This article investigates the differences between rap and poetry and tries to find an answer to this much-debated question.
Is Rap Poetry?
Rap and Poetry
When considering whether rap and poetry are the same, there are a few common talking points:
- They have different subject matter – but, rap and poetry are capable of speaking on the same subjects. For example, songs like ‘Heartless’ by Kanye West and ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ by J. Cole discuss heartbreak. So too do poems like ‘Never Give All the Heart’ by W.B. Yeats ‘I Am Not Yours’ by Sara Teasdale.
- They have different forms – but, both use verses, refrains, rhyming words, rhythm, and meter.
- They use different types of language – but, some poems use complex language while others are far simpler. The same can be said for rap. However, there is a difference in the percentage of jargon and slang language used in rap versus poetry.
Before going any further and trying to figure out whether rap is poetry, it’s important to define the two forms of expression on their own.
What is Rap?
Rap is defined as rapid singing and speaking that uses rhyme, slang language, and musical, usually electronic, accompaniment.
Rap’s origins date all the way back to West African Griots (or bards/storytellers) in the 14th century and up to early examples of jazz poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. Modern rap originated in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York. There, hip-hop artists laid the groundwork for the future work of the best-known musical artists of the 21st century.
What is Poetry?
Poetry is commonly defined as writing or spoken words that express feelings and ideas, sometimes using rhyme and rhythm.
It becomes more difficult as one breaks down the definition of “rap” and “poetry” to find the true places where the two diverge. Without a doubt, the differences and similarities between rap and poetry are a topic worthy of debate and one that is going to go on for the foreseeable future. It’s likely that every reader is going to have a slightly different opinion in regard to the question, “is rap poetry?”
What Makes a Poem, a Poem?
Depending on who you ask, a poem can be defined differently (some of which are truer than others). For example:
- A poem uses rhyme schemes and/or metrical patterns.
- Poems discuss deep emotions.
- They are written down and shared on paper.
- Poems are complicated and require analysis.
- They dig into universal experiences and feelings.
- Poems conform to specific styles and movements.
- They use poetic diction and elevated syntax.
Some of these definitions might ring true and others false, but they all speak to the broad nature of this form of literary creation. To complicate things further, according to poets, poetry is:
[…] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.— William Wordsworth
[Poetry] lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.— Percy Bysshe Shelley
Dylan Thomas believed poetry is:
what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.
While these are all true to an extent, in reality, what makes something a poem is far simpler. If an author believes their writing is a poem, it is. A poem can be anything the writer wants it to be. It could be one line, 30,000 lines, or two words (see Muhammad Ali’s ‘Me We’ for an example).
So what does that mean for the similarities and differences between the two?
Rap and Poetry Similarities and Differences
Rap and poetry share a wide variety of similarities, so much so that it becomes difficult to find where one begins and the other ends. Because the definition of poetry is so broad, rap and poetry can be said to share the following:
- Rhyme —both use rhyming words
- Rhythm and meter —both use language that creates rhythm.
- Verses —both use verses or stanzas to separate out ideas.
- Refrains — both use the repetition of lines or entire stanzas/verses.
- Subject Matter —both can discuss all possible subjects and commonly speak on the same ones (for example, heartbreak, loss, grief, and death).
Interestingly, many of the ways that rap and poetry are the same are also where they diverge.
- Rhyme and Rhythm— today, far more rap songs use rhyme and rhythm than do poems. Free verse poetry, or that which contains no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, is far more popular than traditional forms of poetic writing that use patterns like iambic pentameter.
- Verses — some songs and poems are impossible to break down into individual verses. Modern and contemporary poems are more likely to be experimental in their form. For example, shape, Imagist, Language, and Dadaist writing utilize short lines, nonsense language, experiments with typography, and more.
- Use of Language — more often than not, the language in rap songs is easier to understand and easier to relate to than that which is featured in traditional poems. For example, Elizabethan poetry (such as that of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson) contains complicated lines with unusual syntax that contemporary readers struggle with. Rap, on the other hand, is (usually) written in order to be understood and enjoyed. Additionally, rap songs use more jargon and slang language than poetry does. It is here that the two forms of expression are most commonly cited as diverging.
- Use of Musical Accompaniment— this is another major difference between contemporary rap and contemporary poetry. Rap is, unless it is performed in a highly unusual setting, always accompanied by music of some kind. Poems, on the other hand, are almost always delivered without anything to boost their rhythm beyond what the poet’s words accomplish.
Is Rap Poetry?
While the broad definitions of poetry and rap established in this article are liberating, it doesn’t mean that all poetry/rap is equal or that all poetry/rap is “good” (the definition of successful or “good” writing is entirely subjective).
For most people, some rap is poetry. That which deals with emotions, uses thoughtful language, is composed with care, and shows off the writer’s creativity, is poetry. While other examples of rap, which lean heavily on profanity, jargon, repetition, sampling, musical accompaniment, and shock value, are not poetry.
Sometimes, rap is categorized as jazz poetry or spoken word poetry. But today, the difference between rap and poetry is a hotly debated topic that divides music lovers and poetry lovers alike.
For some, the difference between rap and poetry comes down to the use of jargon and slang words or the use, or lack thereof, of musical accompaniment. But, for others, rap is a form of creative expression that should be equated to contemporary poetry.
It depends on who you’re asking. For some, hip-hop and rap are poetry, but for others, the use of slang language, shock value, musical accompaniment, and other elements of hip-hop separate it from poetry.
Many do consider Lamar, a poet. He has been described as the “poet laureate of hip hop,” winning a Pulitzer Prize for Damn. in April 2017. The album has been praised for its storytelling ability and dynamism.
Many consider music a form of poetry. Often, songwriters (for example, Bob Dylan) have been described as “poetic” storytellers, and many of their songs as “poems.” But, it is up to individuals to define what is and is not a poem.
- Watch: What makes a poem… a poem?
- Watch: Hip-Hop & Shakespeare?
- Watch: Is Hip-Hop, Poetry?
- Listen: Rapping, deconstructed: The best rhymers of all time