The other day my colleague Adrian Matejka and I were noting how "young" Rita Dove was when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987. She was about 35. Gwendolyn Brooks was even younger at 33 when she won.
The idea that an African American poet who wins a major poetry award like the Pulitzer in her early 30s is "young" has to do with the fact that so many of the big prizes and the substantial recognition go to poets who are typically older. Today, many of the most well-known African American poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Yusef Komunyakaa are in their 60s and 70s. Derek Walcott and Maya Angelou are in their 80s. That these and other black poets and poets in general have been active for so many decades explains why accomplished poets in their 30s can easily be viewed as, relatively speaking, young.
Age apparently matters different in rap.
Many prominent rappers distinguished themselves when they were in their late teens and early 20s. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking about Nas, who was 21 when his classic album Illmatic was released in 1994. Biggie was only slightly older at 22 when his album Ready to Die was released. Rakim was 19 when Paid in Full came out in 1987.
Interestingly, Jay-Z released his debut album Reasonable Doubt (1996) when he was 26, a somewhat older age for a major rapper. By the time Jay-Z was 34, however, he was publicly contemplating "retirement." Remember that? For years, rappers in their late 30s were routinely dismissed and ridiculed for being "old."
Jay-Z has been a central figure in the "rap as poetry" debate, and I wonder if his age (he recently celebrated his 42nd birthday) has something to do with the shift in the broader conversations concerning how and why hip hop verbal performance might be viewed as literary art. As Jay-Z ages, he and others are inclined to view rap as something beyond an adolescent male practice.
Perhaps their move to view rap as poetry has something to do with age. That is to say, a rapper like Jay-Z who's now in his early 40s is more likely to advocate that rappers are poets than he would have done in his 20s.
• Birth Years & Age Matters
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