Nikki Giovanni: In the house of hip-hop there are many rooms

Beautiful, just beautiful, interview over at NPR with Nikki Giovanni, as she talks about the origins and intentions of her latest project: Hip Hop Speaks to Children.

This elevation of hip-hop out of its self-imposed trope ghetto of pimpin’ and signifyin’, nines and forty-fives, spinnin’ rims and whips, chains and bling, syrup and Grey Goose, bitches and hos, and the realization of its rightful place as modern folk culture for the citizens of the stoop and parks.

A question that’s been doggin me lately is this: If 60s Folk Music icons Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Joan Baez can be considered poets by the mainstream; if modern R&B and Rock artists Jewel, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Henry Rollins, and Billy Corrigan can get their poetry volumes published by the powerhouse publishing houses; then where is the consideration for hip-hop artists?

Outside of Tupac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete and the very excellent teaching guide Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics for the Classroom (Alan Sitomer and Michael Cirelli, Editors), there is very little academic consideration for the intricate wordplay, voracious metaphor, and authentic narratives of a KRS-One, Biggie, Rakim, or Nas. What up wit dat? Is American Letters fear of a rhyming couplet planet that deep?

The good news is that there are many writers working to correct that and writing in the tradition and from the experience of hip-hop. I look at the poetics of Patrick Rosal, Suheir Hammad, Willie Perdomo, and Kevin Coval and see a lot of doors that let me access the house of hip-hop. The theater work of Danny Hoch, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Sarah Jones, and the Chicano Messengers of Spoken Word pushing the possibility of the text, the break, and the stage. Educators like Paul S. Flores bringin’ the four elements into higher academic institutions. And my go to text for the history of hip-hop, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.

Now I can add another writer to that list of artists: hip-hop poet Nikki Giovanni. Her ties to hip-hop start with her ties to folk lit which is how she got to editing a book children’s literature.

“Children’s literature is folk literature and the folk had to have a way of conveying information and so they used a cadence. What we remember is if we have a preliterate people, whether it’s an enforced preliteracy or if we take it back to– for example–Biblical times, if we put it in a cadence then people will be able to remember and recall the story.”

Check the interview (with links to MP3s from Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and Langston Hughes adding to the hip-hop/folk/kid lit connection) and also some great readings from Oscar Brown, Jr., and Ms Giovanni herself reciting “Ego Tripping.”

Full interview from NPR’s All Things Considered: Giovanni Finds Funky Beats To Teach Poetry To Kids

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
  the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
  that only glows every one hundred years falls
  into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
  drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
  to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
  the tears from my birth pains
  created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
  out the sahara desert
  with a packet of goat’s meat
  and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
  so swift you can’t catch me

  For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
  He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
  as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
  men intone my loving name
  All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
  the filings from my fingernails are
  semi-precious jewels
  On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
  the earth as I went
  The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
  across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
  like a bird in the sky…

© Nikki Giovanni

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  1. Great post. I love this Nikki Giovanni poem! Anyway, Jeff Chang also edited an anthology of Hip-hop poetry, so maybe that’s where it starts, as well as the books that Cypher Press publishes. And I maybe the apparent dearth of Hip-Hop literature has to do with an emphasis on performance and recording CD’s?

    There is also Adam Mansbach, who does seem invested in publication. Though is he primarily a novelist?

  2. PS you also mentioned Michael Cirelli, author of Lobster with Old Dirty Bastard (Hanging Loose Press.)

  3. Good recommendations. I was narrowing the list to artists whose work I’m very familiar with.

    Chang’s hip-hop arts anthology, Total Chaos, looks like a real winner and is on the (ever expanding) to pick up list. As is Cirelli’s new book which I’ve heard great things about.

    Mansbach’s reading at Chang’s event last year was a great reading and I should be looking out for his work some more.

    Which leads me to your initial question about the dearth of hip-hop lit. I actually don’t think there is a dearth of material but I do believe there is a dearth of anthologists and academics who view hip-hop as a bonafide art form. They are not entirely at fault for this, a lot of proponents of hip-hop who, for some misguided reasons, don’t want the art from to be taken seriously and would rather have their art be above critique. But that’s just my opinion.

    Luckily, Giovanni, Chang, and Ishmael Reed (From Totems to Hip-Hop) are working to correct this dearth of academic hip-hop letters. And that’s for real my opinion and my hope for the future of hip-hop arts.

  4. To be “fair,” re: reluctance to hear/have critique, isn’t there a general “fear” of these non-institutional art forms falling into institutional standards once its constituents open the door to official criticism?

    I ask this because of my recent reading of LIVING PIDGIN, in which the author discusses the contradictions of bringing the “people’s culture” and its tradition of resistance against the institutions and their standardizing into the institutions, where it would be subject to standardizing.

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