Rap: Poetry's Gateway Drug - Education Language & Change

The Golden age of Hip Hop was 25 years ago. Get over it ¹.

But poetry is alive and well. And about to enter its own golden era...

Rap is a gateway drug to poetry. It is culturally inevitable that young listeners (and artists) develop linguistic intelligence over years of devouring words. Think how social commentary has evolved from  Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick Lamar in 35 years. Lyrics go deeper, rhyme patterns more complex, metaphors more abstract.

Vocal technique and songwriting shifted after post-‘808 and Heartbreak’ (Kanye West’s seminal 2008 album) into a landscape filled with your Futures and Drakes. Many people - mostly over 35 years old - will argue that there is a lack of ‘lyricism’ in Hip Hop today (see ‘mumble rap’, ‘trap’ or ‘drill’). They might be right, but this is missing the point. Evolution is not linear. Evolution is mutation, a product of its environment. Consider how Andy Warhol’s consumerism or Banksy’s stencils were received in their early careers. The passing of time is kind to art’s disruptors.

Whatever your opinion of contemporary hip hop, it's impossible to ignore; listeners of rap have developed advanced literacy skills - some without ever reading a book. People are still trying to unravel Childish Gambino’s sensational ‘This Is America’. The intelligence and knowledge it takes to even interpret - or decode - lyrics hints at a new type of literacy. Or at least a new form of literature. The sheer popularity of the website ‘Genius’ is proof. You probably already use it on Spotify. Launched in 2009 as ‘Rap Genius’ by three Yale students debating the meaning of a Cam’ron lyric, it has grown from a geeky resource for annotating hip hop lyrics to an online phenomenon that dissects Shakespeare or used by the White House to annotate Barack Obama’s State of the Union address (Genius, 2016).

This rapidly emerging culture has opened a world of Words to new generations. We are surrounded by young writers. Scribbling on their phone. Reciting obliviously, on buses and in stairwells. In the UK the momentum is huge. In 2017 sales of Grime outstripped the rest of the industry, a year-on-year increase of 93% vs the industry’s 6% (The Conversation, 2017) and has been legitimised/ co-opted/ commoditised by politicians and popular media alike. Dave, a young London rapper and pianist with poetic leanings, has just won a prestigious songwriter’s Ivor Novello award (previous winners include Amy Winehouse and Gary Barlow). Grime has already splintered successfully into Drill, Afro Bashment and UK Rap. But more importantly an innate talent for wordplay lies at the heart of creative success.

The contemporary poetry scene in the UK is healthy and hugely popular too, but quietly. Spoken word now has a fully established community and infrastructure - diverse and dynamic.  Poetry is at the forefront of Roundhouse and Southbank Centre programmes. You’ll find stages at most major festivals. Kate Tempest and Akala have become the voices of a liberal generation. Warsan Shire is the anchor to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Rapper/poet Riz Ahmed is now a Hollywood star (and a surefire future Oscar winner). We stand at the cusp of a moment where poetry is becoming the dominant voice. Could we be entering a golden era for British performance poetry?

Crucially, the education ecosystem for poetry is established across the UK, thanks to the likes of Apples and Snakes and local organisations like Manchester’s Young Identity. This offers bountiful, inclusive opportunities for young writers to explore their craft. But there's no denying, the scene is consistently threatened by public funding cuts. At its grassroots level this threatens access to creative education for young artists from low income families. This is a critical moment. Today’s rappers are tomorrow’s poets. Tomorrow’s poets are our future leaders.

At Lyrix Organix we work in youth centres, schools, universities, foster homes and charities with some of the most vulnerable young adults. 10 years hosting events in both the poetry and rap scene puts us in a unique position to explore ‘the space between language and music’ through workshops and curated youth programmes. One week we may be hosting a stage at Glastonbury Festival (The Rum Shack); the next, developing Forum theatre with young artists at risk of homelessness.

It's not even about the next generation of writers. It's just about writing. Words. We witness the transformative and healing power of poetry every day. Popular culture is finding its voice again. Words have become weapons, knowledge is still power. According to UNESCO, 250 million people in the world cannot read or write. But we are listening.

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Watch out for Lyrix Organix’s ‘UnFOLD’ touring in late 2018 - a live production and multi-disciplinary platform for outstanding emerging poets to collaborate with a string ensemble, top musicians and visual artists.

¹ 1993-1994 changed my life. It changed the whole course of popular culture. It was 18 months that unleashed a collection of the greatest albums; Nas’ ‘Illmatic’, Notorious BIG’s ‘Ready to Die’, A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Midnight Marauders’, Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)’, Cypress Hill’s ‘Black Sunday’ and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’... to name a few. A golden year, no question. In the UK, it was also a year notable for Stephen Lawrence, James Bulger and the BNP winning their first council seat (Tower Hamlets, London). Set to an optimistic soundtrack of No.1’s from Too Unlimited ‘No Limit’, Gabrielle ‘Dreams’ and Mr Blobby’s ‘Mr Blobby’

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