One of the highlights of working in academia is the privilege of teaching creative writing classes. One of the first assignments I usually give is something I call “Artistic DNA”, where I ask students to list the 10 biggest creative influences in their lives. It can be stuff from the distant past all the way up to something that blew their mind the night before, so long as it really gets their heart pumping. I ask them to write 2-3 sentences explaining how they encountered that source, what about it inspires them, you name it. For the record, I usually return the favor – after all, if I know where they’re coming from, it’s only fair for them to hear what drives me too!
After a little while, though, I noticed a curious trend – students almost never listed any rappers or hip-hop groups as influences, or if they did, half of their write-up consisted of apologizing for it. Students who didn’t blink about writing up their love for torture porn horror franchises, sex-saturated HBO shows or video games with more violence than a couple of World Wars, nevertheless felt compelled to do the written equivalent of starting at their toes and muttering apologies. And this is an assignment I give out on the first or second day, so other than my basic appearance – youngish, white & nerdy, thankyewverymuch – I don’t think I’ve given them any reason to believe I’d disapprove of rap or hip-hop.
What broke my heart the most about it was that I’ve seen a number of talented poets, not to mention students with definite poetic potential, yet very few of them are familiar with even a handful of hip-hop artists, aside from what they’re aware of as part of larger popular culture anyway. Obviously, knowledge of hip-hop or any particular musical discipline isn’t a requirement for being a good poet – though the idea of Emily Dickinson throwing down with John Donne in a freestyle battle has definite appeal – but it seems like a particularly terrible loss that a lot of students are embarrassed to even talk about it, let alone admit that they might enjoy it. Especially with poets, who are writing in the middle of another incredibly vital, experimental and explosive phase in the history of the discipline. Because honestly? Some of the best poets working today do it from behind a mic, backed by a beat.
Crazy, right? But you’d be hard-pressed to top a lot of rappers when it comes to an intuitive understanding of manipulating words and sounds, playing with complex schemes of rhymes and repetitions, making smart references and allusions, and otherwise displaying elements of – wait for it – great poetry. Whether or not you love the subject matter – and if you think hip-hop is all gangsta rap or glorification of material excess, hit me up and I’ll hook you up with some serious thinkers who happen to have their lectures on records – it’s hard to argue with the fact that I’d take a talent like Eminem or Nas over a lot of other modern poets without hesitation or apology.
Uh oh. I said the “E” word.
I remember the first time I mentioned in class that I listen to Eminem. I got a lot of blank looks – ok, I get those sometimes anyway – and some actual, no fooling, jaw dropping. It prompted a great discussion, where we talked about separating the artist from the work, or understanding the enjoying an artist doesn’t mean that you endorse all of their personal beliefs. Just in case anyone is unclear, though, let me state it again for the record: I’ve never followed Eminem’s personal life, and there are things in his lyrics I definitely don’t support: drug use, homophobia, and misogyny, just to start. But I watch a lot of Scorcese movies too, and it doesn’t mean I approve of the Mafia or the brutal violence endemic to their culture. And I wouldn’t let my young cousins listen to a lot of his stuff, at least until they were old enough to separate fiction from reality. (See? Apparently even I’m not immune to some need to make apologies when this subject comes up.) Which is ridiculous, because if you sit back and listen to Eminem, just hear the way he weaves his words, finds rhymes in unlikely places and drops allusions from way out of left field, you realize a simple truth:
The kid is a damn fine poet.
That’s it. There’s really not much else to say, except perhaps to add he’s certainly not the only one. I think it’s a shame that there’s such an odd stigma on it, especially considering its popularity- students never hesitate to list other styles of music, or really any other form of entertainment, but rap and hip-hop exist in this curious hole in the world. They love listening to it, but feel it will somehow diminish their standing to admit it, when in actuality it’s like any other art form, with plenty to teach you if you listen. Sure, like any art form it has its vapid practitioners, but there’s a lot of it worth fighting for. Go ahead. Take a listen.