In Theory, Rap is Poetry

But in reality, it shouldn't be
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Scroll up, just a bit. The guy you see is XXXTentacion, what most would call a rapper. But he is also a poet—

—Even if he doesn’t look like one. And certainly he doesn’t – where’s the powdered wig, the intelligent expression, the… white skin?

We have inherited, through no fault of our own, a misconception of the poet. He is always  sophisticated, highly educated, and initiated into the western tradition of thought. Bluntly put, a rich white man.

Because of this, we overlook an ancient and expressive poetic tradition, a modern cultural powerhouse, simply because it does not align with the white conception of poetry. This tradition we call rap, and label ‘low culture’.

But rap is poetry.

It is bridging, or rather disproving, the illusory gap between high and low culture – thereby spanning the attached divides of race and class. Our colonial conceptions of poetry only limit it, and succeed in reinforcing this cultural segregation. 

It is not our fault that this prejudice has been passed down, but it is our responsibility to identify and destroy it – lest we be left behind in ignorance and intolerance, as individuals and a society.

Rap is poetry

It is my first aim to convince you that rap is poetry – in essence and style.

The essence of poetry

[poetry is] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings – William Wordsworth

While far from a thorough definition, Wordsworth’s quote captures the living soul of poetry – it’s essence, if you will.

Poetry begins in an overflow of feeling. It is emotion and experience, transmuted into thought and music, crystallized as words. It is a fragment of our humanity – all else is accessory.

Rap is an expression of our humanity

We often associate poetry with ‘higher’ feelings and concepts – love, beauty, nature, chastity – yet these are part of being human. Poetry should be open to all subjects – greed, lechery, depression, even murder – because these things too, are human. How can you begin to understand the ‘human condition’, when you view only an aspect of it, from a single perspective?

Rap is the bubbling up of the pits of the steaming pits of civilization, long ignored. It is a crying out, an appeal to understand and to sympathise.

We might call it vulgar, violent, even disgusting. But not inhumane. Never that. Because, above all, rap is a powerful expression of our humanity. These terrible things we dare only whisper, exist within us. They are simply obscured by the veneer of wealth and education and breeding.

There exists no greater tribute to this fact than the novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– within us all lurks a Mr. Hyde, capable of depravity, thwarted only by our Dr. Jekyll. Within us, an endless war is waged. Within us, exists the capacity for both rap and poetry, two aspects of our being.

In the end, humanity is the final subject of both.

In essence, rap is poetry.

Rap is poetry, in style and technique

Not only are they identical in essential nature and purpose, but also in style – albeit with different emphases.

Literary technique

Rap is full of allusion, sometimes to the Western mythos, but more commonly to other rap songs. Metaphor, simile and symbolism are used in profusion.

Consider these Biblical references from i spoke to the devil in miami, and he said everything would be fine:

took a / Bite of your apple, give me all you can offer…

my Lord, I / I spoke to a Baphomet, he said he would save me if I / Gave him one thing he needed “what is this thing?”, I pleaded / Boy it’s the key to Even (a play on the word Eden), yeah

Yet it must be said that rap is a far less figurative form than poetry. Due to its historical circumstances (which I will explain in the next section), it never flourished in abstraction. Rather, it remained literal and practical.

But this is perhaps its greatest boon: to speak of things as they are; to portray reality without the foibles and high-minded euphemism and airy language of poetry.

Poetic technique

In poetic technique, which enhances the innate musicality of words, rap far exceeds poetry.

It is written of course in meter, and contains skillful, complex rhyme, rhythm, repetition, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia (to name a few) in far greater amounts than poetry.

Rap has perfected the music of speech (watch this if you don’t believe me).  

Musicality

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance…poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. – Ezra Pound

There is this misconception that poetry is literature, and rap is music.

But, for most of its history, poetry was also a musical form. And in essence, it still is.

The Odyssey was composed for the ear, not written for the eyes. Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen. The Romantics wrote sensuous songs, with sound that unfolds in the ear like the blooming of a rosebud. You cannot appreciate the wit and playfulness of Carol Ann Duffy without reading her poems aloud. 

The immortal works of Western poetry, most often read silently, are in fact musical compositions of greatest note.

So poetry is far more musical, and therefore closely related to rap, than we usually give it credit for.

Another, related argument is that rap depends on musical accompaniment, while poetry may be appreciated without it.

Yet, in Ancient Greece, it would be inconceivable to perform Homer without the lyre. And the original poet was a minstrel, or a travelling bard – certainly not a man locked in his room, publishing silent poems for a deaf world.

And besides, rap refers only to the vocal aspect, which is musical, even without the music. Does this really need background music?

Poetry is closely associated with instruments, and rap not so dependent on them as we would think. They are, in terms of innate musicality, very similar.

The frontiers of language

We must not get the impression that rap is limited to techniques of poetry. It has moved far beyond them.  

Intentional mispronunciation to aid rhythm is nothing new. Yet rap has expanded our conception of what it can achieve. Through inflection, slang, neologisms, omission, analogical pronunciation, aphesis, aspiration, epenthesis, metathesis, shibboleth, malapropism, catachresis and spoonerisms (What a delightful collection of words. They bounce off the tongue. “Shibboleth”.), words may be incorporated far more seamlessly than ever before.

In the cunning minds and supple tongues of rap artists, grammar becomes a fluid, organic medium, rather than a rigid, conventional structure. Words themselves are flexible creations, being transposed, disassembled and reassembled, and metamorphosed.

Rap artists prove to us that language is alive, a virile organism of expression, a sentient machine that would assimilate our innermost depths.

Of course, poets and writers have been innovating language for hundreds of years. Shakespeare minted over 1700 new words. People like Charles Dickens, Noah Webster, Martin Heidegger and James Joyce also contributed.

But now rap has taken up the mantle. Slang, often derided, is in fact an experiment in language. It keeps English fresh and dynamic, moulding it to the expressive needs of the new generation – to better convey its thought and culture, its zeitgeist.

Of course, many (even most) experiments fail. But without experimentation, there will be no progress. So experiment we must.

And some of these experiments are very successful. I find many slang phrases delightfully expressive – is that not, after all, the criteria by which we should assess words?

Take for example: “the old man is minted”; “that chicken slaps” (far more potent that “was delicious”); “the party was lit” (meaning good, or exciting); “he spilled the tea” (meaning gossiped); or“choof” instead of smoke. These are all brilliant words, which increase the potency of our speech and writing. And most are propagated by rap, or at least rap related culture.

Slang, therefore, should be welcomed, not criticized, because it is the process by which language evolves, and grows its expressive power.

Snoop Dogg, not Shakespeare, is now the foremost innovator of language. Poets must catch up, or be left behind.

Snoop Dogg! Not Shakespeare.

Rap: a speculative history

I have shown that rap is, in essential purpose and style, akin to poetry, and that, far from having a purely corrosive effect on language, it is (on the whole) a positive cultural force.

I would like to trace, briefly, the historical origin and evolution of rap and poetry.

Campfire tales

Warm, hairy, panting bodies press up against you. The air is thick with human stench – sweat and blood and excrement. Outside, heavy night has descended. Beasts roam under cover of darkness, terrible things with claws and fangs. You hear their howls and cries. Fear squats in your gut, like an iron globe. Your teeth rattle and your body clenches. Cold rock presses your bare thighs, and the winter gale lashes your back.

There is, however, comfort.

Fire holds the darkness at bay, creating a cocoon within the cave. It leaps up the walls, revealing, in flashes, hunting scenes and rituals, painted with charcoal and fat. A griot sways with the fire, in booming voice and beat of drum recounting myths and spreading tales of distant lands. His music animates the walls – figures frolick in flickering flame, hunters shout, prey cries out, and deities proclaim.

Both rap and poetry began in storytelling. Their purpose was practical: to give comfort, to chronicle events and landmarks, and preserve folk tales – the earliest forms of moral instruction.

Musical accompaniment, stanzas, rhyme, rhythm, and meter would have been pragmatic innovations, increasing the ease of memory and entertainment of the stories.

A matter of geography

While of similar origin, rap and poetry evolved semi-independently. They grew to reflect their economic climate.

Poetry flourished under the grand empires European and Asia, becoming more aristocratic and abstract. Prosperity breeds excess.

African poetry and music, however, remained practical – to incite fervour in times of war, to praise the ancestors, or to pass down moral instruction – reflecting Africa’s more meagre economies.

That is not to say it wasn’t deemed important in Africa. In fact, the opposite is true. It became integrated with the rhythm of daily life, not an occasional indulgence, but a thread woven into the fabric of life and society.

In abundance idle arts thrive. Yet only in poverty do they become a way of life.

Aboard the ships

The first significant change in African poetry came with the Atlantic Slave Trade.

To cope with enormous physical and emotional pain, slaves would sing. Music, one of the few arts still available to African Americans, became a means to preserve their African culture – and by extension their strength, their unity and their dignity.

Here, in the “Negro spirituals”, particularly the “jubilees”, can be found the storytelling of the griot (they were often used to tell tales of hardship and suffering), but also a primitive iteration of rap’s rhythm, and audience participation.

Under oppression, culture flourishes.

Freedom!

Freedom for the slaves also meant a liberation of their music. Experimentation created styles more akin to modern rap – blues, and later Talking Blues, Jazz, “The Dozens” (a form of rhyming insult) and a style of fast-talking political oration popular during the Civil Rights Movement.

These styles are direct descendants of the “spirituals”, and still contained the talking rhythm of the griot.

New York, New York

In New York, more traditional, rural African music overlapped with clubs and parties and jazz.

MC’s (Master of Ceremonies), still under the influence of traditional African American music and oration, were hired in clubs to sprinkle lyrical verse over DJ’s tracks, make jokes, and interact with the audience. As the popularity of this practice grew, so did its prominence, until the words themselves became the focus. Albums were recorded, taking America by storm. Modern rap was born.

We may clearly see the link between jazz and blues with rap in the works of Nas (and another one), one of the legends of rap. 

Etymology

The etymology of “rap” is fascinating, and an invaluable aid to understanding its art. 

Before the 1970s, rap was not a form of music, but a mode of conversation.

Originally, the word meant “to strike, especially with a quick, smart, or light blow”. Later it came to describe both physical and verbal blows, meaning also “to utter (esp. an oath [or command]) sharply, vigorously, or suddenly”. Already we see the curt candour, even violent honesty, of rap.

In the 1960s, the definition broadened, to include a fast-talking style of oration and speech, common among protest movements. It indicated you were trying to persuade someone, usually though forthright and sharp delivery.  

“I was born in ’72 … back then what rapping meant, basically, you was trying to convey something—you’re trying to convince somebody. That’s what rapping is, it’s in the way you talk.” – Del the Funky Homosapien

This completes our little history of rap.

A few conclusions

I would like us to draw our attention to a few important ideas:

  1. Rap and poetry have almost identical origins.
  2. Rap evolved independently from poetry, however, and is no mere offshoot. 
  3. ‘Proto-rap’ was formed as a resistance to slavery, and later segregation. It remains an important means of decolonisation. 
  4. Rap is derived from African culture, and the transmission of this heritage is one of its primary functions (albeit an unconscious one).

I will pick up these threads in our next section, weaving from them a coherent narrative.

Words can be annoying

Rap is not poetry.

Yes, you heard me right. Rap isn’t poetry. In fact, its quite clear – they developed independently.

“In theory, rap is poetry”, yes, but in reality (according to history), they are quite separate.

Have I misled you then, this entire time, simply for my wicked amusement?

Sort of. But not really.

I maintain that they are similar, even alike, in essence and style.

My deceit was a necessary ploy to outmaneuver the English language, with all its inherent associations and assumptions:

Rap, the word itself, has negative connotations – commercial, violent, hateful, low culture. To change this, we need to form new associations in the cultural unconscious – i.e. by linking rap with poetry, which, in English, has positive connotations.

“Rap is poetry” is therefore a metaphor – not literally true, but a way to highlight otherwise hidden similarities, with the goal of changing your perception.

A tangent, on classification of disciplines

We have established that rap is not poetry, at least historically.

But history may be flouted. In fact, we humans have an aptitude for it: if we were to classify every discipline historically, all science would be a sub-branch of philosophy (as it was until recently), and all thought the accessory of myth and poetry.

I like to say that disciplinary distinctions are effectively arbitrary – how can Truth be divided? – and that we should only adopt useful divisions.  

Clearly the distinction between rap and poetry isn’t useful – in fact it’s destructive. It maligns rap, and aristocrasises (I don’t think that’s a word, but it should be) poetry.

Yet there is something else we must consider…

Rap, and the decolonisation of culture

…by identifying rap as a type of poetry – a very reasonable classification, admittedly – we undermine its efforts at decolonisation.

Because colonisation does linger. Segregation too. They’re just so ubiquitous and fundamental that we no longer detect them. They are woven into our speech, and our perceptions, and our economic and political systems.

But rap is an (unconscious) effort at decolinisation:

The language of the oppressor

Every language contains a fundamental set of assumptions about the world, and conveys a certain perspective in its portrayal of reality. Every single word (like “rap” and “poetry”) has cultural associations that exert a subtle influence on the way we perceive, describe, and interact with the world.

Language shapes thought.

And language reflects and imitates the era.

Therefore English, moulded by centuries of colonialism, preserves old structures of thought and perception – they are embedded in our daily speech.   

In light of this, rap is an effort at decolonisation. It invents new words – words without centuries of cultural baggage – and appropriates old ones, creating new associations. This is an essential aspect of our (still ongoing) cultural recovery, because it erases the prejudices and conceptions lurking in our language.

It is a renewal of language – like tilling, which destroys weeds and breaks up conglomerations of choked, crusty soil.

Some examples

There are obvious examples of how colonial words can shape thought: the use of the phrase “Red Indian” to refer to Native Americans is inherently derisive, even if not so intended. Its use actively promotes ignorance and contempt for a culture.

An example closer to rap is the infamous ‘n-word’. Some would argue (quite validly) that its ongoing use in African American culture continues the hatred of slavery. Perhaps it does.

But I would argue it has done the opposite – the word is being appropriated and sterilized, and colonial associations severed. Its ongoing use drains its signficance, because, ultimately, the word isn’t inherently offensive – it is the associations we make that are. These can be changed.  

The two examples used, however, are obvious, therefore more easily dealt with. Far more insidious are the shades of meaning, buried allusions and patterns of speech that influence our subconscious, and thereby escape conscious detection (and prevention).

This is the most dangerous legacy of colonialism.

Rap asserts a proud African culture

Rap is undertaking another decolonisation (or even counter-colonisation) project.

Centuries ago, Africans were shipped to America, and had their pride and culture beat out of them. Yet their African heritage was preserved, through music – the “negro spirituals”. This heritage has been passed down to rap.

Through asserting this African heritage, rap resists America’s cultural colonisation of the world.

Of course one might argue that rap is predominantly American, not African. Maybe so. But it remains somewhat separate from mainstream western culture, and harbours an African infusion, even an essence. Therefore, I argue, “rap asserts a proud African culture”.

Culture: high and low

Finally, and most importantly, we must explore the underyling distinction that is the cause of all our problems: that divides, almost irreparably, rap and poetry, and continues the colonial tradition of segregation.

The phrases ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ are clear remnants of a colonial world. ‘High culture’ is derived from ‘high-brow’ – a word used in phrenology, especially practiced as part of eugenics. It was used to denote a facial structure associated with intelligence, and, invariably, whites.  

Because of its etymology, ‘high culture’ is still linked with ‘white culture’ – sampling Sangiovese, indulging Mozart, and reciting poetry.

The seemingly innocuous distinction between high and low culture is a form of racial and cultural segregation. It is a distinction, ultimately, not between disciplines, but between the people associated with them.

Even if we do not use these words, we still make the same assumptions. These phrases have become ingrained in the cultural unconscious. Only by consciously marking and opposing this prejudice may we revoke its hold on our minds.

Rap is doing just this.

It is bridging the gap between high and low culture, forging associations between poetry and the African tradition. It brings poetry to the people.  

This is important; the distinction between high and low culture is, at best, destructive. It prevents ‘high culture’ from being popularized, and ‘low culture’ from being canonized. Therefore, we must raise up rap in the minds of the people. If this can be done, if these two cultures can be bridged, maybe, just maybe, we may finally conquer the remnants of colonisation.

In conclusion

Rap is perhaps the greatest decolonisation project of them all.

It deserves the respect that poetry is accorded, but also demands to be a separate discipline.

If we call it poetry, we categorise, and thereby colonise, rap – as surely as Britian colonised India by classifying and assimilating its wealth of thought and art. We undermine its independence, and therefore its liberating power.

This is a common, well-intentioned mistake, often found in history: we define all culture in terms of western ideas, thereby robbing other traditions of their individual beauty and power.

We must not make the same mistake with rap.

In (further) conclusion

What then have we accomplished? Are we not back where we started: rap isn’t poetry.

Well, I guess so.

But now, at least, we affirm this for the right reason – not because rap is inherently inferior, or fundamentally different, but because the distinction preserves rap’s liberating power. It is useful.

Of course poetry is far older than rap. It has produced a much larger volume of great works and great artists. There is no disputing it. But rap is young and thriving and exciting, and there is nothing, except blatant prejudice, that bars it from producing equally powerful expressions of our humanity. 

In the end, there is only culture and commerce. Rap is often the latter. But, occasionally, it produces works of extraordinary power and emotion, and artists who deserve to sit alongside (or just below) Shakespeare, Keats, Poe and Dickinson.  

So, we are back where we started. But this familiar landscape, once shrouded in darkness, has been cast in the light of dawn, and becomes altogether unfamiliar: we realise, perhaps for the first time, what rap is – a virile, dynamic, powerful expression of humanity. 

We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.


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