Why Hiphop?

Why has hiphop been included in an international poetry festival? Or, more to the point, why has hiphop been included as an equal partner with page poetry and spoken word? Some folk may not see it as an issue. It’s too obvious. Hiphop is poetry and not only is hiphop poetry but arguably the most successful form of poetry on the planet right now.

Yet few other poetry festivals, if any, put hiphop centre stage. Which seems either an oversight or perhaps reveals a subconscious bias against the artform. Not so with Push The Boat Out. This festival was conceived with hiphop at its heart, and with every right to be at the heart of what constitutes the vast universe of poetry.

The roots of hiphop go back much further than its acknowledged birthplace in The Bronx, New York, in the late 1970s. Whether The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron or Linton Kwesi Johnson, hiphop’s long and honourable lineage has often come from spoken word poetry fused with music: jazz and dub in particular. Maybe the marriage with music is where some of the bias comes from. I’m thinking of the noises put out of joint when Bob Dylan won the 2016 Noble Prize In Literature.

Including hiphop seems a natural enough step for Push The Boat Out. Our mission statement is to be inclusive. Sometimes the self-evident needs stated: inclusive means creating a festival where working class writers, and a working class audience, all feel at home, represented, and appreciated. Any off-putting formalities beloved of cultural elites aren’t necessary.

Of course, class comes into it. It always does. Poetry, in the English speaking world, has often been dominated by the affluent classes. That goes for publishing, editing, organising, performing, the funding of, as well as the writing of poetry. Same goes for many other arts. It hasn’t always been this way though, and outside the anglosphere this isn’t always the case. (See Burmese Story for confirmation that poetry can be embraced in daily lives by the common people.)

Class isn’t the only barometer of inclusiveness. Women have often found it harder to break into some of the more male-dominated areas of hiphop. Even getting on to the mic in some places can be a challenge. This inaugural Push The Boat festival has chosen to centre stage some of the amazing women in hiphop. Serendipitously, as it would seem, since Arusa Qureshi has just written a ground-breaking new book, Flip The Script: How Women Came To Rule HipHop. (The highly acclaimed Scottish publishers, 404ink, specialise in flipping the scripts.)

On Sunday 17th October (5-6pm) Arusa will be joined by three top notch hiphop artists from across the UK to discuss the book as well as perform from their work. These are Don Chi (Northern Ireland), Bianca Ali (Wales) and Scotland’s very own Nova Scotia The Truth.

How influential are hiphop artists as poets? PTBO will be looking at this in an event which takes as its starting point: Was Rakim The Most Influential Poet Of The 20th Century? I can’t think of many university poetry syllabuses which have the legendary New York rapper discussed on a par with TS Eliot or WH Auden. Maybe the time has come. As Kool Moe Dee rightly said: “Rakim is basically the inventor of flow. We were not even using the word flow until Rakim came along. It was called rhyming, it was called cadence, but it wasn’t called flow. Rakim created flow!”

On Saturday 16th Oct (5-6pm) one of Scotland’s best loved MCs and rappers, Solareye of Stanley Odd fame (aka Dave Hook), and the fantastically inventive Yorkshire poet Caroline Bird (winner of Forward Prize for Poetry, shortlisted for TS Eliot and Ted Hughes Awards) will have a look at the comparative influences of Rakim and the more classical or well-known poets of the last century.

This should hopefully get folk in the mood for our big Saturday evening gig (16 Oct, 8-10pm): an evening of hiphop and spoken word featuring 2020 Scottish Album of the Year winner Nova Scotia The Truth, the mighty Solareye himself, the highly acclaimed Glasgow-based MC Empress, plus Salena Godden, one of the most powerful and mesmerising performers of poetry in the UK.

Elsewhere in the programme, under Sound & Vision, there’s a specially curated showcase of hiphop animations: an artform in itself, arising from the visual nature of the words and their historical alliance with street graffiti. This one is free so just kick back and relax.

Also in the Sound & Vision strand (Sat 16 Oct, 7-9pm) we’ll be screening The Great Hip-Hop Hoax, a true-life documentary, directed by Jeanie Finlay. Two Dundee-based rappers cross the Atlantic and pass themselves off as a Californian rap group to achieve fame and success. Their cheeky antics are hilarious yet the film shines a caustic light on the illusory nature of celebrity and the gullibility of the suited execs in the hierarchies of the music industry.

That’s the score. Spread the word. Hiphop and poetry are fused and fused they’ll stay.


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Comments (11)

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  1. Ben Yorkston says:

    Fantastic stuff.

    How many working class people do the orgs you run employ?

    (this doesn’t include performers)

    I’m hearing its none. Is this correct?

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Working class?

      Surely, anyone who works for those orgs will be working class by definition.

    2. Kevin Williamson says:

      Did a survey of all the organisations I run and it turns out its a 50/50 split among our employees.

      One of them comes from a working class background the other comes from a more rural background.

      Apologies for the time lag in responding. Took so long checking the backgrounds of all of these organisation.


  2. Niemand says:

    Are you not talking about rap rather than hip hop? Hip hop is a black American culture that includes deejaying, turntabling, rapping, graffiti painting, and break-dancing. I know hiphop is used to mean rap (erroneously) by many, but in this poetry context, I think it important to get this right. So when you talk about hiphop artists in one bit then rappers in another are you making a true distinction?

    Otherwise, this all sounds great and can’t see any reason why certain forms of rap can’t be apart of the poetry world, quite the opposite, though I would have thought much would not qualify so it would be interesting to know what the limits / rationale is i.e. what about the music? If the music underpins it in a way that the rap cannot really be imagined without it, is it poetry or song? Rappers are called rap singers after all. Or is all rap essentially poetry regardless?

    1. Mons Meg says:

      I’ve always heard rap as poetry with musical refrains. But I’m an auld fogie.

      (‘Fogie’: an elderly person, usually someone who constantly finds fault with everything and reminisces about the good old days, and spends many hours waiting for buses because their children refuse to listen to them while driving. Usually working-class and annoying to most. Better to ignore them rather than tell them to be quiet.)

      1. Niemand says:

        Oh do be quiet (that’s a compliment in this context, ha ha)

        I am no expert on poetry at all but I wonder if there isn’t something in the idea that a poem must work on the page, or spoken in performance, with no other accompaniment to be truly ‘a poem’. Other added elements can enhance and deepen it but should not be needed for it to work. I just wrote a song lyric and I would say it is quite poetic in its language, but without the music to give it the shape and flow, the correct scanning of lines, it makes little sense.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Nor originally. In his aesthetic, Heidegger tried to get back to presocratic ‘ground’ of poetry as ‘any activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.’ ‘Poiesis’ is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιεῖν, which just means ‘to make’. But later European poetry has been (balefully?) logocentric.

          Poetry is what I tend to look for in any artform.

          1. Niemand says:

            I read a thing today that said something is poetic if there is a ‘fusion between style and content, between the thing said and the way of saying it, that makes the two inseparable and at the same time creates something new’.

            But poetry and the poetic are not the same thing. I mean poetry is a kind of distinctive thing.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Yes, poetry can be anything we want it to be. It’s just a tradition; nothing more than the canon of ‘texts’ that connoisseurs hold up as exemplars of that tradition.

            If and when the establishment (the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised in the poetry community) admits rap to its canon, then rap will be poetry.

          3. Niemand says:

            ‘It’s just a tradition; nothing more than the canon of ‘texts’ that connoisseurs hold up as exemplars of that tradition.’

            Yes but traditions exist and are powerful, so I am not sure what ‘nothing more’ really refers to. Much of culture is based on tradition. These evolve and change but at any one time they are meaningful and the balance between holding on to them and willingly them to change is a fine one, and neither option is more legitimate. It is a contingent business.

            Music has evolved in what we think it is but no-one would claim any sound is ‘music’ without a justification: a fire alarm going off randomly might be vaguely musical but isn’t music, but can become so with a change of context. So it only becomes music though some other means, actual or conceptual. Cage said all sound we listen to can be music but he did it in the context of the concert hall where people ‘listen’ to anything that is sounding at the time as pianist plays nothing. Schafer said the sounds of our environment are ‘like’ a giant ongoing musical composition but soundscape composers had to shape them for it to be accepted as music.

            So words are not automatically poetry, but might by poetical, but become poetry not just by someone saying they are but by having a rationale. And if some don’t accept the rationale it won’t be poetry for them. The ‘we’ in your statement seems dodgy – who is we? If the poetry ‘authorities’ accept rap then it gains legitimacy but to some it will never be poetry nevertheless, just as many do not accept Dylan is a poet. What this comes back to in my head is that there are traditions and traditions and not all are equal – literally no-one has a problem calling Mozart music but many would have a problem saying Cage’s 4’3” is, even though the music authorities say it is. That is because the tradition of what music is, is a very deep one and will always exert a huge influence and a far greater one than a conceptual conceit. Most people like and are interested in the material substance of art far more than any concept of it.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            Indeed, I meant just that poetry isn’t anything ‘fixed’. What it is and what counts as ‘poetry’ evolves out of the sorts of institutional struggles between ‘authorities’ you describe. As I said, whether rap is or isn’t poetry (or Dylan is or isn’t a poet) all depends on who, from time to time, gets to define the institution’s canon of exemplary works.

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