Is There a Place In American Poetry For Hip Hop?

Some of y’all know that my poetry deals with African American music. Though I’m primarily known as a blues poet, all forms of Black music and how these affect our culture and who we are as a community have been a preoccupation of mine for a while.

An essay of mine, “Blues for Tar Baby: The Problem of Contemporary Black Hip Hop Poetry” was just published by The Kenyon Review Online. Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

“Because there always has been an exchange between black music and black poetry, the question one must ask is, when well meaning contemporary black poets use hip hop music as a point of departure and continue adding to the oral tradition in their own way, must they also continue to perpetuate the misogynist stereotypes (at worst) or deny or avoid female complexity or presence (at supposed best)? That is to say, must they engage in a battle only between men where women must be silent bystanders who sometimes get beat down in the process?”

You can read the rest of this piece at The Kenyon Review Online by clicking this link. Y’all know I always speak my mind, so when you finish reading,  let me know what you think by leaving comments here!

7 thoughts on “Is There a Place In American Poetry For Hip Hop?

  1. Thank you for writing this, Honorée. The following quote jumped off the page for me.

    “…black complexity does not necessarily equal black pathology or female silence–at least not all of the time.”

    I thought the AWP panel was the one from 2008. Here’s the description that I found on AWP’s site:
    “F142. “Don’t Call It a Comeback”: Re-birthing the Black Male Poet. (Gregory Pardlo, Major Jackson, Tyehimba Jess, Ross Gay, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Quraysh Ali Lansana) Precisely at a time in which colleges and universities are authorizing use of the term “crisis” in reference to the participation of black males in higher education, there appears the largest class of black male poets publishing in the mainstream since the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. What can we glean by analogizing the social condition of black male poets during this first decade of the millennium to that of the Harlem Renaissance that might help us understand the nature of crisis and rebirth?”

    In any case, I was wondering how “birthing” was an appropriate word choice when women actually give birth. There is the pattern of one woman, again, as you stated in your essay. A woman with a Ph.D. and several books. One man with a Ph.D. One who was working on a Ph.D. at the time. And another man with commensurate publications to the one woman on the panel. The pattern of “one woman in the crew” is VERY common, too common, in hip hop, and so much is predicated on her appearance and her skills. I’d like to say that this doesn’t impact literary and academic communities, but it does.

    I have also seen and heard how women of color made up many classes and workshops, but the number of publications and awards are not in sync with these literary apprenticeships/learning experiences that they acquire. This is also pointed out in the documentary “Who Does She Think She Is?” except it is in reference to women artists in various mediums.

    When I think of many of my students choose to listen to hip hop, they want to discuss the dynamics, dysfunctional and otherwise, in hip hop music and how it compares with and differs from their lives. They also bring up other examples like Jean Grae, whose work I admire, or Nicki Minaj, who I find problematic, but still admittedly charts her career as more in line with Lady Gaga than a master of crafting 16 bars.

    When we consider artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, or even other women in hip hop, who are very much woman, what women would support them in creating a more critical feminist dialectic? Do they have an audience that supports them like an Ani DiFranco fan base? I wonder… I think women do need to take a more active part in supporting and critiquing what they expect, instead of following the status quo. I’m sure you’re not the only person feeling this way, I know I’m not, but you’re definitely one of the few to articulate it in a public forum. This also brings up another question- How do women themselves support exclusionary and/or potentially damaging practices in language and culture?

    I’m glad that you wrote about this, and yes, we need to take all our vernacular influences and offshoots to the mat. The challenges should lead us to growing and forming a more inclusive poetic. Although I think the presence of hip hop in poetry is slowly growing, it has yet to fully chart its impact on how women perceive it and participate. For example, there are critical books by sisters like Tricia Rose, Gwendolyn Pough and Imani Perry. There’s an anthology that included one of my poems called “Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism”, but these books do not get the attention that they should to enrich the dialogue that your piece is initiating.

    • Tara:

      You’ve given me a lot to think about!:-) It’s my hope that Black poets–female AND male–will pass the word around about this essay, not because I think I am the Grand Poobah of Black Poetry (smile), but because we need to be talking about these issues of Black poetry in PUBLIC, not just grumbling about it in private among ourselves.

      My essay was about hip hop poetics versus blues poetics, and not the issue of the poetry career, per se, but your points are well-taken.

      I have noticed a serious anti-Black feminist/womanist sentiment in the Black poetry community in these early years of the 21st century, one that is very reminiscent of the Black Arts Movement. When I was younger (in the 90s), I was silenced whenever I tried to speak my mind about this sentiment among groups of Black poets, sometimes abusively silenced; now that I’m older and presumably accomplished, people give me the space to say what I’d like, but still, I am considered to be the solo Black feminist eccentric.:-) Then too, because I have accomplished a few things, I get the eye roll like, “Why are YOU complaining?”

      There is an atmosphere in our poetry community that we sisters should not complain about Black male sexism in public, and also the gender issues in some of the actual work; when we do complain we are charged with sour grapes because we aren’t making the same kind of money (and presumably, not working our hustles as hard as we should be). I’m not saying that I wasn’t drinking some tangy Mad Dog back in the day.:-) But now in my forties, I’m not jealous; I’m just concerned about the gender double standards, especially for the young sisters coming behind me.

      All I can do is raise these issues–as my Black female elders did before me. It’s time now for Black poets–again female AND male– to start writing thesis-oriented–yes, I said it–poetry criticism –and not just leaving that to the literary critics. It’s also time for us to raise those issues concerning the artistic glass ceiling for Black women.

      The issues of who gets published with what or who does or doesn’t win prizes–well, those will continue to be sticky issues, but I do think that if we throw shade on sisters trying to talk about the many facets of this poetry–from the actual poetics to career issues, etc.– then our poetry world will continue to exhibit the “sexist remix” we’ve seen in Black literature since the Harlem Renaissance.

      • I agree with all of this response too. I’m just feeling like there is a hesitance because there is a certain level of alienation and definitely moments of outright silence whenever someone addresses outside of a conversation between one or two people. I’ve also heard that “What are you complaining about?” even when I suggested women for jobs and helped them checks and readings.

        As far as hip hop, I think it is a mirror of what the larger culture is co-signing in so many ways. I hope more people respond to this too, especially since some people think hip hop, rather than empathy or just sharing your passions with students, is the only way to reach young people. I’ve been engaged with hip hop since before I was a teenager, but I know it wasn’t my only outlet. I think some people think that’s the only way to engage younger and mainstream audiences, and I don’t agree with that.

  2. Honoree, I perhaps will write a longer comment later. However, I am going to be using this text in my AF-AM lit class this coming semester. I have to thank you sister for bringing this home in a very coherent and engaging discourse that doesn’t shy away from the things that need to be talked about. Again borrowing from the preacher, let the church say amen.


  3. Some good points here, sister Jeffers.

    A lot of ground covered. Cool. I enjoyed reading. Oh, and I appreciated the idea of us trying to think more about feminism and the impact of sexism in discussions of hip hop and black poetry.

    I like poetry by Major Jackson and Kyle Dargan, and I agree that they celebrate hip hop in their work. I don’t necessarily review them as applying hip hop delivery styles so much, though. That’s not a knock on them either, just saying. In fact, that might be a good thing too to the extent that we are less likely to see the kind of sexism in the poetry of black (male) poetry than we would in many forms of rap music.

    But I wonder, beyond the more overt content that degrades women (and men) in rap music, if there’s something redeeming or at least appealing about rap delivery that we see very little of in contemporary poetry. Among other things, rappers, like blues singers and large numbers of singers in fact, are tied to rhyming in ways that average contemporary black poet are not. Do the ties to rhyming connect rappers to black folk culture in ways that contemporary poets tend to move away from?

    One of the most dramatic examples of the differences between a black rhymer and a black poet were on public display at Obama’s inauguration. Many (non-poet) commentators found Rev. Joseph Lowery’s *rhyme-ey* benediction appealing in ways that they did not find Elizabeth Alexander’s non-rhymed poem. Of course, the literary side of me found value in Alexander’s poem, but I was also very much aware of why large numbers of folks–for better and worse–found Lowery’s lil bit more poetic and entertaining, you know?

    Anyway, I only mention rhyming as a small but integral part of a larger discussion of rap and other black musical delivery styles that seems crucial to consider. I think we can appreciate the complexity and appeal of that delivery style while at the same time condemning problematic areas of rap’s content. Based on the quotation you provided from Komunyakaa, though, I could see why hip hop heads and established poets might tend to talk past each other and have unproductive conversations. One side would be interested in highlighting one side’s problems with little attention that side’s appealing (and admirable) features and innovations.

    Alright…thanks for getting us started to thinking more and talking more on these issues.

    • Hey Bruh Rambsy:

      Thanks for you thoughtful comments. One thing–you know Elizabeth Alexander is my girl!:-) And in addition to that, I thought her inaugural poem was superlative in terms of craft and FULL of music/rhyme. What it wasn’t full of was shameless pandering to people who don’t want to read.:-) Just a thought.

      Take care,

  4. i’m just visiting but it looks like when people leave you a comment…they really leave you a comment! whew some are of these are long i’m going to go back to the top and see if i can learn something

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