The Portrait of a Rapper as a Poet

My life revolves around words. I write grants for a living; I then go home and have to turn that switch off at least three days a week in hopes of completing final edits to my novel; then I have to integrate the two styles for my independent business, a small children’s book publishing company I started last year.   This way of life is why music is so important to me–it is my escape.  The marriage of sound and harmony give me the opportunity to be an audience to the art of words, rather than having to play the role of architect. 

Several years ago when I moved to NYC, one of the first things I noticed during my subway commutes was the level of maturity of the city teens. They were skillful at navigating alternate routes in the cases of delays or cancelations, they were quite entertaining comedians and storytellers, and they were decades ahead of themselves in employing profanity as a method of self defense and jest. It was in the subway that I heard, or rather listened, to rap lyrics for the first time. All of a sudden I heard stories with vivid images and depth that I previously reduced to “music to dance to.”

Growing up I was never consistently exposed to rap. My parents didn’t allow us to watch music videos and they only listened to Christian radio, jazz and 80s R&B musicians. My friends preferred Boyz II Men and Mariah CareySugar Ray and Aaliyah to 90s rappers. The rest of my time was spent in drama club, when rock, alternative, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell and The Beatles were introduced.

I had no interest in rap and felt it had no use other than presenting an excuse for shameful movement against the crotch of a crush at a neighborhood houseparty. That suddenly changed as a result of my morning commutes and I needed to hear more.  A friend made recommendations and I sought out Tribe Called QuestSlick Rick,Talib Kweli and Common for the first time. I rather fell in love. It was around the time of Talib’s “Get By”, and I commenced looking for hip-hop and rappers that excited me with their organization of words, the symbols and implications of lyrics, and the poetry.  Suddenly I replayed Outkast‘s “Rosa Parks”, (actually I replayed ALL of Outkast’s old music), and understood. I listened with different ears because I could finally be an audience to their art like I was an audience to the poetry of Gwendolyn BrooksWilliam Ernest Henley or Anne Sexton. I searched the lyrics of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” like I buried myself in Audre Lorde.  What were the symbols? Where were the play on words? Alliterations? Nuances? Figurative Language? Metaphors? Narratives?
I no longer listened to rap as merely music I danced to, and slowly began to appreciate it as an underrated, overlooked genre of poetry. I have not looked back since. The more consumed I become in my life of words, the more evident the parallels.

Consider Mos Def and the beginning lyrics of “LOVE”:

I start to think, and then I sink
Into the paper, like I was ink
When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the line
I escape when I finish the rhyme

The sex and love lyrics of poets like LL Cool J:

Swimming in the timeless, currents of pure bliss
Fantasies interchanging with each kiss
Undying passion unties our souls
Together we swim until the point of no control

Classic poets like Notorious B.I.G. in songs like “Ready to Die”:

Shit, It’s hard being young from the slums
Eating five cent gums not knowing where your meals coming from
And now the shit’s getting crazier and major; Kids younger than me, they got the Sky grand Pagers
Going out of town, blowing up
Six months later all the dead bodies showing up

Last year I bought Jay-Z‘s Decoded and read the rapper’s claim that rap was just as thoughtful as poetry and rappers are the poets of this generation.  In an interview with MTV before the book published, he said:  “There’s thought behind it and there’s cleverness and there’s inspiration.  There’s social reason and there’s political reason and there’s angst and there’s anger and all these different things inside music.”

I agree.

Rap is often overlooked as a respectable art form and rappers overlooked as legitimate writers because the artists, the sources of the genre are largely ostracized and misunderstood by majority’s society.  Race aside, rappers are traditionally of relatively low socio-economic status.  They are poor.  And what can a poor, assumedly uneducated person offer to the ears of literature enthusiasts seasoned with Bukowski, Ginsberg, Gluck, and the occasional Angelou? Sure, there are rappers whose lyrics hardly qualify as poetry for lack of originality, thought or purpose–but there are mainstream poets who I can say the same things about.

River Avenue.

Metro North.

I died there.

….. (really?)….  is not a poem (in my opinion.)  However, the habit of laziness is present even in high-art, and the above could be defended as a “poem” if the source was recognized by mainstream as a poet.  Believe it or not there are award-winning “Soldier Boy that Hoe” poets on Barnes & Noble and Border’s bookshelves–just as uninspired, just as popular and accepted but with dancing words that eventually fade when the next bestseller is announced.

The medium is also a reason the genre is discredited as poetry.  Many rappers, especially rappers like Naz (think Stillmatic), if they published their lyrics as poetry collections in leather-bound books, perhaps consumers of the art form would consider it as such.  And in the same way, if one day Robert Hass was to decide to jump on stage and recite “Heroic Smile” to a Lil Wayne instrumental and collect Robert Pinsky to be his hype man and make it rain on a dark stage, microphones blaring and opened wine bottles within an arm’s reach, perhaps people would not take him seriously either.

The old man smokes a pipe and spits. 
The young man is thinking he would be rich 

–would no longer be the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but perhaps interpreted as lyrics about drugs and money; street language; vanity.

Regardless of how the art is presented to its audience, there is still thought, process and literary form in the veins of most rap lyrics.  The presentation should not diminish the artist’s journey, although trying to guess how much the chain around a rapper’s neck costs while he is performing your favorite song is agreeably distracting.

The other day I was listening to Kanye‘s “Lost in this World” and the lyrics are:

You’re my Devil, You’re my Angel
You’re my Heaven, You’re my Hell
You’re my Now, You’re my Forever
You’re my Freedom, You’re my Jail

The device of paradoxical pairings is similiar to what’s used in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “The Paradox” that reads:

I AM the mother of sorrows,I am the ender of grief;I am the bud and the blossom,I am the late-falling leaf. I am thy priest and thy poet,I am thy serf and thy king;I cure the tears of the heartsick,When I come near they shall sing.

I do not want to sound presumptuous or even disrespectful, but who is to say that Dunbar, if he were alive today, would not have attempted to take part in the evolution of the art form and lay his words over beats?  Even if only in appearances or independent albums like performers like Saul Williams, would his words have been any less poetic? His art any less celebrated? His story any less relevant? And the telling of that story any less necessary?


by: Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

 AM the mother of sorrows,

I am the ender of grief;

I am the bud and the blossom,

I am the late-falling leaf.


I am thy priest and thy poet,

I am thy serf and thy king;

I cure the tears of the heartsick,

When I come near they shall sing.


White are my hands as the snowdrop;

Swart are my fingers as clay;

Dark is my frown as the midnight,

Fair is my brow as the day.


Battle and war are my minions,

Doing my will as divine;

I am the calmer of passions,

Peace is a nursling of mine.


Speak to me gently or curse me,

Seek me or fly from my sight;

I am thy fool in the morning,

Thou art my slave in the night.


Down to the grave will I take thee,

Out from the noise of the strife;

Then shalt thou see me and know me–

Death, then, no longer, but life.


Then shalt thou sing at my coming,

Kiss me with passionate breath,

Clasp me and smile to have thought me

Aught save the foeman of Death.


Come to me, brother, when weary,

Come when thy lonely heart swells;

I’ll guide thy footsteps and lead thee

Down where the Dream Woman dwells.