I was once rendered speechless in college as I watched an old woman hold her ground in defense of the ridiculous contention that hip hop doesn’t qualify as poetry because it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter.
As my dear friend Ruth says: is this the hill you chose to die upon? Really?
There’s no other way to say it: the class was besides itself in disbelief.
Her stubborn, classist elitism seemed something out of a cartoon, and yet here she was, like some sort of gatekeeper for barely-relevant tradition, and you know what they say:
Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.
Heaven hell, hella heaven, Sunday school
Mac 11, prison camps, colleges and crash courses
Driving lessons, bad bitches, prostitutes
Death threats, hospitals, gang-banging
Private schools, chains hanging
There’s such a thing as being so correct that you’re dead wrong, you feel me? There was no convincing this lady. She’s probably still rallied thus.
Which is too bad, but also: who gives a shit?
Does hip hop need the endorsement of traditional institutions to be acknowledged as a vibrant, linguistic expression of art?
Not a bit.
Let it go
Hella heaven, heaven hell
Falling off, record sales
Balling out, broke as hell, free at last
Back to jail, candy paint
Candy amps, candy canes
Can he pass? Can he reign?
I’m generally fascinated by all linguistic expressions, inclusive to fiction, poetry, even law, but in particular: true hip hop.
Let’s rewind the tapestry a couple hundred years.
If you wanted to tap into the pulse of rural America in the 1700’s or 1800’s, you asked to read people’s poetry.
People engaged their minds composing verse while toiling in the fields or within their small homes, and some of their expressions were better than others, but in sum they expressed the on-the-ground zeitgeist.
Add to a large boiling pot the call-and-response of slaves; the practice of singing in rounds at church; the influence of jazz circa 1920–1960; and everything else, because why not?
You grasp the weaponized linguistic inevitability of hip hop.
They say my temple is a magnet
My brain is a gadget
Yeah my soul is a rapture
This that opposite attraction
I got opposite intentions
I got positive incentive
I should rob a nigga senseless
I hope them cops’ll get defensive
My grandfather Henry (my “granddad”) would seat me on his lap and implore me to really dig in and listen to the lyrical mastery of Ella Fitzgerald.
He’d explain that the version of the song we were listening to was merely a single sample of a “song” that boasted as many different versions as times it had been played.
His words created rooms within my imagination, and these rooms were illuminated by the realization that Ella Fitzgerald delivered her contribution as if the song had been played a million times, when alas: the musicians were engaged in an act of improvised art that only marginally honored how the song would be played.
Likewise, he’d taught me to really dig in and explore Billy Holiday’s breathtaking depth of expression when she’d sing “Strange Fruit;” a song that left each time so emotionally ragged that she’d only sing it as her final song, and even then: reluctantly.
Who told you right is wrong in your eyes?
Who said wrong is right with no lies?
They said I was wrong the whole time
Turn them lights off its show time
Who told you there wasn’t no God?
Who told you that I don’t know God?
Who told you that I don’t go hard?
And then there’s Nina Simone.
My eldest twin is named in her honor. Words don’t do her justice. Just listen to her, and then Listen for the manner by which the seeds of her investments are still bearing fruit, years after her death.
So it is with hip hop.
My youngest son Isaac and I played a game for years where we’d slap the phone down and play a song. The other would have to name the hip hop artists’ region as well as their influencers.
What we listening for is the lyrical flow, as well as the transcendent quality of their words to convey an experience that’s typically so traumatic that it defies direct expression.
Lyrical flow is something like dialect within ordinary speech, like how some people say “you guys” vs “y’all.”
But the application of verse is what really distinguishes a true master of the form, and the rarified few are those who likely study and make liberal use of the thesaurus.
I acknowledge there’s a lot of shit rap out there in the world. I find much of it completely unlistenable to be honest, but isn’t the same true of honest-to-God country music vs the pop music tripe that’s packaged as “country” that dominates the airwaves?
Dig into the lyrics of those considered the best and you are afforded an opportunity to read the diaries of those who are closest to our communities pulse.
You’ll find ample nuance, which makes way for solutions that most may consider unimaginable.
Speaking to Joyner Lucas’ song “Opposites Attract,” which I consider to represent the form’s high water mark.
I wrote a paper in political science that illustrated how those who lodge themselves at the extreme end of any polarizing issue have more in common with one another than they do with the majority of folks who mostly don’t care and just want a non-chaotic life without drama.
The “spectrum” is therefore an illusion; it’s more like a loop, with declared enemies back to back, unable to defuse their attraction to their peers that just so happen to be enemies.
Cain and Abel, fam.
Fuck your opinion nigga I’m grown
They don’t like the shit that I’m on
Can’t accept the fact that I’m grown
Just accept the fact that I’m on
Ain’t no evil practice in here
I got Jesus all in my bones
I got angel wings on my back
I got 808's on my track
Shit I been wanting this for so long
It’s just that simple; it’s brother against brother, while most of us are waiting for the fighting to stop so we can get back to sitting in the shade and enjoying the sounds of our children laughing.
This is why I’m working to hard to prepare a table so we can feast, so to speak, and making room for all, including those that are declared enemies.
I can discern the hope for this feast while listening to the modern day poetry that flows like a flood from the streets.