How do we as readers account for the distance between rap and poetry? Often times, rap music is thought of as being more accessible because we hear it on the radio, television, and other social settings. Poetry, on the other hand, is sometimes seen as foreign or inaccessible because of language barriers, complex allusions, and other literary devices used to tell a story.
In Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, Adam Bradley explains, “most people associate poetry with hard work; it is something to be studied in school or puzzled over for hidden insights.” He continues, “Poetry stands at an almost unfathomable distance from our daily lives, or at least so it seems given how infrequently we seek it out.” Bradley’s explanation of poetry relates to several fields of African American literature where presumable outsiders struggle to decipher references and language that is more common to discourse insiders.
In the case of poetry, explanations of the cultural context, historical references, and language features can help clarify for readers the importance and artistic merit of More than that, the “flow” of black poets becomes more apparent as readers can better understand how writers weave together historical references with word-play to create different stories or images.
Recently, I have been working with a group of colleagues at the Project on the History of Black Writing to increase the number of black poems on the RapGenius website. The goal is to promote the literary significance of African American poetry in the context of a larger project on rap music. Similar to the mission of RapGenius to provide commentary on lyrics that are thought to be obscure or coded, I have focused my attention on annotating poems that are frequently used in classrooms settings.
The annotations play a key role in how readers gain access and apply the content to his or her understanding of poetry or rap. The descriptions provide enough detail to give those who aren’t as familiar with the language of the poetry enough content to comprehend the work. At the same time, the descriptions are concise enough that they do not serve as the final verdict on a poem’s interpretation; but instead, the descriptions can spark larger conversations about the significance of language, history, narrative, or linguistic styles.
Kenton Rambsy is a graduate student in the English department at the University of Kansas, where she works with the Project on the History of Black Writing.
• A Notebook on RapGenius