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December 13, 2010

New Anthology Treats Rap Music as Poetry

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Rap as poetry – that’s the subject of a new anthology edited by two students of English literature at Yale University who believe rap music should be recognized as a poetic art form. Although rap lyrics often include profanity and references to violence and gang activity, the anthology editors say the structure behind them reflects that of classic poetry and deserves to be studied alongside traditional poets’ work.

Rap artist Kurtis Blow, an early contributor to the modern rap scene, says he always thinks in poetic terms when writing music. For example, he writes his raps with meters, repeating an A section and a B section several times. He says the flow and rhythm of a rap is very important, just as it is in poetry.

Similarly, rap artist Common says he found an outlet through rap, much like writers often find their voices through poetry. He says hip-hop was a way for him to escape a shy personality and embrace what the lyrics were really about.

The editors of The Anthology of Rap say rap lyrics have entered mainstream culture, proving that the art form has had a profound influence on society. As editor Adam Bradley puts it, “There are grandmothers in suburban Wisconsin who are saying bling-bling, and don’t know that it came from B.G. and Lil Wayne.”


“Well, I mean, you know, as hip-hop artists, especially coming from the black and Latino cultures, there’s a lot of stereotypes that are put upon the inner-city youth and upon rap culture and hip-hop itself. And I think, when you get to dive into these lyrics, you get to see how much depth is really in what these people are saying.” – Rap artist Common

“And we write our raps with meters. And, in poetry, you have to have a meter, you know, your A, your A, your A-B, your B-B. And then you repeat these meters when you continue your rap as you are writing. So, the rhythm, or — or we call it the flow — is so very, very important. But it is just like poetry.” – Rap artist Kurtis Blow

“What we wanted to do with the anthology is to say that this is a tradition in full. Yes, it’s related in profound ways to the broader tradition of Western lyric poetry. Yes, it’s related in profound ways to the American songbook across all genres of music. And, yes, it’s related in important ways as well to the African-American oral tradition of the toasts, signifying, the dozens. It’s all there. But, finally, it’s a tradition that can stand on its own.” – Adam Bradley, editor, The Anthology of Rap

Warm Up Questions

1. What is an anthology?

2. What is rap music? Do you have favorite rap artists? Why do you like them?

3. What is poetry?

Discussion Questions

1. In this video, the anthology editors say rap phrases have entered mainstream language in America. Do you think that’s true? Can you give examples?

2. What does Kurtis Blow mean when he says rap music has “meter?” Can you give an example from a rap song you know?

3. Do you think rap music and lyrics deserve to be studied alongside classic poetry? Why or why not?

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan: Rap as Lyrical Poetry

Preview: Kurtis Blow on ‘The Anthology of Rap’

Download this Video

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