Much has been written about rap as poetry ("Bring the Noise" stands as an excellent example of dactylic meter and is rich with rhyme, allusion, and imagery), and I do not wish to pursue that topic. What interests me is the alternative--poetry as rap. Many MCs refer to themselves as poets, or refer to their lyrics as poetry, but very few of them come from a background of poetry first, and I'm wondering if this wouldn't help revitalize both poetry and the hip-hop community, and help to bring poetry to a wider audience.
The obvious precursors are performance poets, specifically those of the 1960s (The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron), who infused poetry with music on albums that sold quite well. Other examples include NuYo Records/Mouth Almighty run by Bob Holman in the 1990s. However, these examples are few and far between, and more often than not, the Grammy category of "Spoken Word" is bereft of poetry in its nominations.
Why is this?
The first, and most obvious argument is that "poetry doesn't sell." Labels don't put out poetry CDs because poets aren't famous enough to sell them, which leads to a dearth of options for the consumer public. I question this argument because CD (and now mp3 and other digital formats) have become so easy that anyone with access to a decent computer can put together a few tracks.
The other argument, and one that I think bears some merit, is one of promotion. Poets are notoriously poor at promoting themselves and their art. Famous for it, even. While albums and books often have media campaigns--advertising, videos, etc.--poets and poetry seem to relegate themselves to live sales only. Beyond gigs at coffee shops and bookstores, and possibly a facebook announcement or similar, we do very little to promote ourselves in the way that other artists, specifically musicians, do.
However, there are exceptions, and I think we can learn from these poets. One that comes to mind is the slam poet Black Ice, who released an album in 2006 on Koch Records. Originally a slam poet, he was noticed by Russell Simmons, performed on Def Poetry Jam for five seasons, starred in the Broadway production of the show, and in 2004, broke into hip-hop by featuring on two albums. In 2006, his own album The Death of Willie Lynch was produced. While a majority of the album is straight forward rap, there are a few tracks that feel less like rap and more like poetry. For example, "The Ugly Show," which Black Ice originally performed as a poem, is performed on the album with a strong beat. However, Black Ice often flows off beat, performing the poem as one would a poem, then brings it back to the rhythm of the music:
While his album The Death of Willie Lynch would probably be ignored as spoken word and seen as rap, it does show the potential that poetry can have to reach a wider audience than simply those who are used to coming to poetry readings.
At the beginning of National Poetry Month, I am caught up by the wave of poets and the flurry of activity on social media focused on poetry. Libraries are offering poetry programs, poets are offering "poem a day" challenges, and poets are filling their blogs and Facebook pages with new work. This is exciting, to be sure, and I would hope that this energy continues beyond April, but I constantly find myself wondering if it's getting to the right audience. How can we take this energy and this work, and bring it to the wider public? What can we learn from other genres, such as rap, in terms of marketing and promotion? What are your thoughts?