Ah, poetry. It is an art form commonly thought of as pure and sophisticated literature – composed as it is of eloquently worded phrases, melodic sounding SAT-words, and clever literary devices. And what of the poet? Of course, one might think he spends his time in solitary contemplation, gazing deeply at the scenic landscape before him, trying to grasp hold of how exactly that dandelion over yonder is an ironic portrayal of humankind’s lack of moral principles.
Rap, on the other hand, according to many, is completely different form of expression. It is only a crude form of music to accompany gyrating hip-hop dancers. Oh, and it’s only written and performed by African-Americans/younger people/insert-your-stereotype-here.
Obviously there exist misconceptions about poetry, about rap, and even about whether rap is poetry. There are those who debate this issue, and many who adhere to the aforementioned stereotypes, with their delusions uncontested. Well that’s about to change. Below is a list of four common fallacies that many perfectly rational people believe in, as well as a refuting argument that explains why, exactly, rap should be considered as poetry.
1. Poetry has been around for ages; yet rap is a relatively new art form.
This is a fair point. Poetry is indeed an ancient art, believed to have preceded literacy. However, early poetic works were in fact orally recited or sung aloud – thus bearing a striking resemblance to what we now call rap. Rap may indeed be a truer form of poetry than some of the written works we study today by poets such as the famously suicidal Sylvia Plath (who stuck her head in an oven), or the aptly named William Wordsworth(who must have had remarkably prescient parents).
2. Rap is simply an uncontrollable outpouring of emotion, while poetry is concise and immaculately worded.
Okay, it’s easy to see where people might be coming from here. A lot of rap does seem to be just a trail of words and thoughts repeating themselves, sometimes excessively. However, repetition is a literary device, and when utilized correctly, can add meaning in order to assert a striking message.
The bigger problem with these misconceptions is that most people believe poetry to be a rigidly structured piece of art, when in reality, as Wordsworth said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
Couldn’t this definition, from a poet nonetheless, be applicable to both art forms? Could not the word “rap” be used in place of the word “poetry” in Wordsworth’s quote, and fit just as well? Essentially, even in these modern times, one art form is often regarded as a beautiful piece of literature while the other is looked down upon as an unsophisticated work without literary merit. This, despite the fact that both of these forms of expression do exactly the same thing: express inner emotions.
3. Rap isn’t deep. Poetry is.
What exactly constitutes “deepness”? If referring to literary devices, plenty of rap songs use them. For example, these lyrics by Lil’ Wayne in the song “Forever”: "Life is such a f***ing roller-coaster, then it drops. But what should I scream for, this is my theme park."
A metaphor! But not just a metaphor – a metaphor that speaks about life. Deep. Even more profound lyrics however, can be seen in “N.Y. State of Mind,” a song written by Nas: “I never sleep ’cause sleep is the cousin of death."
Wow. This simple revelation is chock-full of meaning: the notion of personifying death as having a familial relation to sleep is also actually present in Homer’s Iliad. Essentially, Nas tries to describe his innermost feelings about his restless state of mind: his surroundings, his circumstances, and perhaps even about society as a whole. If that isn’t deep, then what is?
4. Writing poetry requires more technical skill than writing rap.
This idea is rooted in the perception that rap is often grammatically incorrect. While true, it does not mean that rap requires less skill to write and perform than does conventional poetry. Why? As was just mentioned, rappers must write as well as perform. The poetry that most people think of is usually read – but rap is performed, or accompanied by music, and is a raw, live performance full of tone and passion from the rapper. Because the medium through which the audience can enjoy these art forms is different, the style of composition should be adjusted as well – allowing for rap to possess an oral, more colloquial tone.
Overall, rap may be an understated and misunderstood art form. Yet these diamonds-in-the-rough represent the very essence of what poetry really is. Rap doesn’t just exist on a page – there’s something about it that insists on being spoken out loud. After all, rap as a form of poetry takes a hard look at the world around us, and speaks to us, more honestly than ever, about its realities.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Yvonne Chen, a student at the International School of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
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