Hip-hop as poetry
The following discussion of literary language in popular culture is an excerpt from the paper: “Verbal art across language and culture: Poetry as music” that appeared in Neohelicon, v. 48, n. 2, pp. 539–552 (2021).
Among the expressions of verbal art in popular culture today, we find the clearest example of how poetic forms travel across culture and across languages in particular: how the different styles of hip-hop emerging in the United States during the 1970s have taken root around the world. Prominent exemplars of English-language hip-hop are perceived and appreciated (“apprehended” in the sense of “grasped”) by speakers of other languages independent of the processing of meaning. Its wide popularity can be accounted for by the structural attributes of poetic expression. Similarly to how listeners receive related artistic genres not performed in a language they understand (e.g. other kinds of aesthetic language, ritual and ludic speech, religious recital), English-language hip-hop became popular because of the sound pattern features that poetic language shares with music. In the example we are considering here, it draws heavily on these shared components, (significantly) more so than typical modern literary poetry, written for print publication.
Importantly, the critical medium can be none other than the human voice regardless of whether or not the audience understands the language of the text and independently of whether or not instrumental accompaniment is involved. Without exception, local rappers began at the same time to compose in their native language. No other poetic genre in modern times has generated a similar level of participation internationally, especially taking into account the creative activity of non-professional performers. Indirect evidence of the latter can be found in the audio and video uploads on the various internet platforms, readily available to researchers.
The study by Bradley (2009), in its second edition, is the most comprehensive analysis of this popular verbal art form that takes the approach that it is best understood as poetry.(1) Specifically, the main idea of the book, taken as a whole, goes further: that hip-hop can be studied as a poetic form from the point of view of how poetry is customarily perceived and defined, both historically and in the modern day. The historical legacy is an important starting point to which subsequent chapters return: the European poetic traditions in convergence with their counterparts in the African diaspora from their point of contact during the 17th century. While hip-hop itself emerges during the same years of modern experimentation in the (written) literary tendencies of the 20th century, it appropriates closely the cultural inheritance of traditional verse beginning with that of the early bards as it has been preserved in the ancient manuscripts, canonical anthologies, recorded oral tradition and ethnographic transcription.
Strong stress meter and the prolific use of the different types of sound repetition are recovered from previous epochs to serve the requirements of composing for direct performance. As a recovery of “ballad meter” or “common measure”, according to the study’s argument, it resonates with listeners in all cultures because these traditional features of poetry are fundamental in some way. Extending the argument slightly (i.e. not explicitly proposed in the study, but compatible with its theoretical approach), “fundamental” here implies a universal access among individuals in all cultures to underlying competencies specific to poetic language. The regularity of hip-hop sound repetition in close synchrony with its rhythms, in the correlation of voice and the beat of the instrumental track, accounts for the driving energy of compositions when they are performed. Taking the example, for comparison, of the nineteenth-century poem “Annabel Lee,” it could be said that Edgar Allan Poe “…has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once” (p. 28). Predictability, then, provides a platform for innovation on other levels, composers experimenting with the limits of syncopation for example (pp. 5–6). If most of these observations can be shown to be empirically plausible, the genre deserves attention in future cross-cultural and historical research, one starting point being the vestiges of griot narrative poetry and the continuing influence of traditional poetry in general (Finnegan 2012), composed not primarily for publication but for recitation, today, more often, for an online audience.
Rhyme in cadence is the central feature that hip-hop poetry appropriates from music, the most common form of the early composers being the couplet (rhyming scheme: aabb). From a foundation in predictable sound pattern, with time, verses came to contravene expectation with greater and greater variation –“balance” of one kind licensing “imbalance” of another. But in all cases, the regularity of rhyme and rhythm are preserved in a way that sets it apart from almost all of modern literary poetry. While the latter is also distinguished from prosaic language by its recourse to musical features, the former exploits these resources so explicitly and comprehensively that we usually call it rap music. The concluding sections of the chapter on rhyme describe how recent trends among composers implement the many different categories and sub-types of this class of repetition, with examples that are typically processed by listeners, perceived, below awareness (pp. 44–71). Parallelism, implemented in all the relevant domains where language and music overlap, is an ever-present aspect of poetic language. It comes forward more proximately in verses composed with performance in mind.
Hip-hop verse, when it is not sung, typically recited (with, for example, instrumental accompaniment that is sometimes composed to a scale) would then form part of the larger family to which spoken-word poetry belongs. Authors of spoken-word poetry have alluded to this family relationship. At the same time we should take into account the combined form (analogous to codeswitching in bilingual speech), in which rap composers and performers insert, or switch to, melodic phrases, as in the following example from Brazil featuring the indigenous hip-hop group Oz Guarani (insertion at 3:17). Thus the broader genre, to which hip-hop belongs, includes recitativo secco, Sprechstimme and scatting. A comprehensive survey internationally, in particular counting the vast corpus of unpublished performance by young people, solo, duo or trio without accompaniment, will probably show that the greater part of the total production is exclusively spoken-word style recital, as in a (poetry) reading: consider the examples of raperos with access to fewer technological resources than Oz Guarani, reciting in Pemón (Venezuela) and Nahuatl (Mexico). Thus, the important distinction would lie in the quality of the performer’s vocal production, typically non-melodic recital, allowing of course for hybrid or bi-modal expression incorporating melodic insertion. (2)
(1) McWhorter (2008) and Rose (1994) are studies of hip-hop, among many others, that focus on the thematic content of compositions, a topic that needs to be deferred for another occasion. In both cases, nevertheless, the authors call attention to its defining poetic features. On a different note, the interesting case of visual poetry (also known as concrete poetry), notably not restricted to experimental works of the present day, we also need to set aside (especially the special case of pieces that cannot normally be recited), also for different reasons (Francis 2017).
(2) While notable examples of hip-hop incorporate melody (singing of tonal passages set to a musical scale — recall the insertion of melodic singing in the piece by Oz Guarani), the focus of discussion in this section is on the more typical metered speech pattern of rappers’ recitation. The aspect of hip-hop composition that is of interest here is the formal structure of poetic language that makes it “suited for chanted cadence as opposed to singing” (Bradley 2009: xxxiii).
Bradley, A. (2009). Book of rhymes: The poetics of hip hop. Civitas Books.
Finnegan, R. (2012). Oral literature in Africa. Open Book Publishers.
Francis, N. (2017). Bilingual and multicultural perspectives on poetry, music and narrative: The science of art. Rowman & Littlefield.
McWhorter, J. (2008). All about the beat: Why hip-hop can’t save black America. Gotham Books.
Rose, T. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Wesleyan University Press.
I extend my deepest appreciation to Kent Johnson, Ishmael Munene, Moussa Tankari and Frédéric Voisin for previous consultations related to this topic.
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