“What the hell are you listening to?”
It was late August, and my dad had just brought my car home from the auto repair shop. Apparently, my catalytic converter needed to be replaced before I made the six hour journey from South Carolina to the Shenandoah Valley (I say apparently only because I have no idea what purpose a catalytic converter serves. Sounds fancy though). On his drive home, the poor man was exposed to whatever I had left in my CD player. That particular evening, it was the bombastic lyrics and thundering beats of rapper extraordinaire Kanye West’s first album, College Dropout.
My dad, who reared me on a heavy diet of the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors and the Who, Bobs Marley and Dylan, Hendrix, Clapton, and every other heavy hitter of his own musical generation, was more or less appalled by the hip-hop that had weaseled its way into my CD changer. I was reprimanded for my poor taste in a “thumpity thump” excuse for what masquerades as music. I was reminded of this exchange recently, when I stumbled upon this video of West performing, slam poetry style, the lyrics from one of College Dropout‘s biggest hits, “All Falls Down.” The clip is devoid of a beat or any real vocal punch, and West’s rhythm feels raw and imperfect. And yet, it’s a mesmerizing reminder of why hip-hop has persisted despite its critics.
Marginalized as a lesser form of music by classic rock purists (um, hi Dad) and Grateful Dead loving hippies, rap’s lyrical narrative is often unfairly overlooked. But here, what Kanye does, what he writes is pure poetry, a contemporary reinterpretation of American life in the Ellisonian tradition of continually redefining black identity, of “blues-toned laughter-at-wounds,” of survival through song. According to Ellison’s invisible man, “You curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And alas, it’s seldom successful.” Fifty-nine years later, Kanye, with his bravado, sick beats and slick rhymes, forces the elusive “them” to sit up and pay attention. So much so that he received a Grammy in 2004 for “All Falls Down.”
Carrying over from our discussion of Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” and the value of art, I’d be interested to know how our readers define poetry, and whether or not music can transcend artistic genres.