If you were to read the scholarly journals, you would be led to believe that poetry is dead. Back in the day, kids recited Longfellow in school, and empty spaces in newspaper were regularly filled with prose. But today, few people can name a modern day poet or can they?
Nonsense! Common, Ice T or KRS-One just to name a few. Or step back just a little to Nikki Giovani, Gil Scott Heron and Maya Angelou.
No, these aren’t the volumes of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson or Edgar Allen Poe, but in most cases, there much more widely read and quoted, and not just in Black communities.
“Throw Your Hands in the Air and Wave them Like Just Don’t Care,” may not be highbrow poetry, but nightly, you can heard it quote on dance floors across the world.
While traditional poetry seems to be fighting a losing battle to remain relevant, poetry in Black communities is alive and thriving.
African Americans love of poetry has deep roots. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., remembers fondly the rhetorical games played by his father’s generation. Across generations, the game has held many names: signifying, playing the dozens, or toasts
“Signifying is the defining rhetorical principle of all African American discourse, it’s the language game of Black language games, said Gates.
The dozens were often confrontational, composed either in competition with an actual rhyme adversary or in a mock battle with an imaginary one. Sadly, too few of the best verses, inflicted on the fly, were never recorded. However, the best of these spits, like traditional poetry, relied heavily on rhythm and rhyme.
While the dozens may be the poetic precursor to rap, the current popularity of spoken word poetry, which is more formally written down, can more directly trace its roots to the Harlem Renaissance. Poet Claude McKay’s 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die,” introduced a dramatically political dimension to African-American poetry. Although “If We Must Die” never alluded to race, African-American readers heard its note of defiance in the face of racism and the nationwide race riots and lynchings then taking place.
Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power Movement, the next big artistic connection of African-Americans with poetry spawned from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Among the well-known writers who were involved with the movement are Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Maya Angelou.
Using different types of expression (paintings, dance, theater, etc.) the Black Arts Movement brought attention to and educated others about cultural difference. The most common form of teaching was through poetry reading.
Many Black Arts activists rejected the non-militant approach of the Civil Rights Movement and instead favored those of the Black Liberation Struggle, which emphasized self-determination through self-reliance and Black control of significant businesses, organization, agencies, and institutions, and it was obvious in the message their poetry delivered.
Although the creative works of the movement were often profound and innovative, they also often alienated both Black and White mainstream culture with their raw shock value which often embraced violence. Some of the most prominent works were also seen as racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist. Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it. Modern day rap still gets a bad name for many of the same things.
However, it was Back Arts Movement artists like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, that can be credited the most for laying the groundwork for Rap and socially committed Black emcees who came around a decade or more later. These artists backed their lyrical content with jazz, blues and soul.
Heron’s work received considerable critical acclaim, especially one of his best-known compositions “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. First recorded in 1970, accompanied by congas and bongo drums, the recording went on to be one of the bestselling spoken word pieces of its time.
Is Rap Poetry?
While spoken word has gained a level of legitimacy in poetry circles, Rap still fights to solidify its position as true poetry. Nearly four decades after the birth of the medium, the debate continues, “is Rap poetry?”
Several books have peeled away the beats, hooks and music associated with rap to explore rap’s literary and poetic dimensions. What almost everyone will agree, within Rap – just as within any medium – there is some good and some bad poetry in Rap. While some artists pen melodic versus, with excellent flow, there are others who focus less on the rhyme and more on the hook and how to make their words fit to the beat.
Despite these shortcomings, poetry authorities shouldn’t discount the commercial of rap poetry.
“The difference between contemporary rap and contemporary poetry seems to be this: Contemporary rap is the most popular genre — in terms of record sales and radio play — in the country. Contemporary poetry, unfortunately, is consumed primarily by poets and by an extremely small percentage of individuals, who are mostly academic and middle or upper class I would imagine,” writes Byrd McDaniel, during one of many online debates about the merits of Rap. “I don’t mean that one is better than another, but I do think that the fact that rap is digested by such a vast fan base speaks to the degree of its impact on society. I would hope that academic circles would be concerned with the overarching and popular forms of literature that are so impacting. I don’t think that rap needs academia. I think that academia needs rap.”