In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap by professor of African American and African Studies Alexs Pate fights back against the conception of rap as offensive swill and advocates for the recognition of the artistry of rap and for giving rap lyrics equal value to other literary forms. For Pate, rap is the penultimate form of black artistic expression, and his job in this book is to legitimize it so that it may claim its rightful place.
The heart of Pate’s work is a comparison of rap lyrics to poetry. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how rap should be read and analyzed the same way we have traditionally approached great poetry. Pate examines each aspect of poetry/rap: namely, saturation, language, imagery, texture, meaning, structure/form/rhythm, and flow, and shows the reader how to assess rap lyrics by using each criterion. In this, Pate is innovative, and it is interesting to read how he would treat two rap songs in the same way a comparative literature professor might treat two world classics. In fact, despite its pop culture subject, this is very much an academic treatise. It is organized in a meticulous manner, and reads at times like a very hip Ph.D. dissertation.
Much of this book deals with the ways the poetry of rap communicate black hip hop culture, and how rap allowed for the prioritization of the black voice. In one example, Pate explains how a Common line, “Under the Fubu is/A guru,” is about the self-empowerment and self-determination of black men fighting against Western norms. There is a part of me that really wants to believe Pate, that rap is still a message of the disenfranchised, but the bigger part of me thinks that Common is name-dropping Fubu just to capitalize on its success, just as Fubu itself is a way to commodify street culture for monetary gain. Perhaps Common is making a racially significant statement, but maybe he is just making money.
For a thought-provoking discussion of hip hop culture, as well as the entire history of how blacks created a culture in America that fought against the mainstream, which also frankly discusses how this culture has been co-opted by the capitalist system in the present day, I recommend Hip: The History by John Leland.
I sometimes think that Pate, because he is a scholar who is able to make graceful connections and a beautiful writer himself, gives more credit than may be deserved to the rappers about whom he writes. For example, his assessment of Eminem as one who “rides the lines of decorum and offensiveness with the best of poets” and is a “disturber, a trickster of the highest order” who “seeks the space to say things that upset and challenge his listeners” is so wonderfully worded, that the actual lines of Eminem’s poetry (“See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids/who otherwise woulda never knew these words exist/Whose moms probably woulda never gave two squirts of piss/’til I created so much motherfuckin turbulence”) almost seem like a let-down. Although Pate’s strength as a scholar is in encouraging the reader to take a closer look at these lines, and when one does so, they do take on a great significance simply because Pate attributes the words with so much meaning.
Pate does take a cursory swipe at some of the hot-button issues in rap: profanity, the use of the N-word, and misogyny. However, each of his solutions seems a bit trite. Profanity? Who cares, everyone swears, we should not be afraid to look past it. The N-word? It is co-opted by rap as a way to take away its negative connotations (with which I agree, but don’t find to be a new argument). Misogyny? Well, that is the authentic reality of the lives of most black males. However, he notes, some male rappers are capable of showing a more romantic side, with lyrics such as LL Cool J’s “I wanna kiss you hold you never scold you just love you/suck on your neck, caress you and rub you/Grind moan and never be alone.” I suppose that is a start, but not exactly like rapping about a woman’s intelligence or sense of humor, is it?
I readily agree that there is a literary beauty in many of the lines quoted in this book. For example, these lines of the “poem” “For Women” by Talib Kweli do have a lyrical, and stirring, quality: “She swears the next baby she’ll have will breathe a free breath/and get milk from a free breast,/And love being alive,/otherwise they’ll have to give up being themselves to survive.” But most of Pate’s best examples come from a bygone era of 1990s rap, which was more socially conscious than the Top 40 hip hop of today. It seems to me hard to deny the artistry and creativity present in an early innovator of hip hop such as Kweli, but where is the poetry in lines such as “Watch me Crank Dat Soulja Boy/Then Super Man Dat Hoe?” To me, the failure to address the vapidness of modern hip hop/rap is a scholarly oversight, and the fact that it is impossible to analyze modern mainstream “artists” seems a failure of the hip hop genre.
Is it culturally-imperialistic for me to question the fundamental decision to treat lines such as “Look here Miss Thang/hate to salt your game/but you’s a money hungry woman/and you need to change” or “My bitches my bitches that’ll fuck out your brain/My bitches my bitches that’ll take the pain” as poetry? I almost feel as though the very premise of this book cheapens the actual art that has been created by black men and women, such as Alice Walker or Robert Hayden.
What does it mean for the level of intelligent dialogue taking place in our country today if we are so quick to put Jay-Z on the same playing field with a man who could write, “Here space and time exist in light/the eye like the eye of faith believes./The seen, the known/dissolve in iridescence, become/ illusive flesh of light/that was not, was, forever is.” Hayden used words as an art to lift the spirit to a higher realm, in a way I have rarely heard a rapper use his lyrics. In this sense, I take issue with Pate’s assertion that rap is “the most vibrant element in the landscape of African American literature.”
Perhaps there was a time when rap was vibrant, with a strong anti-establishment message, but now that it is the establishment, do the words of Langston Hughes not take on more revolutionary fervor and immediacy? “Let America be America again/Let it be the dream it used to be/Let it be the pioneer on the plain/Seeking a home where he himself is free/(America never was America to me.)” To me, there is a notable qualitative different between the words of Eve and the words of Maya Angelou, and when discussing the strength of a literary form, shouldn’t the language itself matter?
Pate asserts that even though most rappers are not “literary,” and do not come from a tradition of studying literature, they are still able to use literary elements effectively. However, I think there is a risk for the literary arts in devaluing the importance of understanding the history of literature, and the necessary knowledge about the human condition that is gained from such study. Rap may be effective at painting a portrait of inner city life, but the study of other cultures’ artistic output is necessary to achieve the more difficult task of tying that ghetto experience into a broader reality of the disenfranchised throughout history and around the world.
In the Heart of the Beat is a great first step in the discussion of issues of modern literary art and the significance of black culture, but I don’t accept it as the final word. Pate makes some very interesting points, and I greatly appreciate the work he has done here to examine the merits of rap as art, and to bring this discussion to the halls of academic institutions.
However, I would argue that, while there is artistry in rap and comprehending it is an interesting line of thought, rap lacks the subtle, mysterious, contemplative quality that is the hallmark of so much great literature. Rap is meaningful, but just because we are so used to the obviousness of modern pop culture that eschews the esoteric for the glitzy, should we accept that this is the best we can hope for in our art as well? I, for one, still insist that true art capture the sublime.Powered by Sidelines