To call mainstream hip-hop and poetry synonymous would be outright laughable. I can’t imagine Waka Flocka Flame getting up at an open mic and reading a recently-penned verse from his spiral-bound notebook any more than I can imagine Billy Collins reading over a beat. But in spite of serious differences, contemporary hip-hop and poetry often can be found coming from the same throat.
Probably best known for a viral video that got him featured on Ellen Degeneres’ daytime talk show, George Watsky is a poet and hip-hop artist who was featured on Def Poetry at twenty. He competed as a member of the 2009 Emerson College CUPSI team, the 2009 Providence National Poetry Slam team, and hosted the finals of CUPSI 2010 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater. Oh, and you can find his albums here.
Impressive resume aside, the man knows how to put words together, beats or no beats. His work is impressive beyond the his virtuoso-speed and linguistic grace because it uses the hip-hop constructs of puff-chested bravado and free association to construct a persona that is completely outside the typically MC posture of hyper-masculinity, which hinges on sexual conquest and physical violence. Lyrically, Watsky is more about intelligent, exuberant wordplay than self-inflation. In abandoning the mantle traditional hip-hop manhood for a healthy dose of self-deprecation, he doesn’t err on the Drake side of the spectrum either, eschewing brooding over his flaws in favor of celebrating misfit status as part of the joy of being human. To call his songs and poems uplifting would be accurate almost all of the time; he is somehow able to speak frankly about where we fail as people, while still advocating for authenticity and a strong sense of self, whoever that self may be. And the fact that he always looks like he’s having the time of his life can’t hurt either.
I often find myself wondering if the common person is built to appreciate poetry. I’ve read countless articles stating that fewer than 10% of adults in America identify as poetry readers, and at every performance I’ve ever done myself, at least one person has come up to me and told that they had no idea that poems had a life beyond loathed high school textbooks. I constantly have to remind myself that my group of friends is unique in our obsessive scouring of journals, podcasts, open mics, and workshop groups for a new voice that articulates a feeling we couldn’t quite get right ourselves. And then I go to a Watsky show, where I am crammed into a crowd of roughly 500 people who not only know the words to his songs, but can “sing along” to his poems as well. When I saw him perform last night for the first time in several years, his set was exciting not because of the lyrical content of his songs or his impressive style of delivery (though those are both reasons I showed up in the first place) but because he performed three consecutive spoken word pieces sans backing band and the audience was rapt.
This isn’t one of the poems he did last night, but I once saw him peel himself off a hotel room floor in a cipher to perform it. It is entitled (aptly) “Drunk Text Message To God”.
Not all hip-hop is poetry, and not all rappers can be called poets, but when you find a person riding the line between those two genres and remaining so impeccably themselves, you should probably download their entire discography and study hard.