Monday, October 19, 2015

Rap vs. Poetry, an ongoing conversation

Students listening to rap and writing about poetry at the Charter School

I hope that my record of writing on poetry, on black poetry in particular confirms that I have love for the field. Full stop.

Working with high school students in East St. Louis has made me aware of some of the limits of poetry, especially in comparison to rap music. I know that on occasion we like to say that rap is poetry. I'm usually with that, but the extents to which so much canonical and contemporary poetry avoids concerns of black folks living in a low-income areas, for instance, give me pause.

Obviously, rap music is filled with problematic issues: violence, sexism, conspicuous consumption, and...well, the list goes on and on. At the same time though, somewhere in rap music, you have folks addressing hard times and struggle and even pain and poverty in ways that correspond to what the young folks I work with encounter. It's possible to read hundreds of poems and hear little mention of gun violence. You can't live in St. Louis and East St. Louis and avoid conversations about the effects of gun violence.

You can read the poetry and not hear about the hazards of the streets. That doesn't happen as much in rap and in general conversations with folks in the communities I reside.  There's concerted attention to the liveliness of the cultures, but also to the pitfalls of "these streets."

None of what I'm saying means that we should dismiss poetry. In fact, poetry often presents young folks with ideas and issues that they do not find in other places. But since I so often hear (and write about) what's good with poetry and the limits of rap, I think it's worth noting that there's a different story on the ground. It also stands out to me that some of the biggest advocates of poetry are silent about the genre's limits and indifference to low-income black folks.

A notebook on rap, hip hop

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