ONE OF THE MOST important (and maybe controversial) things that happened to poetry in the twentieth century was the rise of hip hop. Although hip hop is a completely modern form, in some ways it returns poetry to the old practice of oral tradition. Rappers employ all the techniques that poets do–with an emphasis on rhyme and rhythm–and rappers are using these techniques in the way ancient poets did. These techniques help the artist and the audience remember and recite what is being said.
What makes rap controversial in the poetry world is the debate over whether or not to call rap a poetic form. Hip hop straddles a line between song and spoken word. It developed alongside, but completely outside, modern trends in poetry. Yet you can read lyrics the same way you read poetry, applying the same critical eye, looking for the same techniques like imagery and allusion. Looking at lyrics, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could defend the idea that hip hop is not poetry. Some of the most interesting and complex poetry written today, especially in terms of meter, rhyme, alliteration, allusion and cultural reference, is going on in hip hop.
If you haven’t read any lyrics recently, here are a few to start with:
“Broken glass in the hallway, bloodstained floors
Neighbors, look at every bag you bring through your doors
Lock the top lock, momma shoulda cuffed me to the radiator
Why not? It might’ve saved later from my block…”
“Title, take the title from the Bible we can get there
Rip the title from off the front of the Bible, God don’t live there
Too many inconsistencies, too many mysteries
Picture the Pope and the Vatican, laughing and drinking and singing and
I stand with God whether I’m paid or whether I’m cryin’ broke
I like to ask these politicans would Jesus vote?
The way we view God is a freakin’ shame
Church is to blame
We trust God, but bomb Hussein
We simply lovin’ the scripture
Same scripture that whipped ‘cha
Sooner it’ll hit ‘cha
Religion’s gettin’ richer
With that European version of Christ made into a picture
Our society’s gettin’ sicker, and sicker, and sicker…”
“Rain or shine, yes in any weather
My grandmom pam holds the family together
My uncle Doc’s the greatest better yet the latest
If we’re talking about a car, uncle sterling got the latest
I strive to be live ’cause i got no choice
And run my own business like my aunt joyce…”
“And even as a crack fiend, mama
You always was a black queen, mama
I finally understand
for a woman it ain’t easy tryin to raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it
There’s no way I can pay you back
But the plan is to show you that I understand…”
For Beginners LLC is the Danbury, Connecticut-based company behind the introductory series For Beginners, a graphic documentary line of books dedicated to making complex topics accessible to all readers.
- To learn more about poetic forms check out Poetry For Beginners.