Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Poetry as Rap

     On February 28, 2004, poet Tim Seibles penned "An Open Letter," a rant and call to arms for poets everywhere. He ends with this: "I pray that those with the necessary instruments will soon bring the right noise." While not explicit, I've always seen this as a possible allusion to Public Enemy's 1987 single "Bring the Noise" which later appeared on their album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

     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?


RomanL said...

Modern musicians make their income not through records, but touring. You think poets could do it?

pottygok said...

This is a good point, but I'm wondering if there's a way that poets could do it. I'm thinking about bands that are local, bands that do occasional gigs on the weekends, peddling CDs, but are focused on a local area. These bands make a lot more money than a poet sticking to the local scene does, and I'm wondering if there's something we can learn from these bands.

That being said, I think there's a lot of energy behind music that isn't behind poetry, and I'm wondering how much of that is the poet's fault, and how much of that is general misconception, and how much of this can be conquered by the poets. Music has radio, venues, history, etc. behind it in a way that poetry doesn't. That being said, can poetry work within that framework, tap into those venues, and go from there.

For example, a bar band that plays covers often gets a percentage of the door in addition to a minimal base fee. Cover charge is $5-10, depending. What would happen if a bar, instead of hosting a band one evening, hosted a poetry reading? There are precedents for success (Nuyorican, Green Mill, etc.) and while these precedents are slam focused, I think it could certainly expand to support other types of poetry. However, it's up to the poets, themselves, to provide the energy and entertainment value that a band can provide, and I think that might be some of what I'm concerned with here. Poets seem to have forgotten their place or purpose, and we've lost some of our audience because of that.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

The cross-promotion does seem to be a good idea-- poetry along with music, with poets and musicians considered just part of a spectrum.
This does mean that poets need to produce work that the audiences want to pay to hear, though!
Music is inherently a performance art-- even if you're listening to a MP3 streaming from the web, you're listening to a performance. Poetry can be performance, but it also can work on the page-- you can get enjoyment from reading a poem, while very few people enjoy reading a musical score. (some... but few)


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau