical approach to truly unlock the content. Many rappers have even praised poets such as Amiri Baraka and Maya Anagelou as influences. I’ll close with a few lines from Tupac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” –
Shed tears as we bury niggaz close to heart
What was a friend now a ghost in the dark, cold part ’bout it
Nigga got smoked by a fiend,
tryin’ to floss on him, Blind to a broken man’s dream, a hard lesson
Now, if that isn’t poetic, then I don’t know what is.