BreakBeats Poets Anthology Solidifies Hip-Hop’s Literary Contribution to the World

May 9, 2016
8:51 AM

Let’s be real: even if you love to read and love literature, it is increasingly difficult to dedicate time to the solitary exercise.

Two memories come to mind as I engage with The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hoppublished by Haymarket:

  • As an educator, I constantly struggle with getting my students to be interested, to connect with and to see themselves in the literature we read.
  • I also remember a couple of years ago chatting with my cousin (now in college) about Lil Wayne and how he was the self-proclaimed “the greatest poet alive.” My cousin could not reconcile how a rapper-artist-celebrity could also be a poet.

So why is The BreakBeat Poets different and worth your time? First, it brings hip-hop and young urban culture to the page. Although books and the printed word may be a dying art form, the anthology still legitimizes who speaks and how within literary and public intellectual circles. We need our young, vibrant, hungry and optimistic voices complicating the narrative of literature, of what it means to pen a legacy, a tradition.

Historically, hip-hop was a countercultural movement, a response to mainstream oppression, but as soon as suburbia began jamming to B.I.G and Tupac, it has revealed hip hop culture’s resonance and message in its purest form transcends its very personal and sociocultural roots. And it also reveals that not everyone should be wearing Adidas track suits.

The anthology also makes poetry young, improvisational and fun again. I will admit I am more of a novels and short story person, but the works in this text don’t feel like I am reading for homework. Instead, they transport you to a dim-lit cafe or someone’s home who you know is way cooler than you are so you nod and try not to say anything too dumb.

With younger generations opting for entertainment and distractions that don’t include reading, I hope this exercise in cool brings new readers to the fold and reminds older readers that sometimes the best gift one could give our children and ourselves is the world of imagination and creativity housed in books.

Here are a few standouts I recommend from the anthology that have so much heart:

Jessica Care Moore, “mic check, 1-2 a duality battle. materials: poem breath & voice. for Lupe Fiasco:” Moore is a badass. There’s no other way of putting it. I enjoyed this poem, but I love her work. She is a force. Please look her up. I hope you bump into her website.

Douglas Kearney, “Drop It Like It’s Hottentot Venus:”  Some if not most people know of the Hottentot Venus (Sara Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from southern Africa who between 1810 and 1815 was exhibited in London and Paris for her overtly “sexual” body and thus inferior being.) In very racist and problematic ways, Baartman was a Black woman spectacle for white audiences to gawk at and marvel. She was sexually appealing and considered grotesque at the same time. In Kearney reinvests a historical meaning to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like It’s Hot.” There are a couple of ways of reading meaning into this moment. Snoop’s lyrics can be misogynistic, and bringing the Hottentot Venus as an image here provocatively examines how the female body, and more specifically of women of color, has been commodified, for sale, for wonderment and at times a freak show. Also, there are plenty of women who enjoy rap, like myself, knowing how problematic some of the messages are. Kearney’s poem should make us as readers a bit uncomfortable with how woman are portrayed. And I can’t help it, but the poem reminds me of Chris Rock’s skit where he talks about women dancing and celebrating extremely misogynistic lyrics.

Steven Willis, “Beat Writers for Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg:” Willis throws out to the literary universe a unique connection between the Beat generation and literary hip-hop. If you have never read Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” I highly recommend it. The poet speaker walks around a supermarket and basically sees Walt Whitman and García Lorca lurking around. The history of hip hop is in this book, but it doesn’t stand alone. This text links various literary and cultural moments spanning centuries but delivering each line with such immediacy. For me it’s all about the references: looking them up and seeing what and how the poet is bringing together various references to produce a new message. However, you can read and enjoy each poem for what it comments about just the now.


Josie Urbistondo teaches writing and literature at the University of Miami and Florida International University. She co-authors the Doubts and Desires blog. She tweets from @doubtsanddesire.