I feel like I’m a bit weird when it comes to poetry. I can’t really write it, I don’t read much of it, and my taste is very selective. There’s lots I like but mountains of stuff that I either detest or just makes me feel ‘meh’. I can appreciate some classic and acclaimed poems but then not really enjoy or connect with them emotionally. And sometimes I wonder what it is I’m missing.
Maybe, like me, you’re wondering why you don’t really get the whole poetry thing, and wondering if your maker forgot to load the plugin for it when you were being built. Perhaps, like me, you’ve really tried and you just found so much popular work… dare I say it?.. boring. Fear not. I have an idea.
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left
‘Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long
That even my momma thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it
Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of
You better watch how you talkin’ and where you walkin’
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk
If you grew up in the 90s you’ll probably recognise the opening stanza of Gangsta’s Paradise. The 1995 hit featured in the soundtrack for the film Dangerous Minds and if you don’t recognise the verse you’ll almost certainly recognise the chorus, which features a gospel choral musical arrangement. It’s one of the most mainstream and recognisable rap songs and a good place to start in the genre.
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down,
The whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s choking how, everybody’s joking now
The clock’s run out, time’s up, over, blaow!
Here’s another verse you might recognise. For the film 8 Mile, which featured Eminem as a struggling rapper trying to launch his career and escape his trailer park life. The rap, Lose Yourself, was the movie’s opening gambit and set the story in motion. Even if you’re not familiar with the song or the movie, you’ve probably crossed this track since it gets used frequently in everything from sports events, to TV, to speeches by celebrities, and even speeches by politicians.
“Yes, but rap is just angry noise about gangs and drugs and I ain’t down wit dat.”
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted away
Across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain
Well, the word got around, they said, this kid is insane, man
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came
And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait
When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed-ridden
Half-dead sittin’ in their own sick, the scent thick
And Alex got better but his mother went quick
Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside voice saying
Alex, you gotta fend for yourself
He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf
There would have been nothin’ left to do for someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on the bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man
You may not recognise this but if you’re American you might recognise the story. This is from the opening of the musical Hamilton. This rap tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s background in the Caribbean and also foreshadows the end of the show. It’s history. And it’s an example of the very best that the rap genre has to offer.
So why rap instead of poetry? Look at the examples above. They contain complex lyrical rhymes that are audibly and intellectually appealing. They create sharp visuals through the choice of language and they craft complex stories despite the brevity. Rap is just poetry with a beat.
Poetry is always better read out loud and this stuff is accessible – hit YouTube or Spotify or iTunes and you’ll be able to find these and thousands of others. They are interesting, and challenging, both in their construction and their message. Rap as always been a form that questions authority, status quo, and society’s values and morals. So if poetry isn’t really your thing, maybe try digging a little deeper into the rap songs you hear on the radio.