If you rejected rap as just the sweary, nonsensical vernacular of the downtrodden and angry, then it’s high time for you to listen more carefully. Rap, which has now been around for nearly half a century, has become the most popular form of contemporary American poetry today. His powerful and lyrically complex rhymes and rhythms are heard and loved around the world.
For the past 10 years, first at the University of Connecticut and now at UCLA, Amber West has used hip-hop lyrics as the literary vehicle through which she teaches academic writing, critical thinking, analytical reading and rhetoric. A lecturer in UCLA’s writing programs since 2016, West teaches the English composition course “Identity and Representation in the Post-Hip-Hop Era,” with a focus on diversity. She asks her students to write about the messages of rappers; the politics and poetics of hip-hop songs and music videos; and issues related to identity, diversity and representation.
Not everyone appreciates rap as poetry worth studying. “Some people are skeptical when you call it a form of poetry, but they’re also skeptical if you call it a form of music,” West says of the hybrid art form.
But rappers often use the same techniques that poets have relied on for centuries: imagery, metaphor, simile, character, rhyme and rhythm, and attention to language. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar have received critical acclaim for their work. The Compton, Calif. native won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his rap album, THIN.beating both a cantata in five movements written for chamber choir and a composition for string quartet premiered at Carnegie Hall.
Hip-hop has also gained legitimacy as a subject of literary scholarship. Today, students at West study the poetry of rappers such as Salt-N-Pepa, Eminem, Jay-Z, Bad Bunny and Lamar.
When West was developing his course in 2011 as a Ph.D. student, she was delighted to read The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop, written by Adam Bradley, a Harvard-educated literary scholar who pioneered the study of the art form. “Here’s this scholarly book on rap as a form of poetry,” West says. “I got the green light. If anyone tried to question what I was doing, there was now a scholarship to support me.
The hypnotic rhythms of rap will resonate even more on campus, as Bradley, a scholar of African-American literature and culture, has joined UCLA as a distinguished professor of English. As founding director of the Race and Popular Culture Lab, he brought the RAP Lab with him.