I want to start off by saying that Hip-hop and poetry are two of my favorite art forms; I read poetry and listen to hip-hop every day. Although I've thought about the intersection between the two a bit, I feel like I've never fully considered it. It seems like something I should have pondered (and still should), as it could really benefit my writing practice.
My time with the anthology and with the BreakBeat Poets allowed me to think about the relationship between poetry and hip-hop formally and socio-politically. I'm so grateful to have been exposed to work that I probably wouldn't have come upon on my own (I specifically loved Safia Elhillo’s work and "Pluto Shits on the Universe" by Fatimah Asghar).
Yet when I was reading the introduction to the anthology, I noticed that almost all, if not all, of the hip-hop artists mentioned were male artists or groups that were part of rap's classical period (circa '79-'93). Later, when someone brought up the commercialization of the hip-hop industry, Medina mentioned that he believed much of the rap of today isn't any good, quoting "Versace" by Migos. He said that nowadays good, true hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar are few and far between. This kind of struck a note with me. There's this notion of high-brow (KRS-One, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, etc.) versus low-brow rap (Gucci Mane, Fetty Wap, etc.). I've gone back and forth— thinking, and then doubting, that there is some sort of hierarchy in terms of what is good hip-hop.
But who is to determine what is good hip-hop? What are the criteria?
I have come to believe that most, if not all, of hip-hop is valuable, save for tracks containing hate speech and the like. I think labeling certain styles of hip-hop as "enlightened," while claiming others are less respectable, boxes artists in and forces people to believe that one style of an art is inherently more valuable than the other.
I brought up this question of conscious/"backpack" rap versus other genres with the BeakBeat poets, and I believe we're on the same page. Still, I can't help but wonder if they truly view all rap as equal. For the record, I can't say I truly view all rap as equal, and I don't know if anyone does; it makes sense to view the stuff you started with and the work that really resonates with you as number one. But I wonder: What are the implications are of creating a hip-hop hierarchy, especially when it comes to taking cues from hip-hop and using them in other forms, such as poetry? Isn't there something to gain from the 808s of trap? Or the Last Poets' influence on gangsta rap? I know there's got to be, and I look forward to experimenting with it in my own work.
Which brings me to the next point I want to discuss: the writing workshop led by Medina, Elhillo, and Lansana during class time. They asked us to take several minutes to pen a poem about where we are from, like we were repping our roots in a hip-hop track. When I was told to think about where I'm from, I immediately wrote down "Simsbury," thinking about my hometown in Connecticut. But as I was writing, I realized that my thoughts about Simsbury have been greatly shaped by its relationship with Hartford, which is very near by.
At the 2000 census, Simsbury was 95.3% white. The median income for a family was $155,769 as of a 2011 estimate. At the 2010 census, Hartford was 29.8% white (whites not of Latino background, 15.8%). The median income for a family was $22,051. Unsurprisingly, there are racial tensions. And they were especially felt in Simsbury's public schools growing up. There is this (well-intentioned but ultimately fairly unsuccessful) program called the Hartford Region Open Choice Program, in which children/young adults from Hartford, chosen by lottery, attend public schools in neighboring suburbs.
You think it would go without saying that these students should be guaranteed the same quality of education as students several miles away from them. Yet, the impetus is put on the family to apply, maybe get in to the program, and then have to travel to and from school, a place where they are viewed as "other." As if it is somehow their job to acquire a quality education, while children in towns like Simsbury (read: white children with wealthy families) are entitled to it.
During my time at Simsbury Public Schools I observed so much ostracizing of students from the Choice Program and so many racially-charged microagressions.
I didn't think about it much in high school. In fact, I pretty much just thought about myself in high school. But in the last few years as I have attempted to grow my consciousness, I've been grappling with these dynamics and my role within them. I got to thinking about all of this during our writing workshop, and I ended up writing a poem for my Intermediate Poetry: Forms II class this week that both draws from hip-hop and from my experiences with racial tensions in Simsbury. The prompt was to write a blank verse poem, somewhat inspired by the work in Philip Stephen's The Determined Days. It’s a multipart piece, and I'm going to leave off by sharing the first section:
Let's play a game. What's whiter: paper, snow,
or boys with names like Dylan? Whole milk, skim
milk, soy milk, almond? Blank computer screens--
the ones on brand new iMacs—error four
oh four—or gauze? Before the blood and all,
I mean. Our denim-slathered asses sit
around the cafeteria table--
Rebecca, Emma, Dylan, Me. We slurp
the last of lunch's morsels with tired straws
and tired minds. We sound like crackling fire--
beneath an ornate mantelpiece, or cleansing
a modest home of life, or something. Kids
from Hartford sit behind us. One of them,
the tallest, ambles past, eclipsing us
with shadows cast by seemingly giant limbs.
Rebecca calls him King Kong. Laughing, feet
up, Dylan drinks his chocolate Muscle Milk.
Its brownness pools between his cheeks. He sucks
and sucks and sucks, still sucking once it's gone.