Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Amiri Baraka's "Dope" in the context of rap freestyle

(Image source: Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images)

This semester, I'm teaching a course on rap freestyle, in particular, the course focuses on the masterpiece delivered by Black Thought in December 2017. In addition to discussing other rap songs and rappers, I'll coverage several different poets, including Amiri Baraka. For the class, I'll think about his riveting poem "Dope" in the context of freestyle.

I've returned to Baraka's "Dope" many times during the last several years, but I've almost always presented his poem in courses that privilege literary art, not rap lyrics. Among other things, the slow pace and relatively low dynamism adopted by a large number of poets during readings prompt disinterest from many students. Baraka is an exception.

He moves rapidly in "Dope." By my calculation, he utters about 186.6 words per minute. Many poets, especially those who adopt "poet voice," speak far fewer words per minute. According to various sources, average conversational speech is somewhere between 120 - 150 words per minute. Baraka captivates attention in his delivery in part because he moves faster than many poets and faster than the average speed of conversation, and he does so by speaking 875 words--quite a bit to deliver rapidly.

But there's more. Baraka's dynamism in the poem stands out. He adjusts the volume and intensity of his voice throughout the reading. He uses wordless phrasings, including ""uuuuuuuuuu" and "oooowow." So the pace, combined with the verbal dynamism and wordplay contribute to making the poem so mesmerizing for listeners.

A Notebook on the work of Amiri Baraka

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