DWYCK : a Cipher on Hip Hop poetics Part 3
Before we jump back in, last night was Zook's funeral. Taking the A train to Utica, I am reminded that Boys and Girls High School was where the African Street Festival took place for many years. If you were to walk towards Bergen and Buffalo, you would get to a row of old houses that were part of Weeksville, an old neighborhood founded by African American Freedman in 1838. Last night, I was on Troy Avenue near Fulton. Zook was a Kappa Alpha Psi man and the funeral was packed with more than 50 Kappa brothers. When they stood up, our hearts stopped because we had no idea just how deep they roll. Those who could be there were indeed there. Shelley, Ian, Brad, Carmen, T'Kalla, Tai, Keisha, Tjade, Hanifah and Derick were among the old faces packing this place. There I discovered Zook went to high school with an old pal from my Red Zone days. He had also partied with an old Shelter dancer who I loved to study her moves. His connections were deep. Zook was working with Ntozake Shange on a new theater project at the time of his passing. Miss Shange was there with her longtime friend and caretaker. Zook appeared to be asleep. No exaggeration. Asleep with one of his signature hats. He looked alive.
I read the obituary. It is brief. I am baffled by it. His creative career could easily fill this side of the program. His friendships the back cover. Why did someone so quickly forget this man was an artist? That he was loved? After services, many of us ended up at Amarachi Lounge for the wake. His closest friends created an altar with his favorite items: jacket, tagged up jeans, a picture of Pep, Djarum clove cigarettes, Timberlands...his chess set. The only item missing: Foster's beer. We gathered and met each other all over again, talked about Zook, laughing and remembering fondly. Darren Diggs was on the turntables. Prince's "Erotic City" broke the quiet over some of us as we smiled and sang along. Zook middle name was Prince. By the time the merengue was playing, we were dancing.
We continue our cipher...
9. Should we also discuss class, the working class, and how linguistics and oral tradition is played out in communities of color?
High Priest: Maybe for another discussion—class and RACE.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Absolutely not bro! It is very much part of this discussion. The culture and movement itself can’t be 40 years old and restricted to only talking lyrical structure. What about signifiers that pertained directly to communities of color or that call out to a one? What is being translated when I force myself not to drop the “g” on my gerund? What am I saying when I 'spit' in Spanish?
Jessyka Jaymes at 3:15
Hanifah Walidah: Uhm, that is not something that can be discussed neatly in a few paragraphs. Lets just say black folks are the masters of the cipher. The cipher is the mathematical wonder of our community. Whether it is a cipher of dancers, spiritualists, doo-wop singers or MCs. It is a cultural container filled with witch’s brew. Where does one begin? Black folks and poor folks rule! Cue the horn section!
Yolanda Wisher: I will say that I’ve debated with MCs and poets about whether or not communities of color are solely rooted in oral traditions as opposed to written ones. And I’ve always felt that we privilege the oral traditions a little too much, that we don’t know or celebrate enough the written traditions that exist in communities of color. We assume that the communities of color aren’t “literate” (in the same way that they don’t have theory).
High Priest: The constructs of Race and Class alongside colloquial/oral traditions don’t neatly bookend into this particular dialogue- It’s bigger than hip hop-
Patrick Rosal: Hip-hop resists a monoculture, doesn’t it? It thrives on contradiction and juxtaposition. I know my English is fucked up. It’s part academic, part Jersey (which is, in short-list form, Jersey shore Italian-American, Hungarian farmer, Black Baptist, picket fence American, Taglish, Ilokano, and Roman Catholic fantasy). My cousins are immigrants and mostly work for an hourly wage. The way I talk to them is somewhat incomprehensible and mostly unacceptable in academic professional gatherings. I have spent my whole life not just intuitively shifting between classes (different accents, different silences) but constructing a language that accommodates all of them. It connects me to many communities, but it also means I’m an alien just about wherever I go.
As for oral traditions, I didn’t really read books for real until I was 24 years old. I think part of that is growing up and being raised by bullshit-artists and storytellers. Part of it is that young men of color, in particular, are not encouraged to read--not to mention they don’t publish many books whose main characters look like us or move through the world like us. But we do have stories. So we have cutting sessions and we talk shit on the court after crossing somebody up. I’ll just say that it’s not an easy space to occupy--being fully admitted into the class of Professsional Academic and having both a lexicon and multiplicity of narratives that often outright contradict the dominant forms of speech. You can feel like you’re losing your mind--to be so deeply moved by these familiar forms of speech in one setting and have those same lively speech acts seem utterly useless in another setting. That’s a long way of speculating whether hip-hop is one mode of addressing discrepancies in language because of class differences. Even the term “Hip Hop Poetics” is a kind of a hybrid, right?
LaTasah N. Nevada Diggs: Patrick drops the mic. Black Baptist...dang PR. Oh the Cakalacky memories. Was not going to do this but PR, you gotta read Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence by Keith Gilyard.
10. Do you feel there is an error in reading hip-hop poetry and slam poetry as the same thing? Aren’t slams battles?
Douglas Kearney: I do think there is an error there because every expression of hip-hop can’t be shoehorned into a battle in a real compelling way. A lot of reflection goes into hip-hop; craft and shit that isn’t necessarily in a battle. I dunno, “slam” seems most useful to me when I think of it as a venue or verb. Any poem (readable in under—what’s the usual—three minutes?) could be “slammed.” Yet any poem can’t be a hip-hop poem.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: As an adjective, on occasion, I’m quite “slamming.” But as a verb, I don’t “slam.”
High Priest: Rap Battles are sooooooo slam poetry see: Loaded Luxe verses Calicoe
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: HP, I have one thing to say to you…
Hanifah Walidah: Slams are a competition but not so much a one-to-one battle and dismantling of the other person or team. Hip-Hop poetry is slam poetry when performed at a slam. Slam poetry is entertainment. I’m not a fan. It’s a gimmick show or at least it has become one. It is a venue for megalomaniacs who are there to get points, ass, or ego strokes. I will take this time to acknowledge my elitism regarding the fame-soaked cess pool that is slam culture. I‘m sorry. Hated-it!
Douglas Kearney: Bwaaa-haha! And HW drops the mic.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Ouch. Patrick, please step in. Please step in! I need to quote you Doug on something you mentioned earlier. You said, “There are moments of raw inspiration that change the game (or invent it), but isn’t the game built on steadiness, a kind of consistency of style, technique.” I think this could be applied to slam. I’m not at all an expert on slam poetry/performance, but the formula definitely deals with that “consistency of style and technique.” The challenge I have with understanding slam is often, to my ear, the formula never changes. The technique never changes. It is consistent at providing mirrored cadences, hand gestures, over-annunciation, lists, break down, etc. If it did have its variables, I’m not finding it on Youtube. Here’s your stencil. Fill it in with what ever words you want to use and boo yaa! You have a slam "poem." I know I am dead wrong for saying that. While the content may be different or even amazing, I find it difficult to differentiate between one piece written by a Queer Chicano and one by a Haitian youth from opposite coasts. And trust me, I hate sounding like someone who is deaf (not def) to it. Call it treadmill syndrome.
Yolanda Wisher: I don’t think of hip-hop poetry and slam poetry as the same thing. I think the battle is beside the point because hip-hop poetry is bigger than the battle. I think slam poetry can be seen as a competitive sport. The ways in which it’s been used in the US, especially with youth, have been transformative and empowering. But I agree with LNND that there’s something formulaic in slam’s approach to cadence. “Everyone sounds the same.” It seems like slam is churning out/manufacturing of a (youth) voice that often seems like it is of dissent or are radical and anti-oppressive, but is actually co-opted and mainstreamed by business, advertising in some fashion or another. I think slam came about in response to the snootiness of Poetry, it’s academic leanings, at least the poetry in the “major” poetry magazines. Slam provided a way for marginalized voices to enter the mainstream under the heading of poetry and art, but it was quickly commodified. Like the battle, slam can be the ladder the poet climbs to street cred or a record deal.
Patriack Rosal: I have slammed four times in my life. I have been around folks who do it very well. In my limited experience in and around slam, I would assert that slam is also a craft. Slam is not hip-hop--though it has absorbed (appropriated?) very culturally legible elements from hip hop. I won’t dismiss slam for the reasons that Yolanda mentions—that it in its best manifestations, it can be an expression of resistance. I have been in a room when a crowd is moved by a good slam poem. Isn’t that worth something? That said, it hasn’t just become a gimmick, it was born out of one: Marc Smith was trying to get people into a bar, so he made a Vaudeville-like poetry show. Even that gimmick has evolved. Slam is now Incorporated.
11. To quote the poet, actor, recording artist Saul Williams from his essay “The Future of Language,” what role does the future of language play in hip hop poetics in 2013?
Hanifah Walidah: I have no ever-loving idea what Saul meant by the Future of language. Wait. Let me Google it. Ok. Here it is. He talks about being able to “Articulate the unspoken.” I think this already is obtainable between people who share an unspoken language(s). There is no singular unspoken language just as there is no single spoken language. I think the ability to be able to share or teach or use unspoken languages outside of the world of the native speakers or expressionists would be wonderful. Maybe this is the evolution of language that he speaks of which essentially brings us back to the evolution of humanity.
Yolanda Walidah: We have to dig into our vernaculars, the individual and collective ones, and put them to use in art, to stretch them, to explode and flip them. I think as Latasha said earlier, hip-hop is a language. It’s influenced by time and geography. It’s trying to write something over the ages. We betta listen and respond. I think Williams is saying something about language as human and cosmic energy. As the creators/shapers of language, we have to think deeply about what we are making and why. It’s energy being kicked out into the universe.
Patrick Rosal: Well, the thing I love about what you do, Latasha, is that you splice the future tongue. In America, we’re formally asked to be proficient in one language--mostly standard American English. We all know this is a construct. The fact that hip hop directly challenges the existence of a privileged Standard American English is a clue to the importance of a hip hop in the future of language. One of the things that hip hop has done (and I hope continues to do) is correct the history on how many and what kinds of Englishes are spoken in America. And now in the 21st Century, not just English, but Chinese, Spanish, Chamorro, etc. Hip hop has the potential to convey a narrative of American languages, but more powerfully it has the potential to dramatize the unacknowledged history of American languages.
LaTasha Nevada Diggs: Salamat papi! Alofa tele atu batata dushi!
12. Why aren’t there—in the land of literary hip hop poetics—any beefs? Where is the art insult? No UTFO vs. The Real Roxanne vs. Roxanne Shante. No 50 Cent vs. Jay Z beefs. No LL vs. Canibus. Where’s the beef? Do more literary heads fear some academic cock-blocks or panel hating for Whiting nominations? Possibly lost of income during Black History month, Women’s Month, Asian History Month, Native American Month? Was there something learned from the most notable of beefs: 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G? Or is this generation of hip hop infused literary and oral poetics void of that type of vibration?
Douglas Kearney: Ha! Ain’t enough juice in it. Who cares if I don’t like Billy Collins? Where is the “neighborhood” where such beefs would take place and mean anything? AWP? But seriously, I think we see disses all the time: whole stylistic modalities are more actively articulated as “disses” in poetry than in hip-hop (which often first thinks of style difference as a regional characteristic, right? rather than a critique.); reviews; anthologies; journals may be dis mixtapes. Are these more “subliminal disses"?
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Thinking about more and more, I personally think they exist in the comment threads in social media as well. Nothing like a status update to set it off. Smiles. But what you’re talking about Douglas, I see where you’re coming from.
High Priest: There was plenty of it but fortunately most it was subliminal so it never escalated.
Douglas Kearney: “You’re an anapest sans ana-, and your feet I’m steppin' on./Morning time smelling like Nag Champa and leprechauns./But I am Bic and light your stick, snuff your little limericks,/toking token trochee shit like Smokey smoking spliffs./ I’m a terror to dactyls, play fly, stay stressed, all spondaic./T-Rex when I wrecks text, off the meter, can’t weigh it!”
Hanifah Walidah: Ha LNND! Such a good point, that social media comment sections are the latest and greatest battlefield. We all have had our moments to flex securely hidden behind our screens. But with poets, perhaps, I think the beefs happen off the stage, quiet as it’s kept. Again, there is not a market need for battles because their isn’t big industry support or sales to manipulate. Battles, thought of today, are marketing gimmicks. If we mean battles of old, as in pre-hip hop on the radio and wax, then spoken word maybe doesn’t have the cultural infrastructure to take it seriously enough. With that being said, I would love to see poets maybe take battling to another level but they would need to be fearless in deconstructing the battle. Sometimes I think hip hop poets look at MC’s as the big brother that puts you in a headlock and makes you scream uncle if you try to touch his stuff. Is that wrong, maybe, but I’m saying.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Hey there’s something you keep pointing to HW that I think is really important to address which has to do with what went down in NYC, Chicago, Boston, and LA. Hanifah, I’m sure you can recall the level of hype generated at the high point of VK, Ninety-9, Saul, Jessica, etc. For individuals who were spoken word artists or MC’s this was a really cool opportunity. That said, I think the rise of bookings agents for spoken word artists really blew up around that time. It also determined what was good and not so good in terms of marketability. I remember Freedom Rag magazine and NuSchool magazine, both short lived publications founded by Kymbali (former dancer for KC Flight) and Adario Strange (?) from The Source were well meaning. But then what troubled me was an article in 1996 in YSB where everyone kept talking about wanting to take spoken word to the mainstream. This to me was too damn quick. And I have no problem saying that it stunted some folks creatively. Like you said HW, the incubation of Hip Hop in the Bronx took some time before folks caught a wiff. The Vibe Khamleons were featured in Vibe magazine and The Source ran a small article featuring spoken word poets talking about their favorite MCs. And then poof! No one was interested anymore…which was probably a good thing.
Douglas Kearney: Word, HW! The cultural infrastructure is an excellent point. I’d add that nostalgia for hip-hop’s early days has led to a perception of it as this always Edenic populist space. I think a lot of spoken word (which as we see it today is like hip hop’s younger sibling) has generally (and self-consciously) applied that we’re-all-in-this-together idea to pre-emptively work against the divisions folks lament in hip hop culture—which were present in the beginning, right?—but we have mythologized them as happening first with the evil introduction of money.
Or the West Coast [I’m throwing up my dub right now].
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: UNCLE!!!
Yolanda Wisher: There’s beef. Every time you sit down to write. I got beef with poets who say something that I wish I had said first or better. When I sit down to write my next poem, I’m battling that. That’s beef that fuels. But everyone, poets and MCs, should chill on the beef that kills.
Hanifah Walidah: “poof!” is real LNND, with the exception of a handful of poets who worked the system and others who worked the system AND had talent. At the end of the day poetry is not a mass-market commodity written or spoken. There are movements and waves but…
Patrick Rosal: I’m gonna say Amen in particular to what Yolanda said that she has beef with other poets. Many times, I guess, we’re just not in the same room (case in point, this cipher). I don’t hate technology for it, but it would be sad to see the body-to-body cipher disappear. Not for nothing, but you could smell a dude from another crew if you were uprocking against them. I know we’re talking about poetry and spoken word beefs here, but it’s been a minute since I’ve seen an ill, live, dance battle--I mean rage sublimated into the incredible body. My homeboy Anthony Morales, aka Tony aka Chico, from Edison, NJ was (still is) a dope dancer. Even into his thirties, I saw him take dudes out on the floor. There was a time, even in the waning days of sweaty dance floors, when a dude like Tony kicked the bucket hat off of a dude he was battling. OK--so sometimes we did fight anyway after a dance battle, but most of the time, the beef began and ended on the dance floor. Rage ain’t no joke. We know it can kill a young man or a young woman. I think the battle was one place where we put it.
And so concludes DWYCK: a Cipher on Hip Hop Poetics. Hope you enjoyed the ride.
The cipher is:
Kyle Austin aka High Priest aka HPrizm: Composer, Lyricist, Educator - Founding member of the rap collective Antipop Consortium. Priest’s latest composition, a tone-poem/tribute to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell entitled “WAVES” is slated to premiere at Sons d’hiver in Paris featuring David Viralles, Steve Lehman and Wadada Leo Smith. His collection of written works, Back to Kush will be published by Glassman & Bear in 2014.
Douglas Kearney aka Magellan aka Blot: Poet/performer/librettist whose second, full-length collection of poetry, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. Red Hen Press will publish Kearney’s third collection, Patter, in 2014. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California's Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts.
Patrick Rosal aka P-Ski of the Majestic Force Breaking Crew: the author of three full-length poetry collections of them include Boneshepherds. A former Fulbright Fellow, he is currently on the faculty of Rutgers University- Camden's MFA program, where he teaches poetry, poetics, and remix history and culture.
Hanifah Walidah aka Sha-key: musician, playwright, educator and ethnographer. She is the co-founder of the poet/performance collectives The Vibe Khamelons and The Boom Poetic, both recognized as groundbreaking for their fusion of hip hop lyric structure, beatnik cadence and poetry. A longtime member of the neofunk band Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Hanifah currently lives in Paris and is touring with her band, St. Lo.
Poet, educator, and musician, Yolanda Wisher aka Little Nay, Nay Nay and Pootsie, hails from Philadelphia, PA where she directs a youth education program for the Mural Arts Program. The founder of Poetry for the People Philly and the Germantown Poetry Festival, her first book of poetry will be published by Hanging Loose Press in 2014.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs aka Squeaky representing Harlem, USA. Die hard Depeche Mode fan. Does not know how to manipulate her gluteal muscles to a beat. Once had a phone thang with the road manager for Funkdoobiest. Occupational hazard.
Tarot for the Day: The High Priestess, The World (Reversed), The Devil
Song for the Day: MC Lyte "Cha Cha Cha"
Interdisciplinary poet and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs was born and raised in Harlem. She studied at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and earned an MA at New York University and an MFA at California College of the Arts. Diggs’s work is truly hybrid: languages and modes...