It’s a question scholar’s have debated for centuries. At one point in history, the presence of rhyme was a necessity and essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but in modern times, most scholars argue that rhyming couplets, commonplace in Hip-Hop, are an outdated form of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but that’s the way I like it.
My schoolteachers tried to teach us what poetry was and passed judgement on everything we considered art in our younger days. Our music made no sense to the adults out of touch with youth. My dad said rap was crap. But I felt emotion and related to the poets blaring through my speakers. My English teacher changed my entire perception of my music and in turn, my future self-image. Let’s not exclude the bacronym Rhythm and Poetry.
Hip-Hop is Modern Poetry
Towards the end of my school years, I started to rap. I’d started writing rhymes early on, but my friends had started rapping, and I wanted to join in with them. I didn’t have much confidence or knowledge on how to start recording, so I brought a studio and two-track mixing deck. The dream didn’t last long. I recorded some rhymes, quit, changed my style and recorded again. I wasn’t a lousy rapper; I just preferred writing to recording and performing.
During my second year of university, I stopped rapping due to a lack of recording facilities, and a loss of interest in performing despite a mild taste of potential success. I’d recorded a 23-track mixtape, shot a music video with the help of William Steel, and reached the finals of a local talent competition.
Today, the mainstream celebrates rap but there was a sense back then, especially in England towards Grime and lyrical content that it was a sub-par genre. When I turned up to the singer-songwriter auditions, an older gentleman told me he doubted I’d get through rapping because no one wanted to hear it. That comment didn’t soothe my nerves.
The song I performed had a 45-second intro, and I stared out at a silent crowd as I waited with a dry mouth and shaking knees for the beat to drop. The intro included a chorus with a sped-up sample singing please don’t take my shine, my shine is all I have, and then the beat dropped. I started rapping.
They weren’t the greatest lyrics ever, at least not the best four-lined rhyming couplet I’ve ever written, but that’s the opinion of a writer looking back. Critical of himself, because self-improvement is the goal. However, my performance received a standing ovation from the judges and comments from my doubters about how happy they were that I’d proved them wrong. I was the last name chosen to go through and one of the judges, the towns police commissioner, named me as his favourite acts despite everyone’s doubts before the audience.
A few months later, I took part in the local finals but didn’t progress and gave up recording music shortly after. I didn’t want to perform. I wanted to write and started writing educational blogs with no success or real commitment until I discovered a spoken word artist on YouTube. Like me, George, the Poet used to rap but felt as though he’s lyrics were often overlooked in favour of a beat and decided to start performing spoken word.
That was it. I didn’t need a beat or fancy recording equipment. I started writing free verse and found a love for rhyme again. When I wrote the lyrics to Shine, I was focused on my desperation to make it as a rapper and a need to be recognised as a lyricist. By the time I’d started writing Spoken Word, my words spoke my recovery from depression and the difficulties I encountered after entering a relationship for the first time since I’d come off anti-depressants.
She’s so sweet, and I’ve got a heart of stone
So, if she’s half of me, I’m still half alone
But the last time I fell, it was to the bottom with rocks
And all I had by my side was a bottle of scotch
See somewhere along my emotions were cut
So, I make up the whole definition of love
I was reinvigorated, inspired by rap music and one spoken word artist. But I still didn’t want to perform. The solution was shorter pieces that I felt uncomfortable referring to as poems. I’d never read a poem before and wasn’t sure what it meant to call myself a poet. I grew up on Hip Hop, but people began commenting on my blog and praising my poetry. Then one of my favourite rappers reminded me that rap and poetry are one of the same.
Poetry and Hip-Hop
In the above video, Akala begins with a pop quiz, asking the audience to guess whether the quotes are from hip-hop lyrics or Shakespeare plays. Play along as you watch the video, the results may surprise you, but there’s a perception around Hip-Hop and rap lyrics due to media bias and the mainstream music videos that channels such as MTV rotated on a heavy loop. It feels as though there’s a bias towards the genre, but with its reliance on drugs, and gun references, it seems reasonable.
Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead
Queen, one of the worlds greatest bands sang on one of their greatest songs, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Or consider the Beatles drug binge imagery of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and its acronym title.
But when ice cube said fuck the police, the media storm raged and demanded a ban on rap. When Eminem asked kids if they liked violence, parents were outraged. When Tupac started screaming THUG LIFE, the press demonised him for glorifying the street life. But what Pac started was a movement that inspired a fantastic novel 20 years later. It’s a universal truth, The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. Thug Life.
No one can, or will, deny the impact bands like the Beatles and Queen had on music, but their lyrics weren’t scrutinised under a microscope as critics searched for a reason to ridicule their artistry. Sure, they had their critics, but hip-hop existed between two worlds. The streets and the world the rest of us lived.
But the times were changing
People who had nothing suddenly had a voice. When Ice Cube said fuck the police, it was in response to police brutality and a system that allowed the police officers who assaulted Rodney King to walk free without charge. When Tupac wrote Brenda’s Got a Baby, it was inspired by a story he read in a New York newspaper. Fourteen years later, The Game teamed up with 50 Cent on Hate or Love It and showed us that nothing had changed but time itself.
When there’s kids starvin’
Pac is gone and Brenda still throwing babies in the garbage
I wanna know what’s going on, like I hear Marvin
No schoolbooks, they used that wood to build coffins.
The problem isn’t Hip Hop and its lyrics, the problem is we don’t teach our kids how to be anything more than a failure. What we saw in the ’70s with punk, we saw in the ’90s with hip-hop and gangster rap, and I saw my peers criticised for breaking from a system built to keep them segregated within a class system benefiting the children of the elite. I’m reminded of one of my earliest lyrics when I wrote what I saw growing up and gave little thinking to my lyrical content.
For us, fighting’s a way to survive
But they see a weapon, we see a knife
They call it violence, we call it life
We call it home; they see danger outside
And that’s the reality. Rap didn’t create the problem of drugs or gangs, but it showed an ignorant society that it exists. That problems they considered fantasy or invented were real. Kids grew up around drugs and violence, and their music gave their stories a voice. A platform in which they could tell the world they existed and that poverty was real. There’s a lesson in the best poetry hip hop has to offer, but only if you care to listen.