What if Rap Were to be Taught as Poetry?

What if rap were considered more than just pop culture? What if it were to be studied as an academic subject? As it turns out, there is much to be learned from rap songs. Rap lies at the intersection of poetry and music, combining political commentary with poetic devices, and laying it all over a beat. And, since 2017, hip-hop has been the number one genre of music in the country. Not only does rap speak to this generation, but the songs provide meaningful insights on American culture.

Hip-hop music originated in the Bronx from Black and Latino communities in the 1970’s, when MCs would combine rhythmic speaking, breakbeats (percussive breaks in songs), and record scratching to engage an audience. Since then, the genre has morphed and grown to an international scale with dozens of subgenres. Rap verses utilize a range of poetic devices, such as metaphor, alliteration, and complex meter. And just like any movement in poetry, there are notable artists that have led the genre and provided inspiration for those who follow.

If rap were to be studied as a literary canon, then instead of a unit on Robert Frost, there would be a unit on Jay-Z, instead of Shakespeare there would be Cardi B, and Kendrick Lamar would be the current poet laureate. The work of Jay-Z has already been an academic topic at Georgetown University, where Dr. Michael Eric Dyson taught sociology through his songs. In an NPR interview, Dr. Dyson referred to Jay-Z as “Robert Frost with a Brooklyn accent,” comparing the rapper to the Vermont poet. The comparison is based on, “tremendous parallels – pace, rhythm, cadence, simplistic imagery that contains deeper thoughts underneath the water…that [arrests] us because the writers say it with such calm and such dignity.” Much of the deeper thoughts in Jay-Z’s, and many other rappers’, work speak out against racism and oppression in American society.

Another rapper whose work we can learn from is Kendrick Lamar who, aside from appearing in the Superbowl halftime show, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his album “DAMN.” in 2018. (And yes, there is a mural of the album cover on the second floor here at HHS). The Pulitzer Board writes of his album as “a virtuosic song collection, unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Keep in mind, this was the first time in history the award didn’t go to jazz or classical music. If rap were seen through the same lens as poetry, then Kendrick Lamar would most likely be the poet laureate of this generation because of his critical acclaim and widespread popularity. He has won 161 awards for his work, including 14 Grammys and 6 Billboard Awards, and another one of his albums, “To Pimp a Butterfly” serves as the unofficial soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, Kendrick Lamar is topping the Billboard charts with a new album released May 13th, showing how people are appreciating his work on a massive scale to this day.

Hip hop doesn’t just deliver powerful messages, but skillfully utilizes poetic devices too. Rappers showcase a variety of poetic skills that often go unnoticed. Take for example Cardi B. Cardi B and Shakespeare might seem to have nothing in common, except the fact that they’ve used the same prosody techniques to captivate audiences 400 years apart. Prosody, the patterns of syllable emphasis in language, provides a rhythmic backbone to both poetry and rap. Shakespeare wrote most of his poetry in a certain
style, but would flip his meter in certain places to emphasize a verse. Cardi also uses this technique prominently in “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” where she switches between emphasizing every other syllable, to rapping in triplets. This technique makes her songs sound new and exciting, and attracts the ear as it picks up on the rhythmic changes and starts to anticipate the next.

Lyrics from Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B would be valuable if analyzed in an English class, but these are just three examples out of hundreds of rappers. And just like in any study of poetry, there are limits to presenting just the work of only a couple notable figures. Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar aren’t the only rappers fighting for social justice, nor is Cardi B the only rapper using complicated techniques in prosody. Even though bad rap definitely exists, just as bad poetry does, there is a whole world of artists using rap in a way we could learn from. And more importantly, there is no way to explain songs just by writing about them. Analysis only serves as a compass for pointing to meanings that are often hidden in plain sight in song lyrics. The beauty of language, whether written poetry or rap, is that it speaks for itself. So in order to truly appreciate the vital messages and skillful use of language in rap, all you need to do is listen.

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