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.