“The only psalms I read was on the arms of my niggas”
I borrow from hip-hop all the time, if not content than approach. I write a rhyme sometimes won’t finish for days,1 as the line goes, which is to say I revise. I rework, re-see, re-think. And right now I’m reconsidering how I think about poetry and hip-hop. For a long time the musicality in hip-hop has been, primarily, considered a function of the track. MCs have the benefit of possibility: you can be a lyricist or you can be hot garbage over a dope beat. I’ve said it myself. I’ve long thought poets had no such luxury, but I was wrong. It all starts with denial – if I say that there is no poetry in hip-hop, then I don’t need to look for how the words in hip-hop make music, and therefore I am never threatened by the skill of an MC. But more than that, I don’t look at the ways poetry can mirror mainstream hip-hop’s tendency towards nihilism and apathy. It all boils down to how the art pushes the artist to say something, and how the art offers the artists masks to hide from self and society.
My ink so hot it burn through the journal.2 There is poetry in hip-hop, a very obvious manipulation of the sounds in words to help convey meaning. The dopest MCs have a fluency with rhyme, rhetoric, and figurative language. Used to speak the king’s engalish, but caught a rash on my fingertips, now I speak just like this.3 You can hear it, the reliance on rhyme that would be called conservative if a contemporary poet showed such favor. But the MC knows what the poet has forgotten, the musical landscape of the words is a product of how the words are arranged – and rhyme, metaphor, simile, anaphora, etc., etc., etc. are not stylistic ticks. The dope MC creates the musical landscape and lets it function as the wave the meaning rides on. So I steal, because the youngins don’t bob their heads and memorize the words just because they are in love with the death and violence and materialism that many of the songs on the radio advocate. They nod their heads because the poetry of hip hop offers them something that contrasts with the prose of their lives: the lectures, the movies, the conversations amongst each other. The music is a break, and opens up a space for something different to happen in their heads. So I steal. Bucka bucka bucka bucka bucka bucka. Onomatopoeia, alliteration. I want to manipulate schemes and tropes – those mountain sized categories of rhetoric.
They trying to censor the influencer just makes me sicker, influenza; I abide by their censorship, soon as they ride I get back on my nigga shit.4 Ask Lupe Fiasco if MCs care about audience, if they are concerned with making a discernible sense. Ask the members of NWA that you can catch up with; ask Luke. Even at its worst, rarely do you listen to a hip-hop album and walk away at a loss for what the artist was saying. Or maybe more to the point, maybe you never walk away from the dopest, most skilled rappers albums wondering what was going on. I want a poem like that, a book like that – something that is infused with what I think about the world. When we talk about classic albums, their status as masterpieces cannot be divorced from the material content of the songs. It is never solely about rhyme, solely about the beat – it is all about the way rhyme, beat, and lyrics form some kind of landscape of commentary and art. I have a running list in my head of the times that poets have told me that the poet must please self, that they must write with the perfect reader in mind. I’ve always wondered about that. I have never been a perfect reader. I skip pages, skim – I come to the page without the history of American literature always at hand. I come to the page to argue, to learn, to be seduced. What exactly is a perfect reader? Imagine being an MC, walking into an arena with even a meager two thousand people in attendance. You hear them screaming, you hear them chanting. There is a woman with fifteen ear piercings standing next to a young cat with a suit on. There is no way to predict what each of these folks want, no way to predict a perfect listener. So what does he do – he spits like one person is listening and has to get it – and that one person fits the legal standard for liability, a person that would react in the same manner as someone else with reasonable intelligence in the same situation.
Eight million stories to tell.5 I just want to tell a few, and tell them well. As a lover of music, I’ve learned that narrative is king. It’s what drives us, explanations, excuses, professing of love – they all start with a story. I used to know this girl named Mary Jane. What up kid, I know shit is rough doing your bid. Dear sister got me twisted up in prison I miss ya. It’s all narrative, it’s all hunger to say something and say it well. It’s no surprise to me that MCs rely so much on those two broad categories: scheme and trope, to get their points across. Maybe MCs aren’t aware that schemes are figures of speech, rhetorical strategies that change the standard word order or pattern; maybe they do not know that tropes are rhetorical strategies that change the general meanings of words – but they used them. I think of myself as a kid playing the dozens. I had no idea that “you look like a monkey’s uncle” was simile. The point, in the end, is that you can listen to the best of MCs and see their strategies, and understand what their saying.
I’m like Che Guevara with wings on I’m complex.6 That’s what I’m chasing. Complexity as a poet. Maybe when I said the poet was reaching for prophecy I was wrong. Think about it – if nothing else, the MC embraces failure, embraces their mistakes. I understand that the speaking is proof that they made it through these hard knock tales – but at its best, this speaking is something more. It is a way to narrate the hero’s story, and maybe hip hop’s most arrogant in the trope of rapper as hero. I never said I had wings on nigga I get my by any means on7 – which is to say this hip-hop thing is a professing of one’s history, filled with jewel and indictment. I go to hip-hop because of the nakedness in the livest MC. And the refreshing honesty. Think about Tupac on “Life Goes On.” Think about Jay- Z on “Song Cry.” And of course there is no need to be sentimental. There is a fierce nihilism in hip-hop, there is a ridiculous amount of materialism. Still, I go back to the well, because as a poet I learn from the audacity and from the amount of exquisite execution needed to pull off some of this work, especially when the MC, the artist, is more caught up in the compromises of fame than any poet will ever be. And the MC knows it. I ain’t invent the game, but there ain’t no reason why I be buying expensive chains.8
Ask Joan Aleshire. Borrowing from Stephen Yenser, she speaks of “gossip (fact, data, raw material),” and “gospel (parable, pattern, truth).” In discussing Lowell’s “Dolphin,” Yenser argues that where there is more gossip than gospel, the pattern, the meat of experience is hidden. Specifically, she’s talking about the lyric poem, and Yenser is talking about Lowell, but what is an MC if not the epitome of a confessional and lyric poet. And gospel is different from prophecy. The prophet lives in his time and carries no mirror. He talks of your flaws, not his – but he who spits the gospel is reflective. And the gospel lasts longer. Prophecy dies when that moment is done, and prophecy only becomes lesson if it gets woven into gospel. I’m stealing a line from the nicest MC, often. Cause I get it – the poet has to move toward gospel, away from inanity, bells and whistles.
Then again, I steal from MCs because they, at their best, are conscious of their words and conscious of the meaning making of their songs. Right now Lupe Fiasco is getting run in the media for calling President Obama the biggest terrorist. Okay, not the most precise political critique – but what you find, what I admire, is that there is a forming of a critique. There is a nakedness that acknowledges that the role of MC is both entertainer and prophet – and to see who loses, we must see who speaks. On this one, Lupe loses points. Not because he can’t criticize the president, but because his one liner lacked the punch of his illest verses, verses that use trope and scheme to pack much more thought and insight than one would expect in such a short space. They don’t want to censor the influencer because he might say the President is a terrorist – any idiot can say that. They want to censor all us influencers because the best of will recognize “a penny from heaven is the same as a semi from the second,”9 and work to convey that in a thousand different ways, until a thousand different things in our society change for the better. Hip-hop, correctly, takes flack in the community – but it is flack that comes because of the artist role as entertainer and prophet, as seer. I want a poetry that embraces that role.
1. Mos Def, “Hip-Hop,” Black on Both Sides.
2. Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides.
3. Mos Def, “Hip-Hop,” Black on Both Sides.
4. Lupe Fiasco, “Jedi Mind Tricks.”
5. Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides.
6. Jay-Z, “Public Service Announcement,” Black Album.
7. Jay–Z, ibid.
8. Jay-Z, ibid.
9. Lupe Fiasco, “Failure.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father. The author of the memoir, A Question of Freedom, and the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow and a 2011 Radcliffe Fellow. www.rdwaynebetts.com.