Hip-hop, as a cultural phenomenon, has had unbelievable and fairly unmatched success.
What many were sure would be a passing fad has instead evolved into a movement that has seemingly unified the world with a common beat. What started as an urban response to life using five relatively inexpensive activities—rapping, DJing, breakdancing, graf writing and freestyling—has now blossomed into an international empire, with successful traction in the film, TV, and clothing industries, among many others.
Clearly, on a global scale, hip-hop is doing fine—with or without the poetry slam.
But on an artistic level, hip-hop has not received the academic validation achieved by its other musical peers. Meaning that calling Bob Dylan a poet in academic circles doesn’t raise as many hackles as calling Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G.) one.
On a surface level, it doesn’t seem like the poetry slam would make a good ally for hip-hop, as there has always been a certain level of perceived hostility between the poetry slam and academia. Poetry slam, in embracing the populist nature of its existence, can be seen as somewhat anti-academic, while academia, with its emphasis on rewarding lasting “important” work, can be seen as anti-slam.
But a growing portion of the poetry slam community—made up of slammers and devoted audience members alike—is becoming active in the academic world, either teaching or participating in MFA programs. The eagerness with which the poetry slam community has embraced and encouraged hip-hop poetry has translated, on an academic level, to an enthusiastic dialogue about hip-hop poetry in the classroom.
It has been said that traditional (i.e., white) academics are resistant to incorporating those types of poetry since they can only speak about them from an outsider’s position and cannot draw easy comparisons. Meaning, for example, it’s easy for an academic to articulate the connections between Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg (especially since Hughes listed Sandburg as one of his influences) but hard for the same academic to talk about the work of a hip-hop poet, who may not list “canon poets” among his influences but rather creates work based on his life and his exposure to hip-hop music. Furthermore, [New York City Poetry Slam guru Bob] Holman—among others—believes that hip-hop poetry is descended from the oral poetry canon, such as the griot tradition of Africa, which makes connecting the work to the traditional poetry canon even harder.
Some may think that the reluctance to accept hip-hop poetry as part of the poetry canon is, at its core, racist and elitist. But a simpler answer could be that the academics don’t even know how to talk about it.
From this perspective, the poetry slam can be an important bridge in an academic argument. In accepting the poetry slam—on some level—as a part of the American poetry movement, academics are also accepting hip-hop poetry, which represents a healthy portion of the work being created in today’s slam. Talking about hip-hop poetry in the context of “slam poetry,” then, neutralizes the situation and allows academics more freedom to draw comparisons and make critiques without feeling like outsiders talking about a movement that, culturally, they have no business talking about. This could be why some academics seem eager to label certain pieces “slam poetry”: it becomes a way of talking about “hip-hop poetry” without using the words “hip-hop.”
As the poetry slam evolves and its poets infiltrate the academic world, it will be interesting to see the extent to which they’ll be able to bring previously marginalized voices into the national academic dialogue and into the literature textbooks of future generations of writers.
Excerpted from Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (Soft Skull Press, 2008)