Note: George and James will perform texts from memory at the beginning of this class. George will perform a passage from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and James will perform Dylan Thomas’ “If I Were Tickled by the Rub of Love.”

In this class we’ll look at connections between African-American and diasporic forms of music (blues, jazz, soul, hip hop), poetry, and politics throughout the twentieth century, but in particular in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. We’ll read Amiri Baraka and other Black Arts Movement poets, we’ll listen to Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets (“Poetry is Black“), and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and we’ll compare those earlier styles to hip hop poetry of the 80s, 90s, and 00s.

Excerpt from Amiri Baraka, Blues People. [I’ve decided to leave this off because it’s hard to select just an excerpt from the book, and there isn’t time to read the entire thing. It is recommended, though, if you are interested in the development of blues and jazz and how it relates to the process by which enslaved Africans became American.]

Excerpt from James Edward Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapter 2.

In addition to watching the videos embedded below, I encourage you to browse other tracks by these artists and to find out a bit about the ones you aren’t familiar with.

Jayne Cortez—along with Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, etc., associated with the Black Arts Movement.

Gil Scott Heron—influential poet-performer and precursor of rap

The Last Poets—a shifting group of poet-performers from New York

The Watts Prophets—jazz and poetry group from Watts, Los Angeles.

Linton Kwesi Johnson—progenitor of dub poetry, born in Jamaica, now lives in the UK.

Mutabaruka—another well-known Jamaican dub poet

Hip Hop History—a documentary about early hip hop, narrated in part by Afrika Bambaataa

Sugarhill Gang—”Rapper’s Delight,” one of the first popular songs that used rap

Common—this track also features The Last Poets

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  1.   sarahcoluccio

    So I know I’m a bit early with my posting, and I know that not all of the texts / videos are up yet, but I have a bit of a crazy week ahead of me so I figured better early than rushed at the very last minute.

    Right off the bat, I had a reaction to the Smethurst excerpt when he discussed the way in which writers and poets tried to capture the popular voice of the people, either by projecting it full-on in their work or by flavoring their work “through the use of the occasional vernacular word or phrase, a relatively small altering of standard syntax…and so on,” (60). This idea got me thinking about the fact that writers today still do this in an attempt to capture the voice of the people, but there’s an added factor – not only do writers, poets, musicians, etc try to use the vernacular in their work, but more often than not what ends up happening is that many of the words and phrases they use which aren’t part of the language already become the vernacular itself, in a way. Think about it – how often do we hear a new word or phrase in popular culture that can be claimed by or credited to some writer, singer, or rapper? Not only are they furthering the common language of the people by using it in their work, they’re also helping to create it in a sense. Movies, music, poetry – where would we be today if not for them and their invention of some the most popular catch-phrases we all use? Even Dr. Seuss contributed to our modern language – words like “nerd” and “crunk” (both of which he coined!) are part of our everyday vocabulary. I, for one, would not like to bet on the chance that the next time Jay-Z or Snooki comes up with a new phrase, it won’t be the next thing out of everyone’s mouths.

  2.   Nick Matthews

    “Thus, if the Black Arts movement inherited from various avant-garde sources a predilection to stress process over product and a sense of the materiality of the voice, especially the black voice, it also received an emphasis on the importance of the visual text as a means for conveying this materiality.” (Smethurst, 97)

    I found Smethurst’s final section “Text and Performance in the Early Black Arts Movement” to be the most interesting in terms of our discussion (the above quote is also from that section). Coupling this section with the performance videos for this week only seems to further the connection between performance as a “black aesthetic” in the Black Arts movement. While much of Smethurst’s final section attempts to ascertain whether this is indeed true or not, one is left undeniably certain that vernacular, dialect, and performance all make up a large part of the origins of the Black Arts Movement.

    While this has evolved over the years, I feel pieces such as those by Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, put an emphasis upon the notion of revolution as a collective, progressive effort. The use of percussion in particular, is a palpable presence throughout those performances as a sort of sonic heartbeat that steadily resounds throughout. Each of these performance seems not only enhanced by the musical elements, but inexorably twined to them, as though their power and authenticity lies in accordance to the sound.

    I suppose I’m left wondering if live performance is the link that twines the origins of African-American Performative Art, to the current day incarnation of Hip-Hop?

  3.   jaygwelsh

    While going through the recordings, I was intrigued by how much of modern hip-hop culture I read into the poetry performances. It becomes blatantly obvious that this school of poetry served as a proto-rap culture in a way, not just with the inclusion of music accompaniment, but also the emergence of themes such as class struggle and radical change. Gil Scott Heron’s piece “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” especially comes to mind in this instance, not just because the hip-hop culture of today echoes a lot of its sentiments, but even the poem’s title (Lord knows how many times I have listened to one of my hip-hop albums and heard the phrase “the revolution will not be televised” in one of the verses).

    In that vein, then, I would have to give my opinion on what Nick asks at the end of his reply, specifically on what the connections are between this school of poetry and modern hip-hop. I would have to say that there isn’t so much a link as there is an adaptation, or re-telling of the story. Like I mention in my beginning paragraph, the recordings are a Rorschach inkblot for the average hip-hop fan. It’s undeniable the links between the two eras of poetry. Not to say that hip-hop is nothing more than a knock-off imitation (I’m looking at you, Hollywood, and your insistence on remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho scene-for-scene some years back). Instead, it’s more like revisiting those old-school concepts in a new-school setting. Simply being in a new environment gives you not so much a different outlook (that word isn’t strong enough) as a different twist on the ideas. The same movies our parents and grandparents watched in the movie theatres and drive-ins we’re now streaming online from Netflix. Just being new makes you see the old in a new way (if that makes any sense).

    For fear of veering off-course, I’ll move on to other matters. I agree with what Nick says concerning the performances’ “emphasis…of revolution as a collective, progressive effort.” This is evident when Last Poets perform as a group (often trying to drown each other out to be heard) and when artists such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka perform concerts in front of swelling crowds. Not only are they trying to mesh their selves and their audiences into a singular “we”, but they are trying to incorporate their listening audience into the artistry as well. The creative drive to create (whether it is a poem or a philosophy or a social order) is palpable during these performances as the artists not only leave an impression of their views, but they try and make their audience an evangelist for those views. It is the rich, organic power of oral performance at its finest.

    As for what Sarah said about the artist-audience relationship in terms of language, I largely agree. There is an urgency for the artist to relate to the audience, even if it’s something as superficial as just repeating colloquialisms and other lingo. At the same time, though, I think that largely conflicts with artists and their role as builders of words. After all, while Shakespeare tried to funnel public sentiments at the time into his works, he was simultaneously ahead of his time by constantly coining new words and phrases, many of which are now part of our everyday speech. So I have to wonder who relies on whom more, linguistically-speaking: the artist or the audience?


    P.S. For those interested in modern nods to the recordings in this week’s discussion, I can heartily recommend listening not only to Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” but also to pretty much anything by the group Reflection Eternal (a group consisting of Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and – on occasion – Common), especially their song “Respiration”.

  4.   coreyfrost

    This is a great start to the discussion. The reading is relatively light this week, so I’m looking forward to doing some “close listening” to the videos in class tomorrow. Also, thanks James for the listening suggestions, and I’d love to hear other people’s recommendations for contemporary artists who you think are linked to the tradition of poetry performance we’re talking about. That would likely include any song that incorporates rap, but I’m also open to arguments about other popular music and how it fits into the category of poetry performance. Besides, I’d like to be educated about current hip hop—I really only know what I hear coming from passing cars, although I look up tracks if I hear about the rapper in the news or something. So if you are more of a connoisseur than I am, tell me what you like.

    What do you think about this idea of Sarah’s about vocabulary moving back and forth between art and daily discourse? As James puts it, “who relies on whom more, linguistically-speaking: the artist or the audience?” I would respond that the artist and audience are not mutually exclusive groups. In other words, the process by which someone uses a new word in a song or someone uses it in real life are not that different–invention and imitation can happen simultaneously, in a sense.

  5.   Elizabeth

    James’ question of who relies on whom more, linguistically speaking: the artist or the audience is one that I thought of right away while listening to the Def Jam recording of “Poetry is Black.” I think they rely on each other very heavily. In that particular performance I could feel the performer feeding off the energy of the audience. At the beginning, when the performer says “Poetry is Black” an audience member repeats it back, prompting the performer to chuckle and repeat it back to the audience. The speaker was dependent on the agreement of his audience. Obviously it was successful, and to my ears, certainly beautiful and compelling. Would it have had the same effect in every audience? I’d imagine not. The artist was dependent upon his audience to make the performance as good as it was.

    The Def Jam poetry plays into one of the main concepts that Smethurst was trying to bring across. One of the main ideas was that many artists in the Black Arts movement saw themselves as being a counterculture, as being specifically “not-white.” I think that “Poetry is Black” fits into that definition of Black Arts as non-white. When the artist discusses the music that flows through Black people and Black poetry, it is essentially the continuum that Amiri Baraka believed in; not that jazz and “new thing” were symbolic of the African-American culture, but rather that they belonged to the African-American culture. Obviously the veracity of this belief has to do with whether or not one feels that one culture can own anything, no matter what its source. Does Elvis’ estate owe some people a lot of money? I don’t know.

    Unrelatedly, another thing that I loved about the Def Jam poem was that you could easily imagine what physical movements the artist was making based upon the audience’s reaction. i thought that was fantastic.

  6.   mmullin1

    The whole Black Artist Movement was really unique. I say unique because it was an African American Movement while a lot of the poetry style derived from white poets. The whole idea, from what I have read, of the Black Arts Movement was to seperate black culture from popular culture. But by stemming from existing styles, I feel that the new creation throughout the movement can never be it’s own entity. Unique, yes, because the cultural styles are all meshed together (jazz,bepop,rhythm and blues, and even a mention of Billy Holliday) to make it’s own “avant-gard” in society. The recordings I listened too were excellent because it backs up my whole stance on listening to something rather than reading it. When you hear the clips from the Last Poets to the Sugar Hill Gang to Gill Scott Heron to Common, the progression of where the movement came from to where it is wild. The styles that are adapted throughout history are what make it still relevant. The music and hip hop create expression, which is what I felt Smethhurst’s article was about. The Black Arts Movement was all about expression and noncomformity. The way The Sugar Hill Gang lights up a crowd in the late 70’s, to the power of a performance by Common today empitimize this genre. It’s intensity, it’s pride, it’s everything that you believe in that goes into what you are performing. The words become that much more real to the masses. The way hip hop artists and audience’s connect is what makes it a culture and a movement.

    To comment on the topic of imitaion and invention being simultaneous, I feel that it is simulataneously going on because the connection between artist and audience becomes so real. The artist is writing his/her work to relate to the audience so there is a level of connection. From an audience stand point, the imitation is embraced because the audience obviously connects to the artist in a real level. The whole Black Arts Movement to me began with this concept and goes along with creating a culture that is expressive.

  7.   Sean Rogers

    (Amiri Baraka is seated across from Richard Dawkins (in a t-shirt proclaiming “We are all Africans”) in a soul food restaurant on Frederick Douglass Blvd.)

    AB: Yo Richard, you can’t keep wearing that shit, especially around me.
    RD: But it’s true, we are all Africans. Diaspora is human, not simply black or Jewish or any cultural derivative of ‘human’
    AB: Don’t use air quotes. You look ridiculous. And I’m not arguing with you about this again. It has nothin’ to do with truth but perception and the perception is we’ve been dragged so far from Africa a brotha like Sammy Davis got so lost he converted to Judaism. And you ain’t African. On 125th and Lennox you is white, okay? Whiter than whitey on the motherfuckin’ moon. So I’m asking you to please stop wearing that shirt around here. As a favor, okay Rich?
    RD: Very well Amiri. I don’t mean to get into this but it’s just that if we could all just accept Darwinism and evolution than everyone could wear the shirt. Look how good they came out?
    AB: They are pretty nice. Cotton?
    RD: Thank you and yes it is cotton. So let’s put an end to this quarreling and get you in one of these. It’d be a great help for the website to have a picture of you wearing one.
    AB: But that’s the point Richard, I don’t need to wear one. You see all these fuckin’ yuppy white kids from NYU doing those goofy stretches on the yoga mats across the street. Those kids know where I’m from. They think Harlem is some kind of zoo exhibit now. Where they gonna put us next? We can’t move north of New Rochelle.
    RD: But this is a good thing. It’s an end to white flight. They’ve come back to embrace you.
    AB: This is white passive aggression. They ain’t gonna share shit. I preferred the flight. Everytime they come around our way shit goes bad.

    Awkard silence. Food played with. Richard prepares to say something that’s been on his mind for a long time.

    RD: Amiri, why don’t you ever introduce me to your friends. After all we’ve known each other a very long time.
    AB: Cause you keep pullin’ shit like this. These people don’t give a shit about Darwin as some mystical unifying force. They see you in that shirt; with that Cambridge accent.
    RD: Oxford Amiri, you know that.
    AB: Whatever. Nevermind.
    RD: C’mon. Don’t get upset. Remember that Millie Jackson concert: London 1978.
    AB: Yea, I remember you got high as shit.
    RD: And do you also remember that I lost my virginity that night. Gave me the confidence to become the man I am today.
    AB: Richard. I got something to tell you.
    RD: What?
    AB: The girl from the concert. You remember how you couldn’t find her. How you couldn’t believe you’d forgot to ask for her number or where she lived.
    RD: Yes, I remember. I mean I would never tell Lalla this but she’s never been able to match up to her. I can’t imagine why should would have shoved off so quickly that morning without a proper good bye. AB: Shit.
    RD: What? What about it?
    AB: The girl was a hooker.
    RD: What do you mean a hooker? Like a prostitute
    AB: Yea whatever, same shit. I mean, you just got so stoned and kept goin on and on about the bitch from Cambridge (RD: Oxford) Whatever whiteass school it was, anyway you’d been pining after her for weeks and she turned you down so I thought a girl would help you out.
    RD: So you mean she didn’t read the Origin of Species? But my whole life has been predicated on that moment. If that wasn’t true than none of this true. All of those shirts I ordered. What’s to become of them now Amiri. You tell me what is to become of the shirts? Become of me?
    AB: I dunno Rich. I’m sorry. A dictated history’s a bitch.

    The above is highly fictitious and pretty unlikely due to social, temporal, and scheduling restraints.

  8.   alee909

    I just had some comments about ‘high/low’ culture stemming from the Smethurst article. He talks about various European immigrants associating with their peasant culture in opposition to a ‘high imperial culture’ and also talks about how various African American composers did something similar later on (59-60). In hip hop music today, we might also see a division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ depending on who you talk to; there are a lot of people who support the underground hip hop scene, which they think addresses more substantial and meaningful topics than the ‘mainstream garbage’ on the radio, which glorifies materialism, violence, and misogyny. It seems like hip hop also has an interesting place in our cultural hegemony today because, although it is such a huge piece of pop culture, it isn’t totally respected in the ‘professional’ or ‘academic’ areas of our lives. I would think that most of the ‘professional’ world either consciously or subconsciously frowns upon some of hip hop’s rhetoric, regardless of their understanding of its positive or negative power. Imagine going to a job interview and being asked why you’re the best candidate for the position. ‘I’m the illest candidate; nobody got my level of experience and I can hustle insurance policies mad nice.’ I would think that most reactions would be negative to that. . Hip hop studies also didn’t get much respect in academia, but I think that’s changing; schools like Berkeley, Texas A & M, and others seem to have created a an academic discourse on it. .

    I was reflecting on Sarah’s comment about how much we’re immersed in language from popular culture. I was just thinking, a lot of students in our class are teachers; what consequences do you see from this in your classrooms?

    I’m not too up to date on contemporary popular hip hop; I’d really recommend one semi-underground group called Blue Scholars. All their stuff is pretty good – I would recommend tracks like ‘Joe Metro,’ ‘Motion Movement,’ and ‘Morning of America.’

  9.   Joshua Lindenbaum

    As jazz and blues influenced poets from the 60s and 70s, poets today are highly influenced by hip-hop. Take any emcee’s lyrics away from the beat and you have a poem. The beat is what distinguishes music from poetry, unless of course you consider music a form of poetry.

    Hip-hop is the most lyric-orientated music available. You won’t find a hundred bars in a rock or jazz song or any other genre for that matter. That’s what sets this art form apart from the rest. The focus is on the words; the beat is simply an accompaniment. There is no need for a band, only a turntable and a mic are required. And anything can be used to provide an emcee’s words with a stage: video games, a commercial, disco, and so on. But what constitutes hip-hop?

    Afika Bambaataa considers many forms of music to be rap, but by today’s standards would be labeled r and b or soul. But that brings into question: what is rap? According to KRS ONE (knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone, a follower of Bambaataa’s work) “Rap . . . is something you do . . . . Hip-Hop is something you live.” Is rap simply talking in a formulated rhythm with rhymes accompanied by slowed down break beats? Let’s bring this matter forward to a current argument. Drake, a well-known rapper, came out with a record where he sang for the entirety of the song. This record lead to arguments in regards to whether this song was rap or RnB, which makes me ask myself this question: if Drake came out with a R n B record first, would this conversation even be happening? No. Since Drake is associated with Hip-Hop, even if his music deviates from the genre’s characteristics, the music still might be considered rap. But others say, that his song is R n B. Classification slides on its own slime like a snail. Afika Bambaataa would probably consider the song rap, but that’s merely speculation based on the short video we watched. But there is something to say of this instance . . . hip-hop is more than a music; the music is the expression of the people. Do the people make the music or does the music make the people?

    I could go on, but I would just like to end this comment for obvious reasons. It has been quite a significant journey from Ancient Greece to the Chicago’s Common. The communication of artists (conscious and unconscious) is ongoing and constantly transmuting. Art is like the flu virus, it constantly changes. I really appreciate all the things I’m learning. And this ladies and gentleman . . . is hip-hop.

  10.   mooneydanielle7

    Others’ discussion of language and how the vernacular has affected our language reminded me of an undergrad class of mine. I took a course called History of the English Language, and it was broken into three sections: lexicon, phonetics, and semantics. On the first day of class our professor explained two schools of linguistic thought: prescriptive or descriptive approach to language. Prescriptive language is the vocabulary and grammar according to a textbook. Descriptive language is the viewpoint that our language adapts through our use of it. It seems that anyone who ascribes to a prescriptive approach of language is old-fashioned and stubborn in their rigid ways because it is obvious that our language is changing. I would even argue it changes more rapidly in present day than in the past due to the exponential growth in technology. It seems like every other week some new device is making its debut, and after it’s been out a short time everyone can mention it with familiarity. My technologically challenged mom knows what a Bluetooth is and went out to purchase one for herself. That’s the first “new” word that popped into my mind. A customer service representative from my bank said “my bad” on the phone to me the other day.

    I really enjoyed the article’s idea of a cultural continuum. The entire article gave me a sense of cultural evolution that seemed to fit with everything we’ve spoken about thus far. I don’t know that much about hip-hop music and rap so I don’t really have much to weigh in on. in respect to the present-day discussion, but I thought that the sound clips of earlier Black Poets had a distinct attitude about them that seemed like an adaptation of the Beat Poets we listened to for last week. Gil Scott-Heron was my favorite.

  11.   pseraphin

    I really liked the youtube videos. One thing they all had in common is the rythm, the music playing in the background. They all have that drum sound which is native of Africa. Some of the poets are mellow, others are more alive which matches the drums.
    I was listening to “Poetry is Black” it sound like people in the audience were having a lot of fun especially when he said”slow mellow rythm”. People were laughing so much in the background that I thought he was talking about something else. I am not sure what poetry is “Black” means. I wonder if the speaker says it literally or if he really believes it, or if he is just saying because that’s what black people want to hear. I am a little annoyed with the sentence “Black people you are beautiful”. I am not sure how long the poem has been around but I feel like a lot of this poems have to always affirm that black people are beautiful and essentially I want to know if that’s all “Poetry is Black” really means.

  12.   gfl11131988

    Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 781
    Response # 6
    George Festin Lorenzo

    The connection between African-American and specific forms of music, poetry and politics was one of the most interesting topics we have discussed so far, and admittedly so, the YouTube videos really helped contribute to that. What really stuck out for me was when the hip hop and rap history lessons came into discussion. I felt they were very informative as well as interesting and it was especially refreshing to hear Sugarhill Gang’s, Rapper’s Delight, all over again. That was my introduction to rap music way back in 1999 and to this day, is one of my favorite rap songs of all time. The Hip Hop History documentary was very informational as well, being the fact that I had no clue who DJ Kool Herc was until I watched it but then became quite amazed that he was a trailblazer of the hip hop genre.
    Something interesting I would like to bring up was what Elizabeth put down in her response. Elizabeth wrote, “One of the main ideas was that many artists in the Black Arts movement saw themselves as being a counterculture, as being specifically “not-white.” I think that “Poetry is Black” fits into that definition of Black Arts as non-white”. To comment with what Elizabeth said, I completely agree and find that that was a real niche in sticking out and being notable. Gil Scott-Heron is a fine example of this, considering some of his lyrics he writes, such as when he says, “The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people” in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and especially his entire outspoken lyrics in Whitey On The Moon. Without hesitation or reluctance, Scott-Heron has no problem speaking out against white people and by having lyrics such as, “The man just upped my rent last night, ‘cause whiteys on the moon. No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But whiteys on the moon”, being that he feels the country has no problem sending Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two white astronauts, to the moon, but when it comes to serious and real situations, the country wants to have no part of it, because, according to Scott-Heron, “whitey’s on the moon”.
    The connection that African-Americans have to their writings, music, poetry and politics are all very unique and interesting. They sit aside from other writings and authors of other backgrounds simply on the basis that a strong sense of black pride and black nationalism is strongly evident in their lyrics, especially when it comes to speaking out against injustice, discrimination and racism from the white community.

  13.   Elizabeth

    This is the npr piece on homophobia in rap

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  • Listening “Literature” implies a written text. But what about the audiotext? Why do we refer to the “audience” (from the Latin audiens, listening) of a literary work? This course is about listening to literature and reading performance. ____________________________________
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