Criticism of hip-hop misses just how masterfully its artists have deployed the English language.
Not long ago, pundits O’Reilly of Fox News and Lemon of CNN asserted that hip-hop music and children raised out of wedlock are root causes of all ills in the black community, including the epidemic of violence in urban areas. The lack of employment opportunities was strangely absent from their analysis. Neither man noted that, of the 25 million children being raised by a single parent in this country in 2011, the largest share by race, 9.5 million, were white, according to the National Kids Count Data Center.
The real issue is that men, both black and white, are no longer able to support families like they used to when men actually built things in this country. Economics should be the focus, because the effects of music are varied.
For the past year, I’ve worked with young black and brown boys and girls in the Washington area and watched them consume, comprehend and codify literature ranging from Beowulf to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’ve developed an entire curriculum, Words Liive, that teaches Common Core State Standards texts through the literary genius of Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Tupac and others.
Socrates is credited with saying that “the unexamined life is not livable for a human being.” There is unexamined genius in the literary work of hip-hop. Hip-hop, which legendary rapper Yasiin Bey (a k a Mos Def) calls a contemporary form of black folk music, is replete with literary techniques that have largely been elided from the historical canon of great compositions.
Hip-hop compositions are masterful poetry: The form of the standard hip-hop song is three verses of 16 bars written to various beats-per-minute patterns, which mirrors Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter. Other literary techniques can also be found in hip-hop. The character-building methods of Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G., for example, resemble those of H.G. Wells. Some comparative associations from Kanye West and Lil Wayne resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of extended simile.
I suspect that O’Reilly and Lemon missed it when Lil Wayne said that “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” But our young black boys didn’t because they are brilliant. Hip-hop artists have mastered the English language, with all its nuances and transmutations. They have articulated an etymological perspective with an original slang lexicon and have presented the world with a previously untold story of American life.
Unfortunately, our country also has a longstanding pathology of dishonesty. Similar to writing a Constitution that ignored the institution of slavery or going abroad to spread the gospel of democracy while stifling the right of women and black people to vote, ignoring the literary genius in hip-hop’s 40-year-old body of work is so negligent that it is as flagrant as a bald-face lie.
I wonder where this criticism of content is articulated about other folk music. Country star Toby Keith has outearned almost everyone in hip-hop’s history. Five of Keith’s 10 most popular songs celebrate alcohol consumption: “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup,” “Drinks After Work,” “Beer for My Horses” and “I Love This Bar.” The last expresses his appreciation of rednecks, chain-smokers, truckers and hookers.
Where’s the debate about Toby Keith contributing to U.S. substance-abuse problems?
The United States has a double standard when it comes to black people’s license to express themselves. Hip-hop is more than just sounding bass and twinkling similes. It helps us. I was 26 when my mother died. I kept three songs on repeat, and the lyrics cradled my broken heart to sleep at night: “Dance” by Nas, Kanye West’s “Hey Mama” and Slum Village’s “Keep Holding On.” These rappers expressed their love for their mothers in a way that was familiar in its articulation. Hip-hop helped heal me.
Gilbert Newman Perkins, known also as Sage Salvo, founded Words Liive, a company that augments English language arts. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.
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