The success of hip-hop has radically reshaped many American art forms. This is particularly true of poetry. Although the links are sometimes drawn too hastily between the two mediums—after all, hip-hop is at its heart a popular form of entertainment, where narrative style is just one dimension of its artistic importance—hip-hop has been drastically underrated, considering how radically it has influenced American poetics.
In Nate Marshall, Kevin Coval, and Quraysh Ali Lansana’s The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, an anthology featuring 78 different writers, the editors argue just this case. Marshall, Coval, and Lansana represent three different generations of hip-hop and poetry practitioners. This book claims to be the first poetry anthology by and for the hip-hop generation, an attempt to create a unified statement by poets who have been shaped by the genre’s re-shaping of American prose.
It comes at an exciting time for hip-hop. A new generation of popular grassroots hip-hop stars has spawned in the Chicago-based poetry scene from which the book’s three editors hail. Major new artists like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Noname Gypsy, and Saba cut their teeth at the open mics and youth poetry slams organized and supported by Coval and Marshall. Yet all three editors point to a long tradition, particularly in Chicago, of overlap and interplay between the worlds of poetry and hip-hop, speaking to how older generations of stars, like Kanye West—who first saw the Lost Poets at a showcase organized by Lansana—had their art shaped by the spaces that made them.
Quyrash Ali Lansana was mentored by Gwendolyn Brooks, and works at the Creative Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the Red Earth MFA Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. Kevin Coval made his name in four years on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam, and works as an educator and poet throughout the Chicago area; he’s the founder of Louder Than a Bomb, the country’s largest youth poetry festival. Nate Marshall, a native of the South Side of Chicago, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for his first book, Wild Hundreds. His rap album, Grown, is due out this summer.
Gawker: Whose idea was this?
Kevin Coval: It was my idea. It was something I’ve been thinking about and working on for a long time. The title comes from a conversation—I’d been wanting to do an anthology because there were anthologies that all of us read that were important, just as young readers, young writers. The Black Poets by Dudley Randall was a really tough, important text for me. Black Fire [Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing] by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. And then Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. Those were published in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And those had some of the first spaces where the black arts poets and beat generation folks were published. Once I read some of the folks who were in here—once I read Willie Perdomo, once I saw Quraysh, once heard Paul Beatty; I knew that there was something about this generation that was new unto itself.
Seven years ago was when I first had the idea, through a conversation with our homie Idris Goodwin, who is a poet and playwright and a rapper. He coined the phrase “the breakbeat poets,” just in conversation about the aesthetics of the generation. Then I’d put in a book proposal to the University of Illinois Press that Quraysh read—this is six years ago. Maybe five years ago, Nate [Marshall] and I began a conversation about working on the book together. I think just after that time we pulled Quraysh in.
Very early on in the process I saw it as like this triumvirate. Nate is younger, although looks older than both Quraysh and I. [laughs] Quraysh is a few years my senior. But I think part of what it is is I’ve been actively trying to find my peers for a long time, and this book is towards a codified crew compendium. There are a lot of people who are not in the book that we want in the book, and there’s volumes to come. But I think this is also representative of the cipher that is, too.
What are the different communities you were drawing on? I know in Chicago there are certain poets’ groups—were there primary groups or organizations that were sourced?
Quyrash Ali Lansana: I don’t know if we saw it that way, in terms of organizations or groups. Certainly more of an aesthetic or message-likeness, or—but we did want to make sure there were a significant number of women in the book. That there were a significant number of folks from the LGBTQA community, that that voice was represented. But I don’t know that we thought we’re going to go to Mark Smith and make sure there are poetry slammers in here or anything like that, that wasn’t what we were thinking.
Nate Marhall: There are groups that you definitely see strains of. YCA [Young Chicago Authors] is well represented; groups like Urban Word [NYC] are well represented. Folks who came through Brave New Voices are well represented.
Kevin: Which are some of the youth poetry groups we’re all a part of, as educators and mentors.
Nate: Like Cave Canem, which is the African American Poets workshop, that is very well represented. But I don’t think that was by design.
Kevin: I think that’s because the networks that we’re a part of have people that are a part of various communities, and those communities in part are where people have sought refuge and cipher space with one another, because of the necessity to build community over the word. And I think these communities form because of the desire to further the aesthetic innovations of this moment and this culture. I think the interesting thing is that the oldest person in the book is born in 1961. The youngest poets in the book are Quraysh’s sons, who are born in ‘97 and ‘99, and so it spans four generations of hip-hop cultural practitioners, which is I think a unique thing. And the three of us are also of maybe three different generations within both the poetic and hip-hop cultural practice end of things too. And so our networks are based on when we came up, and also who our peers are. Even though we’re all peers, Nate’s network looks a little differently than Quraysh’s, and vice versa.
What would you say the through line is in all three or four of these generations within hip-hop—what is the connection to hip-hop? What is the tissue that brings this together?
Nate: Number one, I think there’s a real emphasis with a lot of these poets on sampling, and that kind of stealing, or reappropriation as a way of making. And I think that is a profoundly hip-hop impulse. I think that the necessity and the need to speak to the day and to be hyper-local and hyper-contemporary is a very hip-hop impulse. And quite honestly, a lot of the folk that are in the book and a lot of the folks that we talk about when we articulate this generation are hip-hop kids, are hip-hop heads, and we’re coming up in the same communities. I went to high school with [rapper] Vic Mensa. When I was a senior he was a freshman. I took him to open mics with me. That was how he met Chance the Rapper. I was like, come to this open mic with me. Or like any number of folks; a lot of the Urban Word kids were like, running around with [rapper] Charles Hamilton back in the day, when he was the homeless kid with the pink backpack.
Kevin: I think what hip-hop does so well, and these poets do so well in part because they come from the same spaces, the same communities, is the notion of representation, or re-presentation, of identity, self, and place. Like where you come from is vibrant within the book. You get stories not only of urban experience, but there are also some Afro-Latin poets in the book. There are poets that come from reservations. There are poets that come from rural and suburban environments. But there is the thick description about place, and how you relate to that place, and how you relate to the communities that you feel a part of, or apart from. I think hip-hop does that very well, from the moment Melle Mel started to talk about the conditions of the South Bronx. Which is just rooted in a poetic and an aesthetic that I think hip-hop artists are taking from the black arts poets, who themselves are probably borrowing from Gwendolyn Brooks, who is one of Quraysh’s mentors. So this tradition, we find ourselves in, is one that pre-dates hip-hop, but is very much also manifests well within in the verbal aspects of the culture, too.
Quraysh: One of the things that is interesting about the book as well, many of the poets are speaking to, as Nate said, what hip-hop is for them in their moment. And then there’s the larger greater thread, about what hip-hop is period. So you have a thread of hip-hop as culture, and then you have a thread of what hip-hop is generationally, what hip-hop is to me, where I’m from. And all that’s happening in between the covers of that book, which I think is one of the great things about the project.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s ill because in your essay you talk about the Sugar Hill Gang, right? And then Melle Mel gets shouted out. But then there’s also in there, and one of the latter poems is about Kendrick. Or Kanye. And so you also see even in terms of the topics of poetic discourse are around multiple generations of hip-hop practitioners too.
So I’m going ask the flip of that question: On an aesthetic level, what has changed, over time, between the generations. Is there a direction that you see hip-hop poets moving over time as it goes down the generations?
Kevin: I think the younger cats are a little more experimental. I think that some of the older heads have done some heavy lifting when it comes to narrative in part because there has been the necessity to include voices that have existed at the margins of public and poetic discourse. The insertion of those voices into the center. And I think that then allows some of the younger heads to experiment wildly. Which is not to say that older heads were not experimenting wildly. But i think, at least for what we’ve selected in the book, you’ll see a little more experimentation as folks get younger.
Nate: Yeah I think that’s true. In some ways we see that happening with the culture itself, right? When we go back to the music, it became so ingrained, this kind of very particular sound structure, that we call dope verses a “hot 16.” Now you see folks like Noname Gypsy, folks like Chance the Rapper, all these folks who don’t give a fuck about song structure. Who are really pushing the boundaries of what that is. I think you see a similar impulse in the younger writers in the book. And even some of the older writers as they continue writing. So if you were to take one of the older poets in the book, Douglas Kearney. He started off doing spoken word. And as his career progresses, he gets increasingly more experimental, where he’s playing with the page as a real canvas. Poems that straight up look like art pieces, that are fucking with shape, all these kinds of things. Part of it is saying, OK, we have the structure, and it’s established, and we’ve mastered it, and now, how can we break it. How can we break it and remake it.
Kevin: Someone like Jamila Woods, who’s born in ‘89, is taking the structure of the dozens and making actually a very beautiful and soft ode for her father utilizing the same form. Whereas I think if you take that same form ten years prior, it doesn’t have the roundness, the softness, the flip that would necessitate this moment of her writing. In part because it hasn’t been fully explored in that way prior to now.
It sort of creates a vocabulary for the next—
Kevin: Right. I think at the same time that this book is incredibly fresh and new, it’s also a study guide in some ways. I think some of the younger poets—and you see this because they attribute their poems to some of the older poets in the book, so that the younger poets for the most part are probably fairly well versed in the verse of some of the older poets. And so they know what they’re doing. i think as they’re trying to innovate themselves and find their own voice, they’re innovating on top of what’s come before them, which is the natural artistic—for any artistic community, that is what is natural.
Nate: Even just looking at us, reading Quraysh’s essay, he talks about this moment where hip-hop enters his community—when it enters the cultural nexus of what’s going on around him. And I don’t have that moment, because the earliest music I remember hearing was Tupac. That’s going to have a different impact—I think that bridges across the art, right? For the folks of my age, the poetry slam and a certain kind of pop poetic, was like our earliest introduction to poetry. It wasn’t like we saw music and had to transmute it. Or we saw poets that were precursors and had to be like, “well how do we do this now.” It was just there already.
I’m curious—I think of when I was in high school, poetry and hip-hop were seen as having some overlap. But now it seems much more—my impression, it seems like it has a much more organic, fluid, connection. People like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa have been influenced by poetry as much as rap. Why do you think it is that they’ve become more attached? Have they?
Kevin: I think in Chicago, we’ve always had communal space that—from the moment hip-hop came to Chicago—I think that the space of poetry and the space of hip-hop have been if not the same, damn near the same.
Kevin: There was an open-mic spot in Wicker Park called Mental Graffiti where they had a poetry open mic and a slam on the same night that they had their hip-hop open mic and battle. It was actually the same night, hosted by the same people. It was just that the poetry shit was early, and the MC shit was late, but there was mad crossover. There was a poetry set at the Africa West Bookstore on the near west side that Lupe’s mom used to take him to. I know in some of the spots—Quraysh was a part of this supergroup in the day called Funky Wordsmiths, which felt to me, as a younger poet watching them, like a hip-hop group in some ways. And you were, in some ways. And I think in Chicago because of some of the space that we received hip-hop culture as export from New York, as did everyone outside of the South Bronx in some ways, that the mingling of the poets and the mingling of the hip-hop artists were always in a close cultural space. I would also say that if you go back to Coke La Rock, historically hip-hop’s first MC, Coke La Rock was giving Herc poems. And Coke La Rock himself was influenced by the black arts poets. And their cultural children: the Watts prophets, the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron.
I don’t want to shortchange the interconnection throughout history, but would you say it’s pretty much a straightforward continuation today? Or that it has increased—
Kevin: I think that we’ve done a lot of work to hold poets and rappers in the same space because they are already in the same space.
Nate: If I can interject—I think post-2000, what you see is all of these youth spaces emerging around the country for poetry. And one of the things about that is a lot of rappers, a lot of MCs came into that space because it was the only space where you, as a young person who aspired to rhyme, could have a mic and a stage. Some of the first battles I did were at poetry open mics. The first time I ever saw a cipher was at Louder Than a Bomb [Youth Poetry Festival]. Hip-hop as this outsourced thing, that’s coming into all of our houses, but that we don’t have specific community into where we first interact with it—we have to figure out where that space can actually exist. If you tell teachers, “Oh yeah, we want to be out here rapping, we want to do a rap club,” they’ll be like, “lemme call the police right quick.” But if it’s poetry, if it’s spoken word, if it’s like, “oh, this is the slam team,” then you can create that space, you can hold that space.
Quraysh: And just to take it back a bit, since I’m the old-head here. In the ‘90s, I was hanging next to Common and a young Kanye, Malik Yusef and J Ivey, and they were at the poetry spots. That’s where they evolved. The first time that Com and ‘Ye saw the Lost Poets, I brought them to the Hot House. And that was when they were introduced to this moment for the first time. I don’t know if it’s everywhere, but in Chicago there’s really been very little separation and maybe that’s because it’s always been a battle to always find a space period in Chicago. It’s very much not like New York in that respect.
Nate: You’re like, “Oh shit, there’s a space where one can step in front of a microphone? I’m going!
Kevin: And I just think we’ve never segregated. It’s been the academy that has made these superficial bullshit segregations between what is poetry and what is hip-hop. Even—I started wanting to rap, and when I read something at an open mic that I thought was a rhyme, somebody said was a poem, I felt some type of way. But I realized there was no distinction between these forms, in some ways, and certainly in my experience there was no distinction between these communities.
Why didn’t you guys do music?
Kevin: Well I think there should be a moratorium on white rappers [Quraysh laughs]. You know, just a panel conversation. But I didn’t know anyone who knew how to make beats. I was still—unlike Nate, me and Quraysh were born into a moment when there wasn’t hip-hop. So for me, it was very much an isolated form of being in the dojo in front of my dual tape deck sony boombox and listening to KRS One and Chuck D and X Clan and MC Lyte. And it was there that I started to jot down names that they would say and run to the library to read the literature that they were referencing. But it was all done in the privacy of me and my local librarian’s mindstate. I had to Dewey Decimal the shit in order to find out what I was looking for. Whereas you [Nate] are born in a moment where it is fairly ubiquitous, like hip-hop at that moment is popular American culture, but also because of the democratization of technology, you’re also able to actually have a recording studio at your high school.
Nate: I do music. Which is one of the things that is interesting thinking about this, because I’m dually engaged. If the question for me then is more, “why does it feel like poetry is the primary, more the way that I pay my rent”—it’s probably just institutional. Those are the opportunities that I had that I could follow where I knew I could get a check initially. And I’ve followed that. I think I have an equal love for both and I don’t really make a distinction between both modes of creation.
Quraysh: Because I can’t sing.
Kevin: Did you ever rap?
Quraysh: [Sighs] No no, a couple times, way back in the day. But I was more interested in internal rhyme than I was in end rhyme so. But early, when I first started writing poetry in Oklahoma, I wrote some rhymes, I spit a little bit. Sequatrains. Some A-B-A-B. Kicking some bars for no one. And then it stopped.
Kevin: I think some of the folks in [the book] do both. I certainly think the conversation between poets and rappers has remained through the culture, but I would agree with you that now is probably the most prominent. Because of the youth cultural space that a lot of folks are rising in and through. Like Noname Gypsy came up in a poetry community, and I remember the day where she was just like, “I want to freestyle for a year, so I can rap.” And she did. I’m like, shit.
Nate: Almost without fail, all of my hip-hop crew I met through poetry slams. That was where we could go and size each other up, be like, I’m fucking with you, you’re wack, you’re cool. That was where I met Jyroscope, I met Chance at an open mic, Chance and Vic met at an open mic. That’s where I met so many heads.
Kevin: I think that’s because we employ the same community organizing tactics and strategies that the culture itself holds dear. At least in Chicago, our notion as a youth cultural space was to be all-city. You couldn’t have an effective Chicago poetry festival if it wasn’t trying to reach intentionally into every neighborhood, and our community organizing model is as much indebted to Saul Alinsky as it is Afrika Bambaataa. It’s no mistake that I think that kind of space exists, it’s intentional. But we also learned that from hip-hop.
You mentioned the academy and their interpretation of poetry, one that doesn’t see the same connection between music and this art. There’s someone in this book who was born in ‘99, and I imagine someone in the academy might be resistant to [accepting] something like that. What are your aesthetic standards? I’m curious what you’re looking for in this art—is it difficult—if you make too democratic of an argument for inclusion?
Kevin: How old was Nas when he wrote Illmatic? Hip-hop culture itself is innovated by teenagers of color from a community that has been systematically disenfranchised, and so part of what we’re saying is not only is the old guard and the old aesthetic and the way that they’ve taught poetry problematic, but they’ve deadened poetry to four, five, many generations of what it should be. The way the academy has taught poetry has made all of us hate poetry.
Quraysh: In many ways. We don’t want to make a blanket, sweeping generalization.
Kevin: I would like to.
Quraysh: Hey, I’m of the academy.
Kevin: And I teach too!
Nate: But in all these artistic spaces, like Beethoven was playing shit at five and six. He was a prodigy. Langston Hughes, the shit that put him on, he wrote when he was like seventeen.
Kevin: Gwendolyn Brooks got published when she was, what, 16?
Nate: She was 13 or 14 putting shit in the [Chicago] Defender! This is actually not new. That’s the thing that I stay trying to point out about what we’re doing. It is very new, and also not new at all. The connection between poetry and music? The Sonnet is a fucking musical form! The reason why shit was in Iambic Pentameter for hundreds of years was because that was a fucking musical form! Before that it was common meter, which is what the church music was in. That’s the thing about the academy, right? They’re often so entrenched in the idea that we have to codify knowledge and hold it—they’re built to hold resources, that they don’t know how to acknowledge when the same thing is happening elsewhere.
Quraysh: That’s correct.
Daniel Kisslinger, the book’s publicist: In helping the work grow and helping this community be seen, it sometimes feels like you’re up against a wall, but you’re not. There are hundreds of professors within the academy at Universities and colleges across the United States and around the world who are doing this work, many of whom are between 25 and 40, some of whom are older, but many of whom are within that range, and these are people that grew up hip-hop, and that’s their framework, that’s their lens. The way these three editors are in various capacities and doing that work. So it’s not all an external battle against this wall that won’t budge.
Kevin: But I think part of what it is is that this book also represents a shift in culture. And so I think—the April issue of Poetry magazine was dedicated to the breakbeat poets. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, five years ago, I know that that wouldn’t be possible. In order for some of these institutions to continue to survive, they need to change. I think that we’ve been handing out late passes. But I also think that hip-hop is an aesthetic meritocracy. If something’s dope, you know it’s dope. Part of the reason why there are a range of ages published in here, is because I think across the board, it’s dope.
Nate: And smart institutions are changing. Even the Poetry nod is an institution, a credit to them for wising up.
Kevin: And the institutions that employ us and a lot of our peers in the book are also wising up and changing.
Well part of the reason I asked about “standards”—the values you’re looking for in putting this together—there’s probably a lot of hip-hop that from the perspective of a poet isn’t necessarily strong. Do you feel like it marginalizes certain parts of the art?
Quraysh: I think I have a sense of where you’re going with this, so I’ll try and respond this way. Certainly the three of us apply to some extent some of the rules of prosity. I think it’s safe to say as we decided what poems would go in the book and what poems weren’t strong enough to be included. But there were also other aspects involved in making those decisions that have more to do with hip-hop aesthetic, politic, strength and consistency of the message, if it’s providing a voice that the book needs in a way that hasn’t been represented. But all three of us are poets, and we’ve all studied poetry, some of us formally, some of us informally. We all have opinions of what we think is strong prosity. We also have opinions of what we think about Wu-Tang. [laughs]. In the conversation and the decision that we’ve made—
Nate: The thing about art is that you have qualities and properties of prosity and what on a building block space makes a strong poem, makes a well-built poem. But the beautiful thing about art is sometimes you just feel it. You just feel the shit. I think in my evaluation of these poems, there’s always space for that. There’s some of these where I’m like, “this shit goes.” I need to fight for this poem, this needs to be a part of this conversation.
Kevin: And I think hip-hop is the best version of American democratic practice, gotten towards correct. I think part of why folks are hungry for this book is because they see themselves reflected in something that feels like a space where they are never, if ever, rarely reflected. And I think that’s important too. So I think we were conscientious of that. But also that’s just how the culture and community looks anyway. It’s not like we had to stretch in order to make that happen. It’s just who gets down.
There are 78 poets in here. Do all of them consider themselves breakbeat poets?
Quraysh: Now they do.
Kevin: No one’s said no. I think we will probably continued to figure out what that means. For me, I’ve been calling myself a hip-hop poet forever because it’s just what felt right. I didn’t feel like I was doing the same thing as Donald Hall. Even though we’re both using language, it felt like we were both doing something different, the heart of the project was different. I think that some folks you see even on social media, they’re using that as a title very freely, which is great and exciting. We’ve been seeing some other articles, or other academics use even breakbeat poets or breakbeat poetics as an idea outside of us, which is also very exciting. I’m personally not tied to that idea as much as I am the movement, moment, and continued innovation of a larger growing community having a voice in the center of public discourse. To me that’s much more interesting or essential than whatever we end up calling this moment. I think that this title is apt and that it’s appropriate, because even the notion of what a breakbeat is is finding its way into the center of many of these poems, not only the poems in this book but the center of some of the best poets of this generation. I’m not tied to it as an idea although I think it works.
Nate: I agree. One thing I will say about that sort of name, that kind of naming—I think there’s something really powerful and really nice about a generation of makers being able to name themselves because so often that happens after the fact. The cats in the Harlem Renaissance weren’t really calling themselves the Harlem Renaissance, that was some shit that was bestowed upon them later. So I’m not tied to the title but if that ends up being what the moment is remembered as, or a part of what the moment is remembered as, then I think that’s a good thing, that’s fly.
Who’s left out? Who doesn’t make sense for it that people will be like, “Where is this famous contemporary poet,” and you’ll be like, “Well this is not a breakbeat poet.”
Nate: I’ll say one which I think we would actually have a debate about, which is one of the interesting things about this project. I would say that—someone who I love, who I have boundless love for—A. Van Jordan. I don’t think I would consider him a breakbeat poet, though he is a contemporary poet. I think he’s of a different school.
What is it that makes the difference?
Nate: I think in part the engagement with the culture, and then the sonics thereof. Then to give some folks that we wish were in it but kind of got left out because they didn’t submit stuff or timing was off—Saul Williams definitely would have been a big one. And Aja Monet.
Kevin: MuMs [da Schemer]. There’s folks that we wanted in there that for whatever reason—Carl Hancock Rux—who we’d been in correspondence with and for a variety of reasons, sometimes folks just don’t live in the country, or their travel schedule is what it is.
Nate: Paul Beatty, but he didn’t really want to republish—
Kevin: Yeah, Paul Beatty doesn’t really consider himself a poet, even though for me, he was one of the first that I read where I was like, Oh, this is what hip-hop looks like translated to the poem. But I think there are some people who maybe are contemporaries who I just don’t know are engaged with the culture in that way. Michael and Matthew Dickman. I fuck with some of their stuff and I think that they’re probably around our age. But they aren’t engaged with the culture, even though I think they are worthwhile contemporary poets. Of whom I don’t think that there are many. But there are some who are outside of the culture, and who knows, maybe they just stay listening to every Odd Future record on the planet. I don’t know. But I think that at least when I read them, that’s not what I get, even though I enjoy reading them too.
When we say “engage with the culture,” there are obvious ways—a poem about Kendrick Lamar—and there’s also the grammar of it, sampling as a technique. What are the actual techniques, the grammar, the aesthetic that shape the poetry.
Quraysh: One aspect goes back to something that [Nate] said a moment ago which is that it’s local. It’s poems or language that are rooted in where I’m from, what’s around me, the reality of my existence, and the conditions of others like me. And some who aren’t like me, necessarily, but live in similar situations, similar concerns, their relationship between Ferguson and Baltimore, Chicago, Long Island. I think for me that’s maybe the first level of import. And certainly beyond that would be how we get to that: what are your aesthetic choices, how are you constructing language, is it compelling.
Kevin: And I think that hip-hop is a populist artform. So I think that you have some poems that are immediately accessible and immediately readable. I also think that hip-hop engages in legibility and illegibility. And so even from the practice of graffiti, wildstyle, people can read it at one level and then if you are immersed in the culture you can read it at multiple levels. And I think there are poems in the book that upon first read are impossible to decipher. And I think they are engaged in a much more difficult or illegible practice intentionally. And you mentioned Doug Kearney. Natasha Diggs. Avery Young. These are poems and poets that I think are doing something that is different than hip-hop’s initial impetus to engage in a communal call and response. I think they are doing that as well. I would consider them, as opposed to doing tags, throw-ups, and burners, I think that they are only engaged in the practice of wildstyle. At least from what we see of theirs in the book.
Quraysh: It’s every generation’s responsibility to create a language to confound its elders. In this text, we have three, four generations of confusion. We have three or four different sets of nomenclature, to tease us, to mess with our brains, to make us think, to argue with. But all of it is vital. All of it’s important.
There have been a lot of conversations happening regarding race and police violence in this country. Everyone was talking about Baltimore. A few weeks before that it was Ferguson. I feel like all of us, listening to hip-hop, when this first started becoming a news story, if you were listening to rap music you already knew, and even more so if you were a person in certain communities. It’s becoming a big news story now because of social media. A lot of people are looking in that weren’t looking in before. I’m curious if police brutality, the prison pipeline, the entire prison industrial complex—does the fact of social media, does the fact of this becoming a thing people are talking about, does that change how it’s portrayed in art for you guys?
Quraysh: That’s an interesting question. Social media certainly plays a part. I just watched Selma again last night. The second time I’ve seen the film. One of the things that King did was he made spectacles. He created spectacles where there are cameras and that communicated to folks around the world to engage in the struggle. So that may be an element of the social media aspect. But for me, probably greater than the social media aspect, is that there are folks who are not of color engaged in numbers not since Selma. And a level of consciousness of what’s happening to men of color in specific. And maybe again the social media is the chicken and the egg, I don’t know.
Nate: I think media has always been central to social movement and political movement. So whether it’s this moment with social media being the kind of place where we actually get the most accurate news about Baltimore, or it’s Rodney King’s beating being caught on tape, and that being the thing that lights a fire under folks. Or King’s practice of spectacle, or Ida B Wells writing about these lynchings and the graphic portrayal of lynching in organs like the Chicago Defender, that’s always been a part of the legacy. And I think for us, what we see ourselves doing as artists, as writers of this sort, is not separate from that. In the tradition of someone like DuBois. Not that we’re necessarily engaged in the kind of propaganda around a specific cause or specific movement. But I think we are advocating for the humanity of certain folks whose humanity has been denied, whether it’s queer folks or women or people of color or whomever. And we’re doing that via the art.
Kevin: And democracy is always a threat to hegemonic power. And so I think hip-hop cultural practice is about critiquing and challenging the grand narrative that has existed for far too long historically in this country. And through the terror and tyranny of colonization. And so part of what this culture, part of what technology is also doing, in part because of the culture, is challenging that grand narrative.
I think of when someone describes Public Enemy as CNN of the streets—when the more immediate line to the conflict in the streets is just going directly to the source on Twitter, do you feel like that changes what—suddenly what you have to write about, you’re no longer saying, we’re here and this is what’s happening. So I’m curious—
Kevin: Except interpretation is essential, and that’s why you need writers, critics, thinkers, philosophers. Because you have one side of the media saying this is a riot. And other people calling it a rebellion. And even that difference is essential. It is dependent upon—we could watch the same image, but how are we understanding that image in its historical and contemporary context. I think that’s where the poet, the philosopher…
Nate: Because unbiased image doesn’t exist, and unfiltered image is dangerous.