Rap Poetics

“I found the music that I was falling in love with to be extremely poetic, profound, insightful, philosophical…It taught me what I know about history, about politics, or at least it sparked my study into those things.

So then when I stepped into academia. Then I started to see the perception of Hip Hop, and I started to see that actually they perceived Hip Hop as something that was trivial, something that was unintelligent. I immediately was struck with a paradox.

When I started to realise that not only does that exist, but maybe it plays a bigger role in the narrative of racism, into institutional racism, elitism, classism, that exists within the university, that exists within academia, that exists within society in general, I started to make a conscious decision to say, actually, no, this is Rap Poetics.

It has been my experience that UK Higher Education marginalises, trivialises and denigrates rap music and Hip Hop culture more generally. As an English Literature student (from BA to PhD) it has been continuously reinforced to me, overtly by academics and implicitly by university/classroom culture, that rap lyrics are not as rich, complex, creative, thoughtful or as moving as those texts which are conventionally characterised as poetry. As Otis highlights above, this creates a paradox – and can then result in cognitive dissonance – for ardent rap fans. Further, it can lead those who produce or identity with rap music to feel inferior and alone in the academic space. I agree with Otis that this refusal to properly embrace Hip Hop and treat it with the respect it deserves – as an art form and educational tool – is entirely due to the racist and classist logics which pervade higher education.

Although American universities have some profound systemic problems – to say the least – they also have a fairly long history of critically and creatively engaging with Hip Hop. Otis and I therefore looked forward to speaking with American artist, Open Mike Eagle, who shared his insights on successfully merging Hip Hop & academia, the importance of doing so and the efficacy of curating labels – such as Rap Poetics – to expose and resist the power binary imposed on rap and poetry. For Open Mike, who popularised the term “Art Rap” more than ten years ago, addressing language was a political manoeuvre that allowed him to carve out a space for him to be more thoughtful, reflective and vulnerable in his music. Language effectively changed material reality.

Whilst Open Mike was primarily responding to restrictions imposed by the music industry, he noted that the importance of changing Hip Hop’s material reality in educational spaces was that – with mainstream media promoting a certain type of rap music – important art works are being lost in time and space. Universities have the power to elevate and archive these works but will only be moved to do so if they appreciate the inherent value of such a mission. This is of course a major challenge, especially for artists, academics & activists in the UK.

Whilst there are some individuals and even organisations (such as the UK branch of #Hip Hop Ed) leading the line and working tirelessly to establish Hip Hop as an academic enterprise, it is far from being a fixture in the higher education institution. It may well appear on some music modules, but is unlikely to feature as a primary or secondary source in Philosophy, History or English Literature.

Otis and I were keen to develop a Rap Poetics Seminar for this reason. One that could inspire English Literature academics especially to reconsider both their current content and teaching practice. It was important to us that we didn’t sacrifice or dilute some of rap music’s key components, which is a real risk when looking to institute any independent art form or practice.

Incorporating performance and having the actual artist present in the [online] seminar space seemed like one way to do this. This would not only expand and enrich our analysis of the text, it would also help dismantle the boundaries between inside and outside. Severing Hip Hop from its roots is one sure fire way that academia can distort and dilute its power and value. Making the seminar public via this website and inviting everyone watching to contribute their own thoughts (see below) was another way in which to help democratise knowledge production.

The original plan was to explore the formal and thematic elements of Otis’s song “Swell” for around an hour, with no sense of objective or evaluation beyond reflecting on the experience of taking part in the seminar. However, letting five lovers of literature loose on a long, multi-layered set of rap lyrics (this is the closet I will ever get to rapping) meant that we did go slightly over. For me personally (and I think for all of us), this was a deeply enjoyable experience and one that I wished I’d had during my time as a student. Enjoyment aside, the exercise evidenced the virtues of engaging with artists within the classroom (not to close down and confirming meaning, but rather to reveal further layers of it) and, if proof was needed, reinforced the value of utilising rap lyrics in the same way we utilise poetry in English Literature modules.

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we were unable to hear Mubeenah for large sections of the discussion. Although this has been edited out of the video -for the sake of flow and sound quality – we have felt it important to make sure her opinion is still heard in some way. Beneath the lyrics, you will find her critical insights and close readings of the song, as well as a comment box where you can show some of your own.


Treading on deep waters
turbulence split me at the torso
running out of
propagated pipe dreams
stock piling canned goods
room full of fire wood
watch the influx

We’re all plotting on a morsel
wake up to every street in your city decorated by a Starbucks
and every carpool karaoke
corporate slop
bury me with my flaws and tropes cloaks and cogs
they put a pause on hope and corset on God
everything’s so poignant
improv like limp walk
born in bile and learn the job
craft your guile and turn the clocks
we’re all free until the wage stops
burn the plot and stage props
trade your cards and gauge the loss

It’s all been made up
they wave their wands and we’re the ones been preyed upon
a ruse and con but whose to smirk when you’s the one
being used for fun
lubricant my lexicon
slippy knowledge
many frolic and found whiskey solace
and all we need
they keep it from us like Tuskegee onsets
onslaughts, malice minds in greasy collars
TV dinners and brain damage
and we’ve been too kind with the word Nazi
and you played it modest in the grand theatre of sock puppets
and sleazy monarchs

Dogma’s a man’s best friend
and what a dog’s dinner we’ve made
I stroll around the park at my own volition
you graced me and my empty gullet with such abundance
that it wrenched my stomach
because it’s easier to lie lame than it is to part ways
hard faith might see you through dark days
but blasé and curdle with that banal age-old fable
cradle oneself
and smother oneself
just to nurture one’s self-fulfilling prophecy of habit
a generation of unaudited adults left deceased from cot death
hard luck like hard drugs
the more we have

the more we need and on edge

When correcting the self-loathing is the only driving motive
when every rhyme is holy you get kind of cozy
sly is the family stone that broke me
are my genes the chariots of my addiction
you are my affliction.

For Mubeenah:

  • Within the first few lines, the use of plosives (“propagated pipe dreams”) have a forceful effect on the initial tone of the song. This suggests the difficulty of what was going to be expressed during the song. In those few lines, the artist, preparing to talk on such topics, almost ‘swells’ and births the words from his mouth, illustrating (through the manipulation of sound) the colossal task of this introspection.
  • This effect is then continued through the meter and use of rhyme later in the song. The artist, coming to several conclusions in a conscious, continuous stream of thought, enforces the urgency of their realisation. This is evidenced in the double meaning of “wake up to every street in your city decorated by a Starbucks”. On the one hand, this line suggests literally waking up and, on the other, it suggests waking up to the issues discussed throughout the song.
  • The artist, or speaker, then later uses the juxtaposition of “cradle oneself…and smother oneself” to highlight how introspection is a conscious decision. One who has access to social media and endless knowledge (demonstrated by the use of historical references in the song) can actively choose to disengage from and ignore this knowledge. This line describes the different states the artist might find themselves in – either “cradled” in ignorance or “smothered” through the consumption of too much knowledge, or witnessing traumatic events and experiences.
  • One recurring theme in this song is the internalisation of race as a social construct, as well as the (paradoxically juxtaposed and synthesised) internal and external binary. This links back to the title, “Swell”, where external forces (i.e. the use of political tools as weapons) and internalisation of dogma is confronted by the speaker in the song.

If you would like to add your own interpretation to the lyrics above, or respond to any of the comments made during the Rap Poetics seminar /provided by Mubeenah here, then please feel free to share in the box below.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: