Reading Songs & Raps: Examining Poetry in Other Mediums

I recently watched a clip of Poetic Justice, a romance released in 1993. It tells the story of a young black female poet named Justice, played by Janet Jackson, suffering from depression after the murder of her boyfriend and coping only in her poetry and now a budding relationship with Lucky, a mail carrier played by Tupac Shakur. Justice’s poems in the film are those of Maya Angelou’s which Justice recites throughout the film such as “Alone” and “Phenomenal Woman” which are accompanied by media images of Justice’s life in South Central LA. Often the poems are not recited or even followed by with words on a page but simply recited ominously with background music of soft jazz. Then I began to wonder about all the forms poetry can take that go past just writing in journals and anthologies or premiered in stage readings in galleries. What really is poetry and what forms can it take?

Poetry is defined as: writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. Yet this definition left me wondering about all the spaces in which poetry became more than just writing and has lifted off of the page and taken on by other mediums, such as film or song. Then, could other mediums such as film and song be considered poetry? I became familiar with one spoken word poet, J. Ivy, on Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam, a television show that appeared on HBO between 2002 and 2007 featuring spoken word poets and established artists throughout the country. There, J. Ivy recited a poem titled “Never Let Me Down.” It can be read or seen:

This poem, written in 2002, was then featured as and its themes went on to create the song “Never Let Me Down” on hip hop artist Kanye West’s freshman album College Dropout, released in 2002. Now what was once a poem is now a song.

Poetry and songs are different mediums yet have some similarities.  Dick Weismman states that poems are meant to be read and songs are meant to be sung:  “Poetry has a formality of language that would appear incongruous in popular songs. Outside of modern-day poetry ‘slams,’ where public performance is the writer’s primary outlet, poems need to work on the page.” Other differences is that poems can be of any length while song lyrics should be concise, a poem can stand alone without music while a lyric must work well with the rhythm, and poems are a composition of structurally complex ideas.

However, is this a limited way of thinking about poetry? Yes, maybe poems do start out on the page, but when they take on new forms such as on stage, in a movie, or song, the poetry takes on a new life, new expressions, and possibly new audiences, yet are still poems. But,  poems and songs do have some similarities. Both poems and songs rely on strong imagery, engage its audiences on an emotional level, and utilize devises such as rhyming, metaphors, and use of word sounds. So what happens when a poem takes on qualities of songs such as in “Never Let Me Down” in that here it is no longer on a page but performed along with a human voice and music? What happens if poems are recited now along with strong media images, and connect with its audiences such as in Poetic Justice? Thus, I think we could look at Poetic Justice as a type of poetry in that like poetry it takes on a rhythmic composition to express ideas. Could Kanye West’s song “Never Let Me Down” be a poem as well? Therefore, we can open up to different ways of looking at poetry and different art mediums that can be poetry.

If there are similarities and differences between songs and poems, rap lyrics can be analyzed the same way. Rap is defined as a rhythmic chanting often in unison of usually rhymed couplets to a musical accompaniment. While some have traced rapping to a historic African American oral tradition such as verbal dueling (read more about the African American oral traditions), today rapping is a feature of Hip Hop culture and it represents very much a piece to be performed. However, although meant to be relayed to audiences through music or on stages, raps start off often as written words encompassing complex ideas, vivid imagery, and poetic devices such as metaphors, rhythm, etc. Yet often rap lyrics get overlooked as not true poetry. In a HipHopDX interview for his book Decoded, Jay Z states: “I hope readers take away from this book that rap is poetry. It’s thought-provoking; there’s thought behind it …  there’s great writing in rap as well. You never hear rappers being compared for like the greatest rap writers of all time. You hear Bob Dylan. So is Biggie Smalls in a Hitchcock way. Some of the things that Biggie wrote… Rakim, I mean, listen to some of the things he wrote, if you take those lyrics and you pull them away from the music and put ‘em up on the wall somewhere and someone had to look at them, they would say, ‘This is genius! This is genius work!'”

J. Ivy "Never Let Me Down" Original Piece

J. Ivy “Never Let Me Down” Original Piece

Although I would not call every song or rap lyric a poem nor would I call every songstress and rap artist a poet, J. Ivy is a poet in the song “Never Let Me Down” but his role in the song can be raps as well. Raps are often referred to lyric poems but organized into verses, the standard length of which is 16 lines. Performed most often in rhythm to a beat, the most distinguishing poetic feature of rap is rhyme. While some do equate rap to a type of slam poetry, in The Anthology of Rap, there are still differences between rap and poetry. First, rap, as previously stated is an African American oral tradition, that took shape in the south Bronx in the 1970’s while slam poetry came from audience-judged competitions in white working-class Chicago bars during the mid-1980’s, and spoken word encompasses both.  Still, rap’s lyrics can be seen as a type of oral poetry: “Rap’s oral poetry expresses itself in sound through performance even as it retains its connection to the page … Rap songs almost always begin the same way: as lyrics written in an MC’s book of rhymes.” Then, as many songwriters and rap lyricists never get deemed as great writers or poets, KRS-One had this to say: “MCs, hip-hop’s masters of ceremonies, are its literary artists. They are the poets and rap is the poetry of hip-hop culture.”

In the end it’s about the language in which when isolated from the music, other meanings and sounds can be seen that are poetry to its audience. Thus, we can open ourselves up to the poetry that resonates in other mediums such as songs and films. One of the reasons that many differences exist between songs and rap lyrics from poems is because so much focus is put on their delivery. Nonetheless, most all start off on the page but because of the way it is relayed to audiences whether with music, on stages, in films, etc. what is focused is not on the composition of verses such as in other poems but its form of delivery. Chuck D once quoted:  “Many Hip Hop lyricists have jewels woven deep down in the meanings of certain songs, but the whole duty of Hop Hop is firstly, writing, and secondly, to get the song across, and a lot of times artists are more focused on how to get it across so that the substance, reasoning, and metaphors that have been written into the rhymes get over-looked.” But when stripped to down to its composition, its poetry is all the same. So lets take in all the poetry in our lives. What do you think: can we look at art forms as poetry despite its delivery?

Comments

  1. i cant watch the video for some reason.. pls assist

  2. music is the best thing in the world.. i cant imagine life without it