Reconstructing Poetry via Hip-Hop: A review on The BreakBeat Poets Anthology

My favorite poetry anthology right now, and probably for the rest of the year is The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop. And let’s be real, it will probably be your favorite too.

This anthology is grounded in urban, spoken, and rhythmic areas of poetry, where many classrooms won’t dare touch. But, why is that? Why is it that these forms of poetry aren’t taught in classrooms? Well, before I really dig into that aspect, I have to talk about what this type of poetry does for younger poets living in areas where the educational system fails them. For one, it allows for a generation of expression. Many times because the educational system is set up in a way where people of color lives and voices are hushed, or rarely touched upon, students aren’t able to express their beliefs and frustrations they consistently go through. In addition to expressive relief, many are able to embrace a cultural aspect of themselves in relation to their communities where the classroom never touches. They can create, and evolve, and grow in their culture. They can reconstruct their culture. They can educate through their culture.

Yet, why does it take an anthology to do so?

Growing up, slam poetry, spoken word, rap, hip-hop, wasn’t seen as “academic,” (and is barely seen today as academic in plenty of educational institutions across the globe), but this anthology blurs these lines. Chicago is a huge hub for these types of poetic forms which gave Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, the perfect base to create a collection where younger generations can plainly see and understand that what they love, the culture they come from, is “academic.” It also reinforces the fact that their stories matter. Their communities matter.

Now, yes, this anthology is not rooted in queerness, however, as read the pages, as I flip through the pieces, queer writers are featured. Poets like Jericho Brown, Danez Smith, Aziza Barnes, and others are featured in this anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what does this say about the blur between hip-hop and poetry, and moreover the cultural aspirations of blackness (of color-ness) and queerness? Well, thank you for asking! The culture of hip-hop in relation to queerness is indeed a complicated one. One where if you are queer and wanted to embrace hip-hop publicly and acquire fame, you weren’t embraced easily or at all. The hip-hop culture seemed homophobic in every way possible. However, reading queer poets, poets that are changing the game of contemporary poetry and how we can use it to address ideas, morals, politics and turbulence our communities go through, I became extremely excited. In addition, I was proud to be represented in a space where queerness wouldn’t have been otherwise.

—–

“cue the gangsta rap when my knees bend” by Danez Smith:

because my mouth is a whip
& other times my mouth is a whip, you know

bass, rubber, leather seats detailed flame
you know, some comfy, show-offy shit

fit for music. because he whips me
around easy as Sunday, no church

or plate to get to, just cruise, just eight
oh, eight inches of tar

for me to glide & boom. because it’s a drug
& always violence & we hood all day

because my head bob the same, my spit be ready
to brawl. because the song need to have claws

& I need to ravage or revenge, either will do
what difference does a vowel make,

the only word my mouth cares for is O,
the only music the kind that bites.

—–

Going hand-in-hand with queerness and hip-hop culture, we have hip-hop culture and poetry. These two things are indeed sibling art forms. Since the birth of hip-hop, poetry has changed for the better and is continuing to blossom into a realized necessity in today’s educational system and art community. Many hip-hop artist such as Tupac, Common, Lauryn Hill, Wale, and many, many others, have created a space where hip-hop is synonymous with poetry and vice versa. However, the case is not the same in the classroom. Yet, it is not to say that someday it won’t be. Times are shifting to where the poetry taught in higher educational systems aren’t solely based on how well you can write, but now how the writing is read on the page. While in poetry workshops at Columbia College Chicago, I am frequently asked how do you want your audience to read this? Write how you want it to be read. Many of my instructors are now encouraging us to understand that reading your work aloud is just as skillful to writing your work.

—–

“post-white” by Evie Shockley:

my country tears of thee sparkling on a stiff gray bow tied against cognitive dissonance getting a)head holding it together keeping it really warm sweet land of basketball barbeque sweet potato pie and cadillac liberty crowned lady with a torch in her voice of(f thee i spring hopeful at last my love you’ve come a long way baby on the stony road we trod through this land where my fathers and mothers died on poplars in quarters under the lash and over the objections of the vocal few singing freedom oh freedom over me and the authors of declarations of independence finally appointed to positions of authority phillis wheatley with pen in hand and internationally recognized skill in diplomacy secretary of state frederick douglass who won’t dread scott’s claim of citizenship chief justice of the supreme court harriet jacobs master strategist speaker of the house music moving mountains i’d let freedom ring with the harmonies of liberty a work song hold it steady right there while i hit it reckon you oughta get it a tisket a tasket we drop-kicked that old basket mama’s got a brand new bag and say it plain from that day forward we were all hip hop you don’t stop being american.

—–

Coval states in his introduction:

I trust this book to be a piece of the growing discourse on how art can be used to create a fresher world, a useful tool to further and extend and generate conversations in classrooms and ciphers, on the corner, in the living rooms, in institutions, and in the renegade spaces young people carve out for themselves despite state control. This is a call with the anticipation of the undoubted response. Hip-hop has connected more people on the planet than any culture in the history of ever. This is a prayer book and a shank, concrete realism and abstracted futurism.

**You can purchase The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop anthology here.**

– Luther Hughes

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