Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The BreakBeat Poets

As a teacher, I get regularly bombarded or hounded by text-book publishers trying to get us to adopt their textbooks. Many of these books recognize that they must do a better job of seducing the skeptical student (and teacher) than they’ve done in the past, and it’s somewhat standard to see such texts boast about how this new revised, expanded and updated version “extends our efforts to bring students to literature by including writing that speaks in voices more like theirs, to which they can connect,” as the new edition of Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford St. Martin’s) does. Yet such texts tend to merely repackage the same old “common core” or “canonical” work, while their contemporary offerings generally fit into a narrow range of de-politicized “personal experience” narrative genre and makes no room for “spoken word” poetry (with the possible exception of Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences) alongside of its broets like Joshua Clover. By contrast, the recent anthology, The Breakbeat Poets (New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop), edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, is a corrective, and I can’t wait to use it as a text in my next college literature or creative writing class.

Superficially, this could be called a “niche anthology,” but after reading this collection of 78 poets, all born between 1961 and 1999, at least twice through, I can concur with the publishers’ claim that this anthology offers “a fuller spectrum of experience of what it means to be alive in this moment” than any other anthology of contemporary poetry I’ve read in the past 30 years. “The BreakBeat poets are saving American poetry,” Kevin Coval writes (xvii), and this is no idle boast.

The editors did an amazing job of creating an anthology that sets a standard for deep, difficult poetry that speaks a language, and shows the struggles, that younger people (of any race) can relate to. Its formal range makes room for some of the kind of poems the Bedford textbook would include, but it also goes beyond the mainstream Vs. “experimental” (say Vendler v. Perloff) continuum, as well as the mid 20th century battles between the “raw” and the “cooked” and helps create what Thomas Sayers Ellis calls “a path around both Academic and Slam Poetry, to eliminate the misconceptions between them.”

The Breakbeat Poets makes me feel sane, more rational, less alone….not working in a lopsided vacuum of (mostly) white poetry communities or institutions…it gives confidence and maybe even the ability to confide…It may even restore my faith in the possibility that indeed poetry (even on the page) can do and say something that prose—or engaging conversation (whether commodified or not) cannot, as this work synthesizes my love of direct statement (that sometimes breaks the “show, don’t tell” taboo) with a language play I always feel torn about having to edit out of my OP-ED like prose.

The BreakBeat Poets also sets a standard by gathering a community together by embodying the spirit of unity in diversity. This self-exceeding book is no dead artifact, but a social scene anyone who has read it can be a part of, like a cross between a sidewalk cipher and the best, most democratic, creative writing workshops. As hip hop broke with disco’s whitewash to return to the un-coopted roots of funk, and claim the strategic separatism of a generational as well as racial identity as a power base, so does this anthology harbor the possibility of liberating us from the hierarchical ageist and Eurocentric conventions of literary and academic culture.

Sure, there are some writers who have first achieved notoriety through the white-mediated literary institutions, and who write in forms more accepted there—but there are also others who have first achieved notoriety on a grass roots level: in The BreakBeat Poets, the trickle down literary economy meets the trickle up, as these young (by poetry standards), gifted, and (mostly) black writers include much more existential wisdom (even about issues as grave as death) than the many collections dominated by older establishment stylists…

From 40 years hindsight, this anthology shows that even though hip hop may have at first been thought of as a youth culture phenomenon, even perhaps by some of its practitioners, it is increasingly becoming a multi-generational culture. The wide-range of aesthetics, perspectives and philosophies included in this multi-racial anthology nonetheless seem to present a unified front against a common enemy. This does not mean to suggest in any way that these writers don’t honor their elders or their traditions, only that they weave the segregated threads of many traditions together in ways that could help heal America and show what a post-racial America could look like.

Two Legacy Poems: Krista Franklin and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

There are an infinite number of portals through which one can enter the world created by The Breakbeat Poets. Thumbing through its pages, I notice more tributes to Black Arts Culture Worker Hero, Amiri Baraka, than to any of the hip hop artists celebrated (Biggie, Kendrick, Tupac, Sheik Spear, Ole Dirty Bastard, Kanye, and Nas for instance). Clearly many of the writers in The Breakbeat Poets are as influenced by Baraka as by hip hop culture (some even claim that Baraka helped open the door for hip hop culture), and when he passed away at the age of 79 in January 2014, 8 months before #HandsUpDon’tShoot and #BlackLivesMatter went viral, there was a palpable sense of loss, collective mourning and a more acutely urgent need to honor his legacy. His spirit, in death, goaded young and old, men and women, artists and activists, to do more, to do better, to grow and unite people in the struggle against white supremacy, capitalism and imperialism, and this sense of urgency for collective action informs The Breakbeat Poets.

Baraka’s life achievement can not be summed up in a paragraph, but he did more than perhaps any American writer of his generation to show the complex intersections between culture and economic/political issues and, through his insistent calls for collective action (especially after 1966) and refusal to shy away from (if not exactly court) controversy, helped create a coalition between the socialists and social justice folks, the cultural nationalists, artists and musicians, and those who value literature “as such,” thus helping to “blow up bullshit distinctions between high and low, academic and popular, rap and poetry, page and stage” (as co-editor Kevin Coval puts it).

One of the goals of The BreakBeat Poets, according to Coval, is to “connect to a vastly disparate audience in order to bring awareness to the sanctity and humanity of the people and places at the center of the poem” (xx). And judging by the majority of the obituaries in the corporate press (as well as some comments on facebook), there are still many (whites) who doubt—or dismiss—the sanctity and humanity of Amiri Baraka (even if they liked Le Roi Jones).[1] Against this racist backdrop, the powerful tributes to Amiri Baraka by Krista Franklin (b.1970) and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie (b.1973) each in their own way, help “set the record straight….or at least scratch it.”

These two poems face different directions to explore similar themes and messages. Comparing these two tributes to Baraka, one may first feel the tonal difference: Tallie’s poem reads more like an earnest—almost religious—praise poem, focusing on what she loves about Baraka  with some aesthetic detachment, while Franklin’s lament wields wit as a weapon against the same obstacles and foes Baraka fought against. Franklin focuses more on the cultural ground while Tallie focuses more on the heroic figure(s); Franklin rope-a-dopes against the obstacles while Tallie refuses their right to exist. As Baraka knew, both strategies are necessary. Franklin expresses Baraka’s anger and tough love while Tallie emphasizes the resilient workaholic gentleness which grounds that anger:

“insurrection of his tenderness
surrender to the work
of love….not just the romance” (Tallie, “Possible”)

Tallie’s poem offers a way out that is also a way in, beyond the transience of “transcendence”:

out of the box                 they spring
out of the narrowness of yesterday & some bleak projected tomorrow

impossible men
outlawed drum of their hearts
our loving them is the forbidden religion….

Tallie’s “impossible men” can be actual just as Baraka was/is actual even if the white literary establishment said/says:

he’s impossible
exasperated arms fling
shaking heads              closed doors  establishment wallets shut

Tallie’s reference to Baraka’s heroic ability to survive (and even triumph over) the white literary establishment’s backlash and ostracization the more he came to spi(ri)t the truth and demand his people’s right to the “outlawed drum of the heart” may contrast starkly with the reality Franklin finds in Baraka’s absence, a reality conspiring once again to banish the drum, not through the blatant Nazi Music Regulations of Goebbels as much as by “market forces” (““and the drum got/pawn-shopped for a machine”). The drum machine is cheaper, and from Franklin’s perspective the drum machine can be seen as one of the many “austerity measures” foisted on black folks more intensely since the 1970s (even if it was sold as progress).

Franklin drags us more through the contemporary hell that is trapped in this box from which Tallie’s impossible heroes spring; this “box” of “hunched shoulders (where) McCay’s call to arms/ is buried in the graveyard of the poet’s imaginings.” Feeling the bleakness of the contemporary world even more acutely after his death, Franklin takes up where Baraka left off in her description of the cultural decay, and backlash, that she has experienced ever since she was born in 1970:

America picks the lint from its navel, moonwalks
Its way back to antebellum inertia, lulls itself
To sleep with airwave regurgitations of 1970
Before music sold its soul for a stripper’s pole (66)

In these last two lines, we see contemporary America stalemated between the Scylla and Charybdis of two equally destructive options, nostalgia and contemporary insipidness, both sponsored by the same corporate media. This impasse is similar to Tallie’s “narrowness of yesterday & some bleak projected tomorrow,” but for Franklin the bleakness is more present:

“Meanwhile, while knee-grows still swallowing
the jizz of the American dream….,
we still ain’t caught up where we need to be….
                                                                     Who’s gonna
save us now that all the black heroes/
Are….more concerned with erasing their records and record deals
Than delving into solving the algebra of black agony,
Bolt-cutting the inextricable chains of imperialism
That got everybody tied up in knots. Who’s gonna
Save us now that all the black heroes are making
It rain in sweatshops where the heroines calculate
Payouts in booty-bounce, and the drum got
Pawn-shopped for a machine?

Reading Franklin, one may wonder if Baraka, as Black Culture Worker Hero, would be able to achieve what he achieved had he been born 40 or 50 years later (in the 70s and 80s), in this more disillusioned era, when Black heroes are “more concerned/ with erasing their records and record deals” (both forms of exploitation, injustice and evidence of white colonization).[2] But while Franklin’s poem may initially seem more despairing than Tallie’s, the genuine cry to be saved (and to save…to catch up to where we need to be), nonetheless offers some hope for an answer, if not in the present (and its “impossible men”) but in the future of a possible woman as her poem, lest it be forgot, begins with an image of passing on Baraka’s wisdom to a younger woman (presumably, but not necessarily, black):

“Today I turned Transbluency over
to the hands of a teenage tussling
with her own words, still trying to decipher
the difference between invention and insipidness” (Franklin).

We also see a sign of hope in Franklin’s title,[3] which suggests that she, like Baraka, hopes be able to write 20 volumes that will help answer the open question with which her poem ends, a question Baraka so consistently asked himself in his more than 20 volumes and lecture/performances (“Who will save us?)

It would be a mistake, therefore, to reduce Tallie to a romantic or optimist, and Franklin to a realist or cynic, in these poems. Both writers know that Baraka helped make a community possible (and a community helped make Baraka possible).

Neither Franklin’s nor Tallie’s poems position themselves as intimately and immanently within hip-hop culture as many of the other pieces in this hip-hop themed collection (perhaps because they were born in the early 1970s and thus see hip hop culture not as much of a universe or ecosystem as some of the younger writers born in the late 1980s like Nate Marshall and Aziza Barnes, who were baptized into hip-hop culture before they were old enough to think about it), but rather, as part of the Black Arts Tradition in general (a tradition which did not start with Baraka, even though he played a significant role in theorizing and codifying it), as they struggle to bring Baraka’s revolutionary vision into the present, as it’s clear both writers believe “A New Reality Is Better Than A New Movie.”

Renegades Of Funk: John Murillo

Both Franklin and Tallie’s poems also contrast with the perspective of some of their contemporaries.  “Renegades of Funk” by John Murillo (b. 1971) places himself, as a 12 year old in 1983, more intimately in the context of hip-hop culture, to flesh out the “they” Tallie celebrates and show some of the ways his generation managed to dig itself out of the rubble to bring the spirit of ancestors before Baraka back:
Reject the fetters, come together still—
Some call it Capoeira, call it Street
Dance. We say culture. Say survival.

Although this poem is not a blatant tribute to Amiri Baraka, this sonnet-sequence (whose formalism is worthy of Gwendolyn Brooks) is both a celebration of himself (and his hip hop culture homies) as a 12 year old in 1983, as well as a socio/cultural/analysis that is Baraka-esque in scope (cf. Blues People and Whys/Wise) whose rhetoric may have the power to educate young folks as well as persuade the whites who still unfairly dismiss or deride much of Baraka’s post-Jones achievement as well as the sanctity and humanity of hip hop culture.

Set against the backdrop of the post-industrial small business urban decay in more straightforwardly physically descriptive ways than Franklin (“Strip-malls firmly now/ where haints once hung.” And “the burnt out liquor stores and beauty shops,/Mechanics’ lots abandoned, boarded up/ Pastrami shacks”), Murillo traces the 12 year old’s growing awareness of how contemporary reality conspired (and conspires) to erase black history, culture and even people: “the young, it seems, forget/ the drum and how it bled” in a world in which “The strip malls bleed/ The ghosts from banjos. Hollers caught in greed.”

In this artful juxtaposition of his cultural present with history going back to the blues and spirituals,[4] his reference to the drum may recall the banned and pawned drums in Tallie’s and Franklin’s poems, as the corporate takeover of the mid-20th century black music industry and culture Nelson George refers to as the “rhythm and blues world” during the 70s, left in its wake shuttered record stores, disenfranchised personality radio DJS, small black owned record labels; even the legendary Apollo had to shut down. Indeed, one of the points of this poem is to show the perennial love/hate relationship white America has had with black rhythm. This relationship is beautifully distilled into a single line in section II of this sequence (check out the use of the period and line-break):

Rhythm’s why they keep us. Down.[5]

“Keep us” means chain us to them (whether through chattel slavery or through “market forces”). They feel a need to chain us, for the same reason they need to chain rhythm. One could write a long essay or 39 poems on this line (that’s wider than a sentence). One could also compare it to a couplet in section IV:

The people shouting, singing in the fields
They lit the torches, compromised the yield.

In slavery times (but not just), slave owners feared black music would get in the way of their profits. Murillo implies that maybe that was not a mere side effect of gospel praise, but one of the functions of it:

This earthly house is gonna soon decay
Said look like Massa’s house ‘gon’ soon decay.
I got my castle. Where he plan to stay?

The “afterlife” in the black spiritual tradition is never just “otherworldly,” but the medium is the message, the religion is only as good as the praise. And of course spirituals at their best always had a “secret” (to whites) message, as Roger Bonair-Agard reminds us:

The breakbeat is a direct descendent of the Negro spiritual, the wailing of the song to cross the river Jordan that tells you Mama Harriet is making a trip….it must show one message and interrupt it with another….it is also about a journey to be undertaken when we must cover our tracks or risk death.” (321)[6]

In this light, the struggle for black freedom is precisely the need to compromise the white man’s yield, to democratize, collectivize it, without being further punished or killed for it, as if he or she could actually teach the white man (specifically the massa here) that it would be in his own self-interest to free and decolonize the black man and woman. “I got my castle,” but can this castle survive in what Barnes calls “the 9/11 era, the Trayvon era, the stop-and-frisk era, the supposedly ‘post-racial era’?”

There’s an (almost?) apocalyptic clash of world views here, that can be expressed in terms of hip hop as fully as in gospel, as Patrick Rosal shows:

When we think of a break in terms of business and industry, it’s a period of time in which production stops. But on the dance floor, the break is when the crowd goes to work, movin’ and groovin’ and shakin’ and winin’. While the work of business emphasizes efficiency, outcomes, regulation, and activity, work on the dance floor is about getting loose and getting lost.” (323-24).

In this passage, Rosal doesn’t specifically racialize the distinction between business and dance, and, in Murillo’s poem, this work must be (what European specialization would call) interdisciplinary, or multi-lingual, able to be expressed both in terms of high Euro-centric literature, as well as graffiti: “We studied master poets—Big Daddy Kane, not Keats….Instead of slanting rhymes/ We gangsta leaned them.” And “We left/ Our names in citadels, sprayed hieroglyphs/ In church. Our rebel yells in aerosol--/We bomb therefore we are. We break therefore/We are. We spit the gospel. Therefore, are.”[7]

The “we” of this poem rejects the mind-body dualism of Descartes so essential to the Enlightenment tradition designed to justify slavery and today’s racial inequalities.
Murillo’s conclusion, as he looks back at the community he found as a 12 year old with 30 years hindsight, invokes the cultural unity and continuity of the black diasporic tradition, so desperately needed given the fragmentation white supremacy has inflicted on the black community:

    The walls are sprayed in gospel. This is for
The ones who never made the magazines….
                               ……We renegade in rhyme,
     In dance, on tains and walls. We renegade
In lecture halls, the yes yes y’alls in suits,
     Construction boots, and aprons. Out of work
Or nine to five, still renegades.

The sparks Murillo’s direct address to every day people (rather than the jealous gods of the literary world) sets flying allow him a song of praise of the survival of black spirit in the alien overspecialized society of America’s official reality that is similar to what we see in Tallie’s poem:

Impossible   Black & looking the world straight in its eyes
Not smiling/making mouths cushions for someone’s fear to rest on/ not

moving through streets      hills     universities    forests
like they gotta right

alchemy of voice        ideas & soul    taking up deserved space
creating it

Impossible    seducing language out of its corset
Into shimmy & groin                                   (“Possible” for Amiri Baraka).

Murillo’s poem is called “Renegades of Funk,” and it must be remembered (if it has been forgot) that funk is gospel (and vice versa), and as Patrick Rosal reminds us, the word “funk” comes from “an African word that refers to sweaty, musky smell of an elder, a stink which communities understand as a sign of wisdom.” (324). Baraka had that funk, and, as the poems by Tallie, Franklin, and Murillo show, The Breakbeat Poets have got some young funky wisdom to pass on to those younger (or even older) than them.

Hip Hop Creation Myths: Goodwin, Coval, Del Valle and Bobroff

“art that is born of the African and in the African diaspora is an art that takes the scraps of a culture that has been designed to allow it nothing…” Roger Bonair-Agard

Many of the thematic concerns and insights in Murillo’s poem can be found throughout this anthology, especially in the generation of writers who were teens and tweens during the hip hop revolution in the 80s. These poems could be called “hip hop creation myths” (and by “myths” I don’t mean that they’re not also history lessons). Idris Goodwin (b. 1977), who coined the phrase “The BreakBeat Poets,” in “These Are The Breaks,” the title poem to his essay collection, explores these myths and legends in a more general way.

Like Murillo, Goodwin reminds us that in order to fully understand the heroic grassroots rise, and block-by-block trickle up pushback, of hip hop culture in the 70s and 80s, one has to remember how the white corporate culture stole, distorted and cut the ground out from the mid-century blues, R&B and jazz cultures “like legislation imported. Stolen like real estate, inventions and credit. Broken like neighborhoods when interstates arrive.”

It’s against this backdrop of the Sisyphus syndrome that, “the children of the losing war…built a bridge again,” even if the drum was pawnshopped and they had to use the cheaper “Asian technology that flooded the colony” to construct it with “so-called urban styling” when “finding new ways to stop the erasure of markings, finding new ways to break the laws of stolen land…” becomes a life-or-death imperative:

“Bring it back again. Edit. Gut. And tear new names up out of the wind… cause it’s spreadin’ like it always do.” Ishmael Reed would call this the same spirit of “Jes Grew” that rose through America in the 1920s. Kevin Coval (b.1975), by contrast, in “crossover,” gives a more personal account of how hip hop could rise like a phoenix from the ashes of 70s decay into which he was born:

it was the end of disco, all the jobs were moving or changing or drying up in the city like the river after a summer of no rain. The parents moved farther from the city or themselves or their families for those jobs. Hours in commute. We received a key to let ourselves in after school. They would not be home until late. Sometimes they would not be home at all. Sometimes the commute was too much…..

Though this account is more personalized, his use of the collective pronoun “we” here shows how this story is also representative of historical trends as this passage challenges and complicates a common, but reductive, myth that the black families who could afford it purposely left the ghettos during this time in order to disconnect and distance themselves from the blacks who didn’t. Coval reminds us that it wasn’t merely the assimilationist’s dream of safer neighborhoods and better schools that caused “black flight” (or what some call the “brain drain”), but that it often occurred for the jobs that had relocated because the urban planners felt threatened by the compact black neighborhoods that had become a power-base in the previous generation.

Coval’s creation myth goes on to show how hip-hop moved beyond “its genesis as a party music of the divested urban underclass” (Marshall 328), and grew to create more space for the more introverted, or bookish young philosophers/moralists and story tellers (word people in search of safe spaces to express their love and righteous anger) to allow a wider, more encompassing, aesthetic and community than the specialized confines of the white controlled educational and entertainment industries, in which education and entertainment (like words and music, body and mind) are more typically kept segregated.

It’s from the perspective of a word-slinger that he recounts the early days of hip hop in “Moleman Beat Tapes:”

“when hip hop felt like a secret
society of wizards and wordsmiths, magicians.
You’d see a kid whisper to himself
 in the corner of a bus seat and you
asked if he rhymed and traded a poem
a verse like a fur pelt/ trapping
some gold or food. The sustenance.

Against the over-hyped distortions about the hyper-competitiveness of battle raps, Coval emphasizes the collaborative aspects of these competitions, and the democratic ethos that can radiate outward from a single meeting of minds that can build (Coval loves the word build) together. Scenes like these between “anonymous” rappers are even more the essence of what hip hop culture is than the litany of famous names. Even from my (admittedly white) distance, I saw scenes like this played out in the (pre-ipod) boombox era in subways, streets and parks in Philadelphia and NYC, and even in 21st century Oakland.

You could view Coval’s as a more Apollonian creation myth that complements the more Dionysian creation(s) and re-creations (if you’ll forgive my use of Nietzsche’s terms) celebrated and evoked in Mayda Del Valle’s (b. 1978), “It’s Just Begun.” Del Valle’s poem gives voice to what the sacred non-verbal body says while dancing, as she pays homage to elemental/movement more original/than sin….” and offers “Blessings to those b-boys and girls/ Who lower their ears to listen to the earth’s breath…” in lines that use the kind of markings that Etheridge Knight used to break the break (as Patrick Rosal puts it in his important essay included in this book):

“This is the resurrection of the real/
the rebirth of what they tried to kill/
this was captured from the youth and commercialized/
extracted from the ghetto exploited then despised

But this is history revisioned and revised/
The reprise/ they said it died in ‘84
But we’re hear to show them
What ciphers were really created for[8] (Del Valle)

Reed Bobroff (b. 1993) also emphasizes the sacredness of dance-as-praise in “Four Elements of Ghost Dancing.” Bobroff’s culturally syncretic vision is all the more powerful because he shows the commonalities between the Five Elements of Hip Hop and the Four Elements of Ghost Dancing, or, more generally, between the only two still-surviving cultures indigenous to this continent: Native American and African-American…alliances that had to be forged over and over again (given the white man’s repeated history of trying to play these two groups against each other). Yet his capacious syncretic vision also makes more room for the culture of the invader/colonizer/oppressor than the invader/colonizer/oppressor has made for his:

Natives don’t gotta be the only ones who come back!

John Lennon, Robert Johnson, KeithMoon
Play Eagle bone
Whistles inside Bob Marley’s Peyote clouds (283)

In addition to the centrality of dance, Bobroff’s poem also celebrates graffiti:

They say Graffiti is/ a “stain”/ So, like Wounded Knee/ We sink in

The praise of graffiti is elaborated in one of the best graffiti culture I’ve ever had the pleasure to read: “Bronx Bombers” by John Rodriquez (RIP), which starts with the criminalization of graffiti:

The cops want us locked. Mayor Koch wants us blocked,
transit wants us stopped, their German Shepards want us chopped,
and that third-rail at night is like the Mason-Dixon line—
you can’t really see it, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

You’d think with so many enemies writers would unite…..” (98)

Instead, he shows graffiti writers competing with each other for limited space: (you ain’t going over my name/like B-52s over Vietnam, you toy-tagger). Yet, despite this, his poem ends with on a note or gesture of, or at least hope for, collective unity:

                                                                   A graffitied tain is
no act of vandalism. Reading our names
when you won’t even see us is a mercy, give thanks
you’re not getting the bombs you deserve. (98)

This poem, like graffiti, is able to make the sublime out of anger. A rawer expression of anger would be eminently justifiable, but these graffiti writers choose the path of mercy and beauty in hopes of a greater justice: art that is “louder than a bomb” indeed. Like Covall’s celebration of himself, and other non-famous creators of hip hop culture (at least as much as consumers of the more famous artists the corporate version of history tries to sell us), Rodriquez’s poem goes out to all the unsung graffiti artists without which the megastars would have never been possible.

DJ Tributes

Many of this anthology’s best tributes are to the unsung, for instance the taken-for-granted club DJs just doing their job. Joel Dias Porter (aka DJ Renegade) (b. 1962) in “Turning the Tables” (a title which can be taken two ways), writes to, and on behalf of,  DJS any and everywhere:
                                 Laugh at folks
                                         that make requests
                                 What chef would let
                                         the diners determine
                                  Which entrees
                                         Make up the menu

This loving portrayal shows the DJs art is at least as rigorous as the old-school drummer’s art, and is the lover’s art. It’s a pedagogical poem teaching “young boys” (and women) the art of “filling the floor/ with the manic/language of dance” and “knowing the beat/ of every record/ like a mama knows/her child’s cry” with no need of “flashy flicks.”

Patrick Rosal’s “A Note To Thomas Alva” gives us more of a back-stage rehearsal room view of the DJ, a “behind the music” glimpse into the technical/mechanical and electronic ingenuity skills demanded to salvage beat-making machines from others’ thrown-away equipment, and “jam econo.” If DJ Renegade shows us the chef cooking, Rosal shows us the dumpster-diver famer bringing the raw ingredients to the kitchen, though he sounds like a damn good chef too: “Our hands could cut/ Back to Bambaataa and make a dance hall jump/ It was our job to keep one ear to the backbeat/ and the other to a music that no one else could hear.”[9]

Hip-Hop Icons

Such tributes to the creative process and to the legions of nameless DJs, graffiti artists, and rappers share some similarities with the tributes for more famous hip hop icons, both living and prematurely dead, included in this collection. Many of these tributes are written by those born in the 80s/90s, such as Safia Elhilo’s (b. 1990) moving polyvocal tribute to the late Ole’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Elhilo’s poem (or one may say “hybrid text”) meshes music criticism, investigative journalism, the genre of the interview and poetry, to stir anger about the way ODB in particular, and musicians in general, are misunderstood, and their social function as healers are underappreciated in this culture, as this especially powerful passage spoken by ODB’s mom, Cherry Jones, testifies

“he made a performance of his pathology/ rhymes his way out of his body genius/ is a carnivore you know a cannibal a fucking factory for martyrs he cried help/ you know but it rhymed so we applauded he/gutted himself into his own puppet.”

In general, Elhilo’s analysis and appreciation goes much deeper than standard music criticism (with the possible exception of some books in the 33 1/3 series).[10] In contrast, Benjamin Alfaro’s (b. 1990) What The Eyes Saw,” is a lyric memory of what it felt like when he first heard that Tupac Shakur died at the age of 6: “I remember learning how death felt when it belonged to a stranger….before the anthem of adolescence would calcify these timid bones/ against any bad ethics that built them.” Confrontation with death at such an early age may plunge one prematurely into “experience” out of “innocence” (to use those those canonical Blake terms), even if he didn’t “know” Tupac.

Biggie, Kendrick & The Erasure

There are also two pieces with the Notorious B.I.G at the center. Chinaka Hodge[11] (b. 1984) uses form to code switch, translating Biggie’s spirit in a feat of dramatic condensation in her series of 24 haiku (one for each year he lived), while Aziza Barnes (B. 1992) uses the poetic form of the “erasure” on Biggie’s smash hit, “Juicy.” For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “an erasure…is a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text and then framing the result of this effort as a poem.”

Douglas Kearney (b. 1974) claims that one of the founding questions underlying hip hop (and by implication the entire African diasporic tradition) is “How do I ensure my presence against erasure?” Kearney sees the erasure as always already inherent in Hip-hop aesthetics/ethics. Kearney continues: “erasure puts pressure on presence—the wild style calls out at the same time that it encodes. Rappers warn you about danger even while they celebrate their place in it. The breaker’s body is a explosion of presence, historically in public space; the DJ marks a track via his/her intervention, both inserting the DJS presence and suggesting the potential erasure of the track.”[12]

For Barnes, the answer to Kearney’s question of how to ensure presence against erasures is by writing erasures. She further defines erasures by explaining some of the difficulties she’s encountered writing them: “The writer must go into the text with her own objective and carve out a poem from that which is probably inherently poetic…..In erasing “Juicy,” I am excavating the song, digging for any deeper meaning behind Wallace’s words…the erasure is about demanding a truth where there isn’t one, or uncovering that which doesn’t want to be found.” (313/4).

Erasure is clearly not negation. An erasure may also compel the reader to go back to the original (especially if it’s a famous original like “Juicy”), and look at/listen to it in a different light. The words Barnes decides to keep may tell us more about Biggie, and the words she chooses to erase may tell you more about her than her poem does. And, comparing the erasure with the original may ultimately tell you more about yourself than either of them.

I find Barnes’ thoughts on the erasure a crucial addition to contemporary Poetics and Pedagogical theory as they thrust us into metacognitive reflection about what our motivations are in reading, writing and otherwise entering into a cultural discussion. I am compelled to take very seriously her bold claim that erasure is a form of poetry most befitting to my generation….the act of creating one empowers the writer with ability to claim what is not exactly yours.” and consider making it a formal assignment in my class.

In her essay, Barnes also claims a preference for her contemporary Kendrick Lamar over Biggie because “The hip hop that speaks to me most clearly and acutely is the work of my contemporaries who do not strive to manufacture a control over their own lives, but simply comment on their lack of it.” And, in this sense, her strong generational defense of Millennial disillusionment is an important response to the older generation who at times wax nostalgic for the 80s/90s golden age (in the music at least), like Kevin Powell and others.[13]

Barnes demands art that speaks the truth to her times (“the generation of kids who witnessed 9/11 from TVS and schoolyards—a war already happening to us—who came into the world on the heels of the crack epidemic---the dissolution of the Black home…the Trayvon Martin era, the stop-and-frisk era, a supposedly ‘post-racial’ era”). She grounds high conceptual art in an urgent passionate conviction in contrast to Lesser, but overhyped, older conceptual writers such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place.

Interestingly enough, Barnes’ erasure is placed next to another erasure, which also takes Kendrick Lamar as its found (or primary) text, “Badu Interviews Lamar (an erasure),” by Camonghne Felix, also born in 1992. I wonder if Felix writes erasures for similar reasons that Barnes does, and why she, too, chose Kendrick as a subject. Is it significant that both of these writers are women erasing men’s words? Is Lamar’s work especially conducive to erasures more than other rappers? Is there a significant difference between erasing a lyric or poem by a dead person and a living one with whom collaboration is still possible? Would Felix agree with Barnes’ explanation/justification of her erasures? Are many other writers in their generation writing erasures of hip hop lyrics and interviews? Do men do it as well as women?[14] Are these pointless questions?

The Message

Dangling on the precipice of duende, “a poet is one who….breaks into language, i.e. puts himself at risk,” (Tara Betts, Patrick Rosal)

Underlying Barnes’ justification of her (generation’s) need for erasures is the fact that “A fundamental aspect of black American culture, and it’s outlook on life, is submitting oneself to the notion that one does not have control over one’s life…..Never do I, a Black American, happen to something. Or, if I do, the result is ineffectual or ends with my demise. This point of view is particularly acute in Black America after 1968” (312). Barnes’ suggests that Biggie’s braggadocio might have lead to his demise more than had he not made such claims. Yet, beyond an attempt to manufacture control, even “the struggle for expression and communication is sometimes fatal,” as Tara Betts (b. 1974) reminds us.[15] Yet this doesn’t stop these poets from risking it.

In this light, consider this more conventional 14 line poem Michael Cirelli’s (b. 1975) “The Message,” as itself both creation myth and erasure. I’ll quote it in full:

Malcolm was fed 16 bullets because of his. A slug kissed
the jaw of King Jr. and silenced him forever. Ghandi shriveled
like snakeskin, Joan of Arc became Joan of Ash---
So you can understand why Melle Mel was jittery scribbling it
all down, on a napkin, at Lucky’s Noodle Shop in Harlem.
Sweat pearled into his green tea. He thought of Jesus
hanging from that dull wood. Heard about the poet Lorca
under an olive tree, shot in the back. Everyone has felt this way though,
he thought. Never could he have imagined what would happen
when he pressed his thumbprint into vinyl. Hip-hop was still
a tadpole. The DJ had just learned to scratch a record and make sounds
no ear had ever conjugated. How was he to know Tupac & Biggie
would follow his lead and get plugged with lead? So he wrote it down,
in big curling letters, emphatic: don’t push me.

Cirelli’s account of this momentous occasion in hip hop history dramatizes how a black man or woman in America can’t help but risk his life to speak the truth, or assert his presence. There’s the fear in any attempt to speak the truth that it may not only lead to the teller’s death but also do more harm than good for the people he loves most. If Melle had known that Tupac and Biggie “would follow his lead and get plugged with lead,” would he have risked being so bold?  Reading Cirelli’s poem, one can understand why Barnes defends erasures, and Kearney celebrates hip hop culture as much for what it conceals as what it reveals.

One may also come to a deeper appreciation of why Roger Bonair-Agard (b. 1968) writes, “the break beat…must show one message and interrupt it with another,” or in his poem, “In defense of the code-switch or why you talk like that or why you gotta always be cutting” writes:

shit. Stop trying to crack
the code and we’ll stop (maybe)
inventing new syntaxes for

Bonair-Agard’s use of the parenthetical “maybe” is brilliant because it acknowledges a realm in which the need to invent “new syntaxes for/ survive” is not a mere reaction to the massa’s cracking of the previous code; the break may have to show one message and interrupt it with another even if blacks weren’t subject to institutional racism.

Code-switching is a central strategy in this book, and Patrick Rosal’s (b. 1969) essay, “The Art of the Mistake: Some Notes on Breaking as Making,” is perhaps the most elaborated prose argument in the book that seeks to find the deepest commonalities between the best of the Euro-American “common core canon” and the best of the African-American tradition. Through a tremendous feat of code-switching, Rosal dramatizes the similarities between Emily Dickinson’s “Tell the truth—but tell it slant,” and how a b-boy’s near-fatal mistake while dancing resulted in art high enough to cause a rival b-boy crew to back down, and how both these arts require:

Effort—fueled by surprise. And to be open to surprise is to yield some portion of one’s will to what one does not know for certain by logic alone (negative capability) [break]…..(325)

In Rosal’s equanimous syncretic vision, the breakbeat break and Keats’ ethical ideal of “negative capability” are one. Imagine if Rosal’s essay (which also compares Dickinson to Etheridge Knight, certainly no hip hop artist) were taught to all K-12 teachers charged with teaching our students the common core? I wonder if he’d mind a job being hired to lecture to schools across the country to share his vision. Hell, from my experiences, many college teachers could learn from this.[16]

Throughout this essay, Rosal points to the possibility of what a true-post-racial society (and less segregated curriculum, and literary world) could be, with an acute double-consciousness of both the black condition and the human condition.[17] For the break (the breaking) is not only dance and literature, but it is also philosophy and politics, that is to say, religion. In any event, Rosal makes it clear that the need to “tell it slant” would exist even if racism didn’t exist, that duende is not just a matter of hiding from the massa who wants to kill you for it. It’s not just a strategy to survive in a white world in which dissembling is necessary (yet still no guarantee of success). But a need to honor the mysteries of life that can’t be controlled, or even expressed (not in any once-and-for-all commodified artifact kind of way)—as Africans knew centuries before the European invaded for the slave-trade, and as any preacher riffing off the Bible, or any DJ who experiments with mixing to get people (to not stop) dancing knows.

In terms of Rosal’s essay, we can see Grandmaster Flash’s beats and sounds in Michael Cirelli’s poem as the “slant” way of telling, as a submission to the negative capability, and duende that is not white supremacy in disguise.

Show The Telling: Paul Martinez Pompa and Lemon Anderson

While many of these writers (Barnes, Felix, Elhillo, Cirelli, Wicker, Rosal, Bonair-Agard, Kearney, avery r. young, Paolo Javier and Marcus Wicker) utilize various sophisticated and/or cutting edge literary technologies to “tell it slant,” as it were, one of the great pleasures of this formally eclectic anthology is that it makes room for the more polemical or didactic poems that happily violate the “show, don’t tell” taboo to help restore some fullness and balance to the range of American poetry which, on paper at least, has been lost since the mainstream anthologies purged much of the Black Arts Aesthetic during the 1980s.

In the 21st century, some colleges still teach such poems as historical documents, but one with very little contemporary clout compared to, say, the recently resuscitated sonnet. This became sadly evident when I co-edited an anthology in 1998, and more recently when I witnessed some younger contemporary white writers at the Occupy Oakland rallies in 2011 read Allen Ginsberg’s outdated “America” rather than venture their own public poems more in tune to contemporary reality. Yet, despite this taboo, Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” remains one of the most popular/populist--or some would say “notorious”-- poems of the 21st Century).

It therefore gives me hope to see this anthology include work like “Beat Writers,” by Steven Willis (b. 1992). Despite the title’s reference to the mid-20th century white San Francisco sacred cows, this poem soars as it finds its more contemporary idiom which the page cannot do justice to: “the gunshots from the block influence this poem’s cadence

The ethnography of poverty that we coat
in metaphors and similes to help cope
in beloved communities that are deficient of hope
that’s why the young and the music elope
there’s no way you can denote
the syncopation that gave voice to the streets
or blackball us from the poet elite.

Willis knows the score enough to know the risks of this kind of writing, yet “I Have A Drone” (165) by Paul Martinez Pompa (b. 1979) and “The Future” by Lemon Andersen (b. 1974) are fine examples of contemporary poems that “break from the beats” (as Coval puts it in his introduction) and render Ginsberg’s poem obsolete. I easily imagine these two public “catalogue-like” poems go over very well at reading/performances, and both present visions of the future and strong messages for the present, using humor (or sardonic wit) to get it across.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for angry poems like “I Have A Drone,” even though some may call it heavy handed, or smart-ass in the way it rewrites Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech as an imagined speech by Barack Obama. At a formal dinner speech Obama joked about using his predator drones on the Jonas Brothers if they go near his daughters,[18] yet part of Pompa’s joke (or “dramatic irony”) is that despite Obama’s silver tongue (which is still no match for Martin Luther King’s), he would still never quite come out and say things like

I have a drone that one day the State of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice, will be transformed into an Oasis of neoliberalism that distracts poor black, brown, and white folks away from the root causes of their oppression…..I have a drone today….”

Much less would he get more specific and say:

I have a drone that one day the city of Chicago whose great mayor is committed to disarming the common people, will be recognized as a model where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little brown boys and brown girls and wilt together as their neighborhood schools are shut down…”

And ask us to join in with a shout of praise to the almighty:

Let capitalism reign from the curvaceous slopes of Cuba!
But not only that, let free-market capitalism reign from Indiana State Prison!
Let Capitalism reign from the American Cancer Society!

But even if Obama’s words don’t say this, actions speak louder than words, and Obama’s actions are very much like his presidential predecessor George “W” Bush when it comes to the issues that concern Pompa.  And, as Pompa drags us through the remains of those killed, crippled and/or refugeed by the cutting edge technology of this drone dream, his poem is no joke, or you could call it the kind of gallow’s humor designed to make the listener/reader laugh uncomfortably, and consider the hopelessness of voting and discrepancy between words and actions, regardless of whether they are an apologist for, or “basher” of, Obama and Rahm Emmanuel (and the legions of neoliberal mayors doing the same thing in cities across the USA).

Pompa’s critique of the present (disguised as a dystopic vision of the future) remains largely within the political sphere whereas Lemon Andersen’s “The Future” focuses primarily on the “apolitical” politics of the entertainment industry (“The truth will go pop”).[19] Anderson keeps the tone light, more high and dry (less bitter and angry) than Pompa:

The party people will strike
Against DJs, using MP3s….

I like the spirit, of “thinking outside the box,” and the possibility of democratic action in a small dance club this image conjures up, even if I’m not totally sure this would be a better thing to enrich Apple at the expense of local DJS, but Andersen is not necessarily siding with the Big Tech here in order to put more DJs out of work. It’s only a strike, and I picture of beautiful democratic uprising of dancers demanding better performances from their DJs!

Elsewhere he clearly advocates for local community self-determination when it comes to music, and the entertainment and cultural industry in general:

Hollywood will move to Atlanta
For balance.
L.A. will celebrate their independence
From the entertainment industry

I love Andersen’s forward-looking proactive vision, and it makes me happy when I hear that Anderson’s struggles in the cultural superstructure have paid off, at least a little, and that by the age of 40, he has achieved cross over success on National Public Radio, the New York Times, NBC, and the Wall Street Journal and the Nation magazine, as if corporate mass culture (though racist itself) may be used against the equally racist literary establishment.

Perhaps, from Pompa’s perspective, the revolutions predicted in Andersen’s poem may seem trivial, if we assume that such changes on the cultural superstructure will do little to stop the drones of free-market capitalism. Yet, as Hollywood’s power, in some ways, exceeds Washington’s and Wall Street’s, these two poems ultimately complement each other as necessary components of any anti-racist strategy or comprehensive critique of systemic equalities.

Putting “I Have A Drone” and “The Future” in dialogue with each other, we may ask: since the same forces that have centralized national culture in Hollywood (at the expense even of LA’s own South Central) have also created and disseminated drones and other weapons of mass destruction, can we really do away with either of them unless we try to do away with both of them? Is it possible that if some of the revolutions predicted in Anderson’s poem came true, would our government realize it needs less drones?

Andersen’s poem also challenges the educational industry (even if more of us are educated by the entertainment industry than by the ostensible educational institutions): “Big L’s rhyme book/Will be the basis/For all English majors…”
And, you might want to take a look at Big L’s rhyme book before you accuse Andersen of any “reverse racism,” if this may be accused of reverse racism America could use a little more…and Anderson seems more than willing to negotiate! America could also use more teachers like Kristina Colon (b. 1986), Tara Betts (b. 1974) and DJ Renegade (b. 1962).


Dear students, Have you ever had a teacher who gave you permission to rebel against her authority and told you stuff like this:

                         …..you don’t have to hold your breath
you don’t have to behave. Stage your own rebellion
paint canvases with rage, and religion, and prayers for pilgrims
sleeping in the train cars at the border and their children….
Filibust the Senate and bust markers on the Pink Line
Stain the prosecution’s case and force the judge to resign…
Speak away the limits to the heights of your existence…
Feed open mouths with the truth, the truth is we are famished.”
                                  Krtistiana Colon, “a remix for remembrence”[20]

In this era when statistic analysis of student and teacher success dominates pedagogical studies, Colon refreshingly foregrounds the human interaction involved. Similarly, DJ Renegade recounts the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness after showing up at his gig as a visiting writer at a high-school to find out one of his students has been shot. He walks in and a “Crisis Response team has the kids in a circle,/ and I’ve never seen them sit so quietly.” Then the teacher, “Br. Bruno, asks if I still want to teach./ I open my folder of nature poems,/ then close the folder and slump in a chair./ What smile can heal a bullet wound? Which student could these pistils protect,/ here where it’s natural to never see seventeen?” (4).

Incidents such as these can shake to the core any of your confidence about poetry (and its “the pen is mightier than the sword” or “pistil mightier than a pistol” pieties) or about your ability to do any good as a teacher, but Tara Betts, in her passionate defense of the personal essay, shows one strategy that can help students digest these traumatic experiences:

“At least three students died during my time as a teaching artist (at Westinghouse High School in Chicago): one was in a fire with her baby, one was shot, and another was hit by a drunk driver who dragged her body for blocks before he stopped….The opportunity to write about loss and trauma affirmed that [my students] were survivors with capacity, talents and rights to survive and thrive.”

Feminist Songs of Self-Defense, Self-Empowerment, and Community Empowerment

The “gender politics” (or “battle of the sexes”) in this anthology, is complicated by racism, which has always been able to economically profit by separating black men and women from each other more than white men and white women are. One of the ways racism perpetuates this is with the myth that black men are more sexist than white men. [21] And, of course, hip hop culture is often cited or invoked as a main example, when it’s clear that it’s the white men who have systematically pushed the gender violence and misogyny in rap as they have for centuries pushed it in their own poetry (and in the so-called “sensitive” musicians like wife-beaters Jackson Browne and Yanni). [22]

The 3 editors of The Breakbeat Poets, to their credit, are clearly aware of this problem, as Nate Marshall writes, “hip-hop, like the dominant world wide culture, is cis-male-hetero dominated. This is whack.” (327). These editors (themselves cis-genderd, hetero men) strive to ameliorate this situation. This anthology almost achieves gender parity (41 male-identified to 37 female-identified writers), allowing significantly more room for women to express and represent themselves in hip hop than the corporate industry allows (even if these women sometimes challenge where the men are coming from, as in t’ai freedom ford’s rebuke to some unnamed black men, “hip hop ain’t your savior”).  Thus, this book is as useful of an intervention into taking back hip-hop from the corporate industry as the Oakland-based Hip-Hop For Change, which also has much more gender parity than the national and global white corporate purveyors of hip hop.[23]

You could say that many of the women included in this book are talking back to the sexism in hip-hop culture, though some are clearly showing the anti-sexist aspects that have always existed within hip hop culture. There are certainly many “answer songs” to sexist sentiments and men of all races here. The form of the poem (lined as prose) “Pussy Monster,” by Franny Choi (b. 1989), shares some similarities with Felix’ and Barnes’ erasures. Choi takes Lil Wayne’s “Pussy Monster” as her found text, and arranges the lyrics in order of frequency, from the least frequent to the most frequent. This strategy yields amazing results. So, the poem starts with lines like:

“For flu food bowl stood no more soup remove spoon drink juice salt”
while ending with
“la la la la la la la la la pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy,” etc

Ending her poem with such a mantra-like repetition of the word creates a catharsis beyond mere comedy. You may say she takes back the word “pussy” from Lil Wayne, and all other misogynistic uses of the word, giving it honor and dignity while also showing in the first lines what Lil Wayne is really saying about his life aside from his foregrounded claims about “pussy.” The first line quoted here foregrounds the image of a poor person with the flu who needs soup, but all he gets is “salt juice.”

Similarly, “Harbor,” by Alesha Harris (b. 1981), is a strong feminist answer song to a man who says “you a pussy that pussy ass phone ain’t workin tell alla dem bombaclat pussyhole fuh gawn!” “Pussy” and “harbor” can be synonymous, as Harris shows:

Here’s what you say to Pussy:
“Hail Pussy, full of grace.
Blessed art thou among body parts
For the prophets cum through
And come through you
Forgive the forgetful foolish popes, poets, priests and MCS. Amen”

She keeps her composure
But it’s difficult when the classroom and the Congress
Are overrun with boys and girls who say they love
But act like they despise Pussy.
Pussy chuckles at the absurdity.
She knows that if it were white folks bashing black folks in verse
The way men bash women—I mean—pussy—in their songs
No one would dance along and say, “O but they’re not talkin’ about me.”
     Or. “I just like the beat.”

By calling out popes and Congress, Harris clearly shows that any misogyny that exists in hiphop is imported from the dominant white culture. Both Harris and Choi use deadly serious humor to challenge sexism disguised as “the male ego,”[24] and this collection also includes other poems that go on the offensive, poems of self-empowerment and self-praise that aren’t concerned about whether they offend men, and/or know that they have to do that in order to get beyond it (as Baraka knew he had to offend whites to go beyond it). In “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn,” Morgan Parker (b. 1987) writes, “I could scratch your eyes make hip hop die again. /I’m on that grown women shit….you are fallen.”

LaTasha B. Nevada Diggs (b. 1970), also uses braggadocio full of highly energetic language in “who you callin a jynx” (after mista popo), another answer song to misogynistic sentiments, and Fatimah Asghar (b. 1989), in “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,/Or,/When Refusing To Twerk Is A Radical Form Of Self-Love,” speaks against “the boys, howling/under the bright lights, who only see the dissected parts of you” by deciding to stand “still amid all the moving & heat & card/ & plastic& science & sway & say:/ No./ Today, this body/ is mine.”[25] In this poem, as in her poem, “Unemployment,” Asghar praises the power of the woman’s body as a talisman that can be used to protect from exploitation! In this, this poem reminds me a lot of a poem whose name I forgot by Phavia Kujichagulia (gotta represent the Bay Area once again!).

The seemingly comical (and light) tone of these poems may undercut their serious, earnest, message. Although no scientific study has conclusively proven the male use of words like “pussy” or “bitch” in ways the women they’re with (or would like to be with) find disrespectful has any necessary correlation to spousal abuse, sexual abuse, and rape (one of my black women students wrote a brilliant paper on how a particular song lyric that uses such words is ultimately much more respectful, mutual and even romantic than the “clean” smooth soul stylings of the classic R&B side by Marvin Gaye it samples), there are obviously cases in a man shouting “bitch I need you” accompanies an act of violence as in Tarfia Faizullah’s (b. 1980) “Nocturne In Need Of  A Bitch.”

“How to get over (for my niggas)” by t’ai freedom ford (b. 1973) takes a different, more ambivalent, approach. Her first four couplet-length stanzas are full of praise for the men who are surviving and “getting over” in “a nation afraid of your brilliance,” but when we reach the 5th couplet, she changes tone:

“slam dunk your way out/the projects…consider yourself post-racial  facial hair/ and funk don’t make you a man but it might make you/ a punk/…hip hop ain’t your savior….stop praising/ lil’ wayne like jesus---nigga, please!/ that fog ain’t the weather it’s the weed bleed/ on the sidewalk and call it graffiti”

Though her harangue is harsh here (“Police know the sound/ of your stereo type”), it certainly wouldn’t do the poem justice to reduce it to merely a criticism of these men (nor is it the place of a white critic like myself to use this to criticize a black woman for seeming to criticize a black man more than a white man).

If freedom ford’s poem is both a praise and a criticism of black men, and the speaker’s “take it or leave it” stance assumes a self-empowered moral authority, “mic check, 1-2,” by jessica Care moore (b.1971), dramatizes the woman’s struggle to be accepted as that moral authority. Moore’s poem is only a criticism of the men to the extent that these men get in the way of her ability to be and praise herself and her sisters. More speaks directly, and lovingly to these men:

I’m a hip hop cheerleader
I buy all your records despite the misogyny
not looking for the blonde in me

As cheerleader, “screaming from the sidelines of a stage/ I built,” she literally tackles whatever is offensively sexist in hip hop which puts women on the defense, to defend the cheerleader’s right to get off the sideline and be part of the frontlines, the trenches, and (even) while pregnant! She shows us a way beyond the reified gender duality of this culture (and along the way attacks other institutional and ideological dualisms)

Against the backdrop of a world in which “hip hop has turned pathological,” and
only men are allowed to call themselves prophets, Moore’s poem sings for all the:

prophets who never get heard
because the microphone is just another phallic symbol
that allows jack to be nimble
jack to be quick
leaving jill with a man who can’t climb
a hill and a bucket of spit
she can’t drink or find her reflection inside….(71)

Moore’s brilliant, and mordant, rewrite of the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme to describe gender inequality is much more personal and dramatic than freedom ford’s, as she seizes the “phallic” microphone and puts herself on stage and shows her own personal strength, with a moral authority she clearly earns the right to brag about:

“took my poems and made food
put my baby in school
I’ll be your Tubman compass so we can map out this land…
Self love freed me
Despite all your rhymes with bitches” (72)

This poem goes beyond self-empowerment to a praise of spirituality radiating from “beautiful black/ mothers with wishbone skeletons/ breakdancing into rock a fella/ prayer position poses” (70) and a vow for self-transcendence that honors the, “need to be/ plugged in an useful. Our lyrics/ and bodies so beautiful. Our roots sore/ the pain from pulling at earth’s core/ our feet planted at our youth’s door/ and life calling us to do more…..”

Moore’s poem is perhaps the most sustained and elaborated praise of black womanhood in this anthology, and ultimately this praise radiates to include the black men she began by criticizing, for yes one can be a goddess and still be a cheerleader---the two are not incompatible, and such goddess-cheerleaders can get the male team on the sidelines where they sometimes need to be whether they know it or not. In this sense, she moves beyond self-empowerment to community empowerment. Ultimately, she defends hip hop culture against “the duality of institutionalized academic wardens” (and what Kevin Coval calls the “bullshit distinctions between high and low,” etc)—for her poem (which needs to be read in its entirety!) works well on the page and the stage.

It occurs to me that, if you’re looking for a specific speaker and situation for this poem, that this is not merely a woman demanding to be heard at a patriarchical hip-hop mic check (“When you’re a woman/ Sometimes all you got is a minute” or “we still wear the mask/ when the payback/ is the mic check”), but that this pregnant woman is also talking to her son in her womb: “I see you growing in me/ looking out from my belly.”[26]

There are many ways moore backs up her message/vision with her own labor in the cultural superstructure. Not long after Amiri Baraka’s death, she co-founded Radio Active, which as taken a heroic stand against Clearchannel Communications (which many of you know by the more benign, obfuscating name of #Iheartradio), one of the largest corporate conglomerates that wields tremendous cultural power (especially since Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996) for the kind of music it censors and pushes, undemocratically, on its unsuspecting (and often young) listeners. Going far beyond Lemon Andersen’s vision in which “party people will strike against DJS, using MP3s,” Moore advocates more clearly for local control and self-determination of the radio conglomerates. Though obviously taking back (black) radio is a daunting task, Moore’s example, as artist and activist, gives hope in an era in which many who feel the same way huddle in hopeless resignation contenting themselves that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Through this, and her other activist interventions, More extends what’s best in The Black Art Tradition.[27]

On the other hand, “Black Girl Art,” by Jamilla Woods is both a tribute, and a kind of feminist rewrite (or erasure) of, Baraka’s angry LOUD “Black Art” poem:

Poems are bullshit unless they are eyeglasses, honey
tea with lemon, hot water bottles on tummies. I want
poems my grandma wants to tell the ladies at church
About. I want orange potato words soaking in the pot
til their skins fall off, words for you to burn your tongue on,
words on sale two for one, words that keep my feet dry.
I want to hold a poem in my fist in the alley just in case.
I want a poem for the dude at the bus stop. Oh you can’t talk
Ma? Words to make the body inside my body less invisible.
Words to teach my sister how to brew rememdies in her mouth.
Words that grow mama’s hair back. Words to detangle the kitchen.
I won’t write poems unless they are an instruction manual, a bus
Card, warm shea butter on elbows, water, a finger massage to the scalp,
A broomstick sometimes used for cleaning and sometimes

To soar.” (261)

Aside from one reference to “the dude at the bus stop,” men are not a presence in this poem.This feminine complement to Baraka is also an attempt to bridge the generation gap, and speak beyond the hip-hop idiom or code which her generation was born into to appeal to the grandmothers, just as the anthology’s final poems, by its youngest writers, appeal to an even younger generation (who may or may not be fans of Amiri Baraka or Etta James more than say Nikki Minaj): “My niece’s hip-hop,” by E’mon McGee (b. 1996) and “Lesson One,” by Nile Lansana (1997) and Onam Lansana (1999).

Epilogue: White People Denying Racism

Aziza Barnes writes, “Now more than ever, Black Americans question their power and continued lack of control over their lives in a society that has announced that the era of race as an identifier is over.” (314). Such “post-racial” racism is especially evident today; while the traditional segregationist may proudly announce a lynching as a spectator sport, as in Jason Carney’s “America’s Pastime,” today’s assimilationists (like Martin Luther King’s “white moderate”) are more likely to call someone like Dylann Roof and George Zimmerman racist, while claiming post-racial “colorblindness” themselves, even as they judge black culture and people by standards most whites fail to measure up to rather than questioning those standards, or consider why abandoning systematic racism would be in their best interests.

In any event, while what Cornel West once wrote about black music is generally true of the Breakbeat Poets (“black music is paradigmatic of how black persons have best dealt with their humanity, their complexity---their good and bad, negative and positive aspects, without being obsessively preoccupied with whites”), at times it must recount numerous confrontations with whites that show how the era of race is an identifier is not over.

Lynn Procope’s (b. 1969)“All Night,” recounts a scene all too familiar to many black women:

The white guy              sits across the bar
He tells you how          he knows he is
                               Not racist                         and

No matter what you say he knows you are wrong
About this
Black thing                            you are not dying inside”

And, to make it worse, the man is saying all this at the same time he’s trying to pick her up (for the night at least).

Quraysh Ali Lansana (b. 1964) writes about how one of his “all white and pseudo-liberal….friends from high school….maybe/ my closest oklahomey at the bar, assured me/ the residuals of chattel slavery no longer existed,/ while leaning against the door of a 100-year-old/family business….He will not remember/ this exchange/ any more than he will recall the night/ I was informed my blackness was a liability/ in his pursuit of teenage pussy. History will tell on you.” (14). Quraysh writes how this incident triggered him to leave his town to study with Gwendolyn Brooks and embrace hip hop culture (even though Brooks herself didn’t care for hip hop). This scene happened over 30 years ago, when some of the writers in this anthology weren’t even born yet, but it happens today, whether you’re a black person in a mostly white neighborhood, or classroom, or even in more “diverse” contexts. In both poems the white men may not even know their words are expressing a racist point of view, but for Lansana it was the “ah ha” (or fuck you) moment when one may realize “do I really want to integrate into a burning building?” or the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back….

“Gravity” by Angel Nafis (b. 1988) takes the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and, eschewing the specific “speaker/situation” scenarios of Procope and Lansana, divides it into two contrasting prose poems: “the straw” (a variety of different white racist comments she’s had to endure) and “the camel’s back” (how she can arm herself against these comments through brilliantly theatrical language). Even more generally, In Danez Smith’s “Dear White America,” he writes “this land is scared of the black mind,” and helps underline a central message of this anthology: it’s not just “black bodies” that matter, but black minds matter, black hearts matter, black culture matters (and by implication black business, black self-determination, matters). Smith goes after both the assimilationist/integrationist as well as the segregationist: “I am equal parts sick of your ‘go back to Africa’ as I am to your ‘I just don’t see color.” He holds out a dream similar to Martin Luther King’s (or the Halie Selassie speech Bob Marley puts a groove to), but:

 “until then I bid you well. I bid you war. I bid you our lives to gamble with no more. I have left Earth and I am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. I am giving the stars their right names & this life, this new story and history you cannot own or ruin.”

Like a cross between Sun Ra and Malcolm X, he breathes new meaning, new life, into terms like “Strategic separatism” or “No Whites Allowed.” But this anthology does allow a few poems by whites, like “If You Don’t Know, after The Notorious B.I.G,” by Adam Faulkner (b, 1984). This speaker of this poem is a 12 year-old white kid digging himself and his love of (what he thinks is) hip hop culture (but is really a misinterpretation and misappropriation pushed by the hip-hop industry):

Until finally, you reach the part of the song that is not
Yours to say—even white boys like you who aren’t
Really white but for their ability to disappear, leap
Into the wind, board a return flight when the clock
Strikes homesick…”

Reminding me of Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy, the 12-year old white speaker of this poem is trying to find a way to earn the right to say “the n word,” the way Biggie does.[28] He doesn’t actually say it in the poem itself, but obviously the editors appreciated Falkner’s passionate sincerity: “how deep your hunger for a culture to weep for,/ a struggle to wrap your own two arms around, a roadmap to follow, another fire to hold” as the speaker realizes that he will never be able to undo the wound of racism. Falkner names this feeling “guilt.” Does it end with resignation, or despair, or does this guilt lead him to become a better anti-racist and be more conscious of what some might call his cultural misappropriation, and consider using his white privilege to help get reparations for blacks, or at least to convince City Hall to help the shuttered local black-owned shops and defunded youth centers to reopen to help decolonize or convince other whites that they could actually benefit from this more than from the white-owned on-line dressing rooms that have replaced even the strip-malls?

The poem bows out before it lets itself get this heavy, but it makes me confront a feeling that could be called  “White guilt” (and I’m still not sure if that’s the right word for it), and mine often takes the form of fear of falling into a kind of racial essentialism (i.e. “Black people got more rhythm. I love rhythm,” can be racist when it’s used to criticize the black with a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics who you can convince to go out dancing with you….)

The thought/feelings Falkner’s poem engenders inspired/challenged me to come clean and air some of my own racist dirty laundry in a sonnet form. I’m sure many black writers have said this better, but here goes:

By plucking the white meat out from your wing?
           “they love everything bout you/but you”—
                Paradise Da Poet (w/ the Black Arts Movement Arkestra,
                                                                          Malcolm X Jazz Festival, Oakland, May 2014[29]
Oh no, here comes another white vulture
Circling, swooping, like he’s doing favors
By introducing you to his neighbors.
Do I only love you for your culture
Or did (does) the radio have power
To lure white youth beyond segregation?
Could we ever say “my love is stronger
For you than for your music vocation?”
A doubt still arises. Old habits die
Hard. “I don’t just love the Panthers because
They had the Lumpen and fought against the lie
Of mind-body dualism enshrined in the laws
And racist Hollywood. How can I earn
What John Brown earned? I got a lot/ to learn.”

Michael Mlekoday (b. 1985), one of the other white boys included in this anthology, writes  “I pray that, if my own words prove too weak or quiet or stale, the next kid in the cipher will save me,” and I second that emotion…..to be saved by the next writer in the cypher….which is the same impulse that underlies Krista Franklin’s handing The Amiri Baraka Reader to her student…and part of why I can’t wait to use this book in my class next semester.

Conclusion: Extending The Cipher

Although The Breakbeat Poets is primarily a collection for poetic specialists—neither including an accompanying CD (or download code) for the work here, nor the wider range of dramatic and prose works included alongside of poetry in The Amiri Baraka Reader compared to his more “poetry specific” collections, Transbluency or the updated, posthumous S.O.S, it’s obvious that many of these writers share the need to de-specialize the narrow institutional confines of poetry, and be activists and public intellectuals in their art. In this light, I can imagine a sequel to this book that goes beyond the prose offerings included in this book’s appendix to show the poets’ writings that are not written to an audience for whom “poetry” is a primary concern. I could envision a great weekly show on a terrestrial radio station like KPOO, hosted by the editors, that would be much more engaging than what most college (“Community”) stations are playing these days. Perhaps a grassroots movement that could help break a national hit (to help make Lemon Anderson’s vision that “the truth will go pop” even more of a reality). In the meantime I’ll try to sweet talk any library who doesn’t have this book yet into ordering it and fight against more budget cuts, and look forward to see how students (and others) extend the cipher, and “pay the necessary titles” this book, and what it can stand for, demands.

And when I think of the amazing POC writers and activists of this generation who are excluded in this Chicago-centric book (especially those who make Oakland and the Bay Area their artistic home, shout out to D. Scot Miller, Jackie Graves, Paradise Da Poet Kwan Booth, and Tebogo Motaba, uPhakamile uMaDhlamini, and numerous others), I see this book as a challenge: can I be part of a “We” than can do at least as good a job in organizing and popularizing work as this anthology is doing?

[1] http://chrisstroffolino.blogspot.com/2014/06/amiri-baraka-legacy-beyond-racist.html
[2] Compare, for instance, the ethical standard implied in this poem to the younger Aziza Barnes’ preference for “contemporaries who do not strive to manufacture a control over their own lives, but simply comment on their lack of it.” (314)
[3] “Preface to a Twenty Volume Homicide Note,” which references one of Baraka’s first poems; the pre-revolutionary “beat” Baraka when he still went by the name Le Roi Jones and his poems found more success in the mostly white literary world than among his black contemporaries like the Umbra poets). Franklin’s remix of the title pays tribute to the more mature Baraka’s Black Arts need for poems that turn their anger to the external oppressor rather than in on oneself.  

[4] A formal device Nate Marshall also uses to great effect in his poem  “On Caskets” included in this volume.
[5] You may contrast this with Danez Smith’s “this land is afraid of the black mind.” (258) Rhythm, contrary to Western dualisms, is not opposed to deep thought; it may be spatially figured as down in the pocket (the cave where the bass lives), but it helps Murillo and his homies fly like thoughts much more than the teacher who understands Isaac Newton’s, but not Huey Newton’s, theories of gravity. You may also compare this with Thomas Sayers Ellis’ suggestion that the white media establishment was even more threatened by GoGo than it was by HipHop: They did not brand Go Go violent to stop us from hurting ourselves, but to limit us to hurting and killing only ourselves and to prevent us from organizing our guns and fists into proper forms of community self-offense and community self-defense…”
[6] Other poems that explore the relation between hiphop and the spirituals include Alysia Nicole Harris, “Praise,” and jessica Care more and Reed Bobroff.
[7] Compare his defense of graffiti with John Rodriquez’s “Bronx Bombers,”
[8] An interesting comparison can be made with Del Valle’s celebration of the dancers with Aracelis Girmay’s “Break” (152)
[9] See also John Murillo’s “Ode To A Crossfader” on this theme (pg. 76), or in “1989,” –a tribute to the late great MC Sheik Spear---where Murillo writes about “Deejay Eddie Scizzorhandz---because he cuts/So nice---taps ashes into an empty pizza box,/Head nodding to his latest masterpiece:/Beethoven spliced with Mingus,/Mixed with Frankie Beverly, and laid/On Billy Squire’s “Big Beat.” You could call this Afrosurreal in that it sounds like it could be more beautiful than the chance meeting of a laundrymat and an umbrella on a dissecting table. [9]Of course, since we don’t actually hear how this mix came out, our imaginations may wonder how good of a chef he was (shout out to D. Scot Miller, author of the “Afrosurreal Manifesto”; gotta rep the underrepresented Bay!!)

[10] Formally, Elhilo’s piece shares similarities with Sarah Blake’s (b. 1984) series on the more recent, and still living, Kanye West, and Blake’s attitutes toward Kanye could be usefully compared to that expressed in t’ai freedom ford’s kanye poem.
[11] Apparently the only writer in this Chicago-centric collection who still lives and works in the Bay Area; gotta rep the Bay!
[12] Kevin Coval refers to this as the necessity of a “legible/illegible read….that graffiti  bequeathed to the page.” And many of us more trained in the white late 20th century literary culture first became aware of such thoughts and gestures such as this through phrases like Ashbery’s “shield of a greeting” in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Yet the stakes are much higher in the Breakbeat Poets.
[13] (Denizen Kane’s (b. 1978) “Ciphers Pt.1” brilliantly satirizes this generation gap within hip hop without exactly taking sides)
[14] Mahogany L. Browne’s (b. 1976) “upon viewing the death of basquiat” also uses some of the strategies of the erasure as Barnes and Kearney theorize it
[15] Possible comparison topic: Compare what Aziza Barnes means by “control” (and the distinction between an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control” with what Tara Betts calls “expression and communication.” How are they similar? Are they two ways of saying the same thing? How you would put this in “your own” words?
[16] For instance, recently a well-known professor/poetic gatekeeper wrote: Yale students protest two-course requirement for English majors: “Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot or another modern poet in the spring.” I, too, protest -- the absence of Marvell, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley. Tennyson, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats et al. (David Lehman, June 1st, 2016)

I say to this poet/critic/anthologist/ teacher: No, the Breakbeat poets aren’t trying to take away (y)our Emily Dickinson (though they may ask that you stop trying to regularize her punctuation, and I mean you, Billy Collins). But they do show ample evidence for why students should be allowed to write papers that can show the formal ways in which an Etheridge Knight poem is better than Dickinson (even perhaps by her own standards). I’d even go so far as to argue that allowing breakdancing in a college writing course could help students produce better work!
[17] Ekere Tallie’s “Paper Bag Poems” (103), address this point by deconstructing a quote she finds offensive: “These poets use being black to write about larger subjects.” For Tallie, and I believe for Rosal, there’s nothing wrong with writing about “the human condition” if you don’t claim that it’s “a larger subject” than the black condition, (because when you’re do, you often end up meaning the word “white” when you say “human” since that’s this culture’s fallback position.)

[19] Anderson’s poem may recall, or be usefully compared to Lupe Fiasco’s lengthier “All Black Everything.”
[20] A remix, to pass on the tradition to the next generation, for as Evie Schockley (b. 1965), writes: “those who cannot forget the past are destined to remix it.”

[21] In addition to the myths that black women are more domineering, or more highly sexualized, than white women; see Kendi, Stamped From The Beginning for instance.
[22] The argument Belle Hooks’ makes in her 1992 essay, “Who Takes The Rap,” is still, alas, relevant today.
[23] Gotta rep the Bay Area so underrepresented in this anthology: http://www.hiphopforchange.org

[24] Here’s another obvious contrast assignment: Compare “Pussy Monster”
(245) with Alesha Harris’s “Harbor.” In order to successfully do this assignment you need to look closely at the lyrics to Lil Wayne’s song of the same name. How does Choi’s use of the formal device that rearranges the words of Lil Wayne’s song from least frequently used to most frequently used change Lil Wayne’s meaning? Does it illuminate a more subliminal message to the song? Could we call Choi’s poem an answer song to Wayne?
[25] “Tip Drill,” by Nelly feat. St Lunatics, was a song from 2000 whose controversial video was pulled because it portrayed women as sexual objects—the term comes from a Basketball exercise in which players take turns to tip the basketball off the backboard consecutively without the ball touching the ground.” Get it? It helps develop timing and jumping ability for rebounding…
[26] Or as readers/listeners perhaps we are all entering her womb (and the speaker takes on mythic proportions that contain multitudes at least as much as Whitman’s “Song of Myself” or Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” “Mic-Check, 1-2” is also a strong statement about why she can’t resign herself to life on the page, because that writing “wasn’t enuf/ to move/ you, and I am “looking” forward to listening to her album.
[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Care_Moore
[28] Since the speaker of John Murillo’s “Renegades of Funk” was also 12 years old, this might also be an interesting comparison/contrast topic.
[29] One more time, I gotta try to represent (at least a little) the Bay Area!

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