Daily Archives: March 9, 2021

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The Poetry of Rap

As a mobile DJ back in my college days, I learned early on just how to keep the crowd moving by spinning (yes, vinyl records back then!) hip hop and rap hits. Whether it was a party anthem, like the “Good Times“-fueled “Rapper’s Delight” [YouTube links] by The Sugarhill Gang and the Old School street sounds of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaata (whose cousin was one of my best friends: RIP, dear Ronnie) or, later, Run D-MC and the Beastie Boys, it never failed to pack the floors at a school dance or a senior prom. Over the years, I wrote a few essays about rap (especially its relationship to improvisational art forms like jazz), including one on the controversial Eminem.

So I was very impressed by an article published in the March 7, 2021 issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, “Free Flow” by Adam Bradley, which focused attention on the ways in which rap artists were dismantling the barriers between rap and poetry, especially during “a renewed era of American racial reckoning.” Discussing everything from the nature of sampling, the role of improvisation and the use of literary allusions (going as far back to Homer and Shakespeare), Bradley writes:

[A] line of demarcation persists between rap and poetry, born of outmoded assumptions about both forms: that poetry only exists on the page and rap only lives in the music, that poetry is refined and rap is raw, that poetry is art and rap is entertainment. These opinions are rife with bias — against the young, the poor, the Black and brown, the self-educated, the outspoken and sometimes impolite voices that, across five decades, have carried a local tradition from the South Bronx to nearly every part of the world.


Yet today, a new generation of artists, both rappers and poets, are consciously forging closer kinship between the genres. They draw from a common toolbox of language, use the same social media platforms to reach their audiences and respond to the same economic and political provocations to create public art. In doing so, rappers and the poets who claim affinity with them are resuscitating a body of literary practices mostly neglected in poetry during the 20th century. These ghost appendages of form — repetition, patterned rhythm and, above all, rhyme — thrive in song, especially in rap.

The article is well worth your attention.