#AWP17 Conference Report — Tara Betts on “The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism”

awp#AWP17 Panel F134. The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism

Description: From the early rap record liner notes to the annotation explosion of Genius.com, hip hop artists and audiences have always engaged the written as well as the oral textuality of rap lyrics. However, treating hip hop lyricism as written literature is a fraught proposition. Locating rap at the crossroads of written and oral traditions of African American culture, the panel evaluates rap as a written art that is symbiotically wedded to oral culture.

Panelists: Victorio Reyes, Derik Smith, Tara Betts, Jonah Mixon-Webster

Conference Report

Tracie Morris, former slam poet, author, performance and sound artist, professor and Coordinator for Performance + Performance Studies at Pratt opened the panel by drawing connections between her essay in An Exaltation of Forms (edited by Katherine Varnes and Annie Finch about 15 years ago) and the study of poetics and hip hop. Her opening comments made thoughtful insights about the papers by four panelists—three of them poets in their own rights, two of them Ph.D. candidates, and two of them professors, all of them deeply interested in hip hop. The clear through-line found in the panelists’ varied approaches would be that the voice serves as a vessel for poetry and embodies a number of texts that are subversive, rich, and full of historical contexts.

When Victorio Reyes Asili opens the panel, he discusses how hip hop not only has connections with the ancient oral legacies of global cultures, but that hip hop also has ties to the internet’s beginnings via the transcription of hip hop lyrics, so hip hop is not just performed, but also read. Asili particularly discusses how Regina Bradley notes the close timing of OHHLA being started in the early days of the internet and how the poetry of hip hop has been transmitted via technology:

“Think of all the word doc files, notepads, mp3s, and 8-track recordings, a nearly limitless ocean of compositions all sharing one thing in common; they are all composed in a related poetic verse. And these verses that we experience as listeners to a poetic, musical performance are also verses that we seek out as text, text that we read, share, and annotate. When we read these texts, we honor the lyrical skills of Hip Hop’s craftspeople. As the legendary Rakim put it: ‘I like to be read.’”

In making these connections to past oral traditions and the perpetuation of hip hop through technology, Asili sets the stage for Derik Smith to discuss the parallels between the presentation of hip hop artists with Black Arts Movement poets and preachers. He begins by mentioning “figures like Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni, who in the Black Arts era created populist poetics that was meant to help conjure a social and cultural revolution” but quickly references Kanye West and Notorious B.I.G. sampling Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets respectively. Rather than relying on the same underlying disdain of “porkchop preachers” and the Black church as a pacifying force, Smith articulates how hip hop artists find another approach in the work of preachers:

“Instead the poems needed to vibrate with the Dionysian power that was best exemplified in the oral artistry of the black preachers—and so, in their Oedipal battle against the patriarchs of the black church, BAM poets became versions of the preachers they sought to overthrow and replace.  They did this because they wanted to connect with the black folk classes who had for so long ignored the black artist-intellectuals who were wrapped up in the tar-baby of the Alabaster page. Listen to what Baraka wrote in 1970, “Simple faith, like church people say, that’s what we want—hard rock emotional faith in what we are doing. The same way your grandmama used to weep and wring her hands believing in Jeez-us, that deep deep connection with the purest energy, that is what the Nationalist must have” (Raise, Race 143). Realizing that it was the ritual and inspirational power of the church that galvanized the masses, these new intellectuals committed themselves to an ecstatic, liturgical and eminently oral poetics that emulated the art of the preachers in its moans, repetitions, elongated vowels, antiphonal cadences and additive oral formulas.”

This idea of how the poetry sounds impacts the narratives and how they are received. It also makes them easier to remember, so when Jonah Mixon-Webster discusses the power of ad-libs as a onomatopoeic device and a method to make side commentary or create rhythm. Mixon-Webster describes ad-libs as “Those glancing quips that peek through a moment of pause between a lyricist’s bars. The little phrases echoing from the background, the ones you find yourself waiting to chant along with,” and mentioned several examples, most notably Lil’ Jon known for “YEAH!” and “Okaaaaaayyyy!” However, the overarching idea of crafting memorable moments paired with concrete details and pleasurable sounds is more prominent in his talk:

“Now moving forward to what is also pleasurable about the adlib, we see that has much to do with its manipulation of the written and oral/aural textures of a phrase. Though as we’ve witnessed, many rappers may utilize similar lexicons, yet it remains that rappers are still able to use the affirmative in a way that can be felt and nuances.”

Tara Betts concluded the panel by beginning with an anecdote while writing and working in a coffee shop where she is listening to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce in October 2016. During the same time period when Nicki Minaj bowed down to Ms. Lauryn Hill as an act of deference. In doing so, Betts frames her essay with discussing how women’s voices in hip hop have been limited in some ways, but these two women found success that is not only empowering for young women, but also subversive in their rhyming bars and their sung vocals. Betts discussed how both women assumed different roles, and in the case of Minaj, different characters and personas. She then drew connections between their functions as emcees with Roland Barthes’ essay “The Grain of the Voice” and other Sound Studies scholar Adriana Caraveros’ essay “Multiple Voices.” In doing so, Betts explains how Barthes’ feminizing of the voice limits the capacities of women like Hill and Minaj who have expanded the possibilities for the female voice in hip hop. She mentions how Morgan Parker and Barbara Hamby have referenced Beyoncé and Lil’ Kim, so there is an emerging thread of women raising their voices in this genre’s craft.


Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue” as well as the chapbooks “7 x 7: kwansabas” and “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali.” Tara holds a Ph.D. from Binghamton University and a MFA from New England College. She currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.

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