Is rap poetry?

jay z web 1

Jay Z: a 21st century poet?


John McWhorter, writing at The Daily Beast, answers with a definitive yes:



To utterly naïve anthropologists sent to document the ways of Americans in 2014, one of the first things that would strike them is that this country is quite poetry mad. No, they would not find well-thumbed volumes of Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Billy Collins laying around the typical living room. However, they could not help but notice that a great many people under about 50 regularly go around listening to and yes, reciting poetry—rap, that is.


Rap is indeed “real” poetry. It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?


The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”

That means that to us, poetry is written poetry, that which sits between covers and is intended to be read, quietly, alone, with tea, likely chamomile. Never mind that in fact Jay-Z has released a magisterial volume of his lyrics as a book: generally, rap is intended to be heard on the fly, often in a concert arena. Surely there is a key distinction between that and the strophes of John Berryman or Gwendolyn Brooks?


But if there is, it’s a matter of style and tone, not basic classification. Partly because of its orality and partly because it is so relentlessly “of our times,” rap tends to be profane—but profanity does not disqualify something as poetry. One might not like poetry laced with profanity—but that’s something different, and quite frankly most of young America likes it just fine, just crazy about the poetry they have grown up with.


Overall the idea that poetry is serious only if it’s on a page and read with tea is actually rather parochial. An epic like Beowulf was composed for the ear, with careful alliterations within each line. Somalians’ poetry, again, written down only as an afterthought by outside observers, has such intricate rules that to us it seems more like a puzzle than art. Spoken is not broken.


Great points. Read the whole thing here. IMHO, rap can be poetry. I say “can” because, well, some of it just isn’t. I know I’m quickly becoming a crotchety old lady spouting off at how bad today’s music is, but really, a lot of rap music coming out now is not only NOT poetry, it’s bordering on being not music.


There. I said it. And I’ll happily sip some chamomile tea alomng with the other relics of time gone by. Ha.

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