It’s common practice for an undergraduate literature major to have her face blown off by some facet of post colonial theory. My face exploder was Grant Farred’s “What's my name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals”, which characterised Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, C.L.R. James and Stuart Hall as "vernacular intellectuals", who used their art as a platform for criticism and discourse. Though it turns out post-colonial theory doesn’t pay rent, that giddy comp-lit excitement feels very relevant once again now that we have "The Anthology of Rap”, edited by Adam Bradley and Adam Dubois.
The book is an introduction to rap from the 1970s to the present, broken down by artist and era, with mentions as diverse as Grandmaster Flash, Eminem, Salt-N-pepa and Jay-Z. If you ever wished you had lived in a place and time when poets and writers were nationally known, politically loaded and generally subversive (eg, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy), this is an exciting book to read. The anthology makes it clear that such pointed poetry is being written and performed here and now: “rap has lead a renaissance of the word, driving a return to poetry in public life,” write the editors in the introduction.
The release has also spurred controversy, mostly centred around a piece in Slate by Paul Devlin, “Fact-Check the Rhyme”. Devlin points to a number of lyrical inaccuracies in the transcription of the songs, some of which belie a lack of cultural knowledge or context. Devlin worries too about the complete lack of annotation. For my part, I wish that the book had been at least somewhat annotated. Hip-hop has spawned new dictionaries of English, and for a lay person all of the cultural subtext is not always clear.
It is forgivable that the book has errors (rap is not easy to transcribe). But it is highly unfortunate too, because it fuels the fire of a bigger, scarier criticism, one present in every comment thread about this book. That rap is not art, not poetry, that it is misogynistic, violent, uncomplicated, un-serious.
“Rap draws strength by shattering taboos, sending up stereotype, and relishing risqué language and subject matter”, writes Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the forward. Some of the raps are indeed angry and misogynistic, so grating that you have to close the book for a while. But often this anger functions as a propellent force, what hooks you in and moves you from line to line. On the matter of lyrical simplicity, as the editors themselves say, the best rap songs don’t always have the best lyrics. Here the lyrics star, and you are free to set them to the jilted awkward cadence in your head, unravelling beats such as "Full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed/ From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black/ I’m living where the nights is jet black, the fiends fight to get crack.”
I have too many favourite lines and lyrics to count. Big Daddy Cane’s effortless bravado, rolled up into the epithet “I’m genuine like Gucci, raw like sushi”. Wonderful moments of rap about rap, such as Eric B’s and Rakim's “My Melody”: "I’m not a regular competitor, first rhyme editor/ Melody arranger, poet, et cetera...I am the man they call the Microphonist.” As well as great moments where the rapper serves an investigator, detailing lives that slip through the cracks, such as Talib Kweli’s “For Women”: "When children hide the fact they pregnant ‘cause they scared of givin'/ birth/ How will I feed this baby? How will I survive How will this baby shine?”/ Daddy dead from crack in ‘85, Mommy dead from AIDS in ‘89”.
You cannot control your vernacular poet, warns Farred in his book. Indeed, rap stars often give voice to the voiceless, but it is not always what we want to hear. Imperfect though it may be, this anthology is important for the myriad voices it legitimises. Great fun, too.
"The Anthology of Rap" is out now
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