From Eazy-E to Jay-Z: Rap as Poetry
The first rap song I ever heard was Eazy-E’s Nobody Move, a song about the disgust a man feels when he discovers he’s attempting to rape a transvestite while robbing a bank. It was middle school, on a friend’s Discman before class.
I was not terribly impressed. I liked music that was somewhat offensive, but Eazy-E was taking it too far for my 12-year-old self. It made me a bit nervous.
Of course, in those days, white people were terrified of rap music. Perhaps they still are, in some circles.
We were being taught in school that gang violence was a big problem in our middle-class mostly white neighborhood. Gang avoidance was a big part of the curriculum in Social Studies class. And drug avoidance had a class all its own, with the D.A.R.E. program, where we learned how to deal with the hard-sell drug dealers who were supposedly going to force crack cocaine down our throats in some isolated corner of the schoolyard. All because of the influence of rap music!
Plus, there was obviously no question of listening to rap music at home: my parents were still suspicious of rock music’s ability to turn me into a Satan-worshipping murderer. Bringing gangsta rap into the family abode was just not an option.
Years went by. In about 2002, Linkin Park’s pathetic whininess killed “alternative” music for me, and I started looking in new directions for my music. Rap metal was a combination of two genres I didn’t want to see mixed, plus a whiny attitude that bothered me. Not that I was any stranger to whining: I was a champion at pathetic 19-year-old existentialism. I just didn’t find the whole thing glamorous enough to listen to music about it.
A few friends were listening to backpack rappers like Sage Francis, which was a welcome change. But the first rap CD I just couldn’t stop listening to was Party Music by The Coup. It made very little sense, linguistically: lines like “Every mark wants they scrilla back” didn’t become clear until I discovered Urban Dictionary years later. Still, there was something about The Coup that I loved. I had the feeling that Boots Riley was reading Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky just like I was, and making their art based on those ideas.
After The Coup, I started listening to Dead Prez, and at some point I a friend gave me a copy of The Grey Album. In the beginning, I was a bit disappointed that The Grey Album had so much Jay-Z and so little Beatles, but after a few listens I started to feel like I was onto something. I must have listened to that album a hundred times before I picked up some more Jay-Z.
Finally, this summer, I’ve gotten a copy of his book Decoded. He talks about rap culture, crack culture, and the story of his generation. How rap went from being persecuted by politicians and the media, to sitting down with Bill Clinton and finally to playing at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008.
One of his goals in writing Decoded, as he says, was to elevate his lyrics to the level of poetry. Which is a shocking idea at first, for us English Lit types: Could Money, Cash, Hoes be in the Norton Anthology someday?
But with a bit more thought it makes perfect sense: rap music uses internal rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other classic poetic devices. Jay-Z doesn’t reference the Iliad, as far as I know, but he does reference the Bible, and all rappers are constantly referencing the rap canon, whether it’s Big Daddy Kane or Chuck D, 2pac or B.I.G.
It probably seems strange to some people that I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Phoenix listening to rap. Literature, though, transcends race and geography: that’s what makes literature great.
Nobody ever says, “Who the fuck are you to be reading Anna Karenina? You’re not a 19th century Russian woman!” Nobody says, “Dude, get real! You’re WHITE!” to somebody who’s reading Mishima’s Japanese nihilism, or García Marquez’s magical realism. The reason that people keep reading those authors is because they create stories and characters characters that millions can identify with, even today.
When Jay-Z raps, it doesn’t particularly matter that he’s a black guy from Marcy Projects in Brooklyn telling his own life story: the power of the words makes it everyone’s life story. It’s a story about overcoming your obstacles and doing something great despite all odds. It’s a story about honor and transcendence. A story much more inspiring than the whininess and heartbreak that rock music likes to talk about these days.
So let’s get over rappers’ use of words like nigga and ho. Let’s remember that poets like Byron and Shelley were also hated by poetry’s mainstream back in their time, both for their scandalous lifestyles and the content of their poetry. Now they’re in the Norton Anthology. Why not today’s poets whose rhymes are heard by millions around the world?