Seems impossible in 2017, but you can still find people online who proudly announce that they don’t listen to “rap-crap.” Likewise, plenty of dudes will eagerly announce that they like all kinds of music except for country and hip-hop. Those are both statements that carry a lot of unspoken weight: if you dismiss country music and hip-hop with one broad shrug, you are basically saying “poor people make me uncomfortable and I prize comfort over everything else, including intellectual curiosity.” And dismissing an entire musical genre as garbage, especially when that medium was exclusively created by and largely fostered by young black artists, well — all together now — that’s racist.
Hip-hop is the fruit of a long, intertwined series of traditions, both musical and literary. The musical aspect is a fascinating act of reverse colonization, though which young musicians built entire cathedrals of rhythm inside tiny, repeating beats carved out of pop records. They dug into old records and found a universe of new songs there, hiding in the lines of a record. But the lyrical tradition goes back to times before record players ever existed—back to the call and response of churches, to plantations and ships crossing the Atlantic and further still. It is indisputably poetry. (For more information about the history of hip-hop, I can’t recommend Jeff Chang’s excellent 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation enough. It’s exactly the loving, intellectual tribute that the genre needed.)
Small Seattle publisher Minor Arcana Press (slogan: “Good books for weird people”) is adding another level to the conversation between hip-hop and poetry with a new anthology titled It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. The book invites over four dozen poets to respond to hip-hop songs through verse, to open a conversation with artists they admire or struggle with (or both.) And then, in a genius move, It Was Written then flips the script by including “over 30 writing prompts* urging the reader to become a writer and join the conversation.
This Friday, Minor Arcana invites local poets including Robert Lashley and Brian McGuigan to help launch It Was Written with a book party at Vermillion. They’ll be joined by other readers including Quenton Baker, a poet who got his start as a hip-hop artist. Because the party would feel really weird without some form of live music, self-described “beat scientist” WD4D will be running the turntables at the show.
No, I’m not saying that your grandmother could become the world’s biggest Nas fan. Hip-hop is not going to be everyone’s favorite kind of music. But I am saying that hip-hop is alive and vital and inspiring conversations in a way that other kinds of art simply isn’t. By engaging with hip-hop head-on, Minor Arcana and its poets are contributing their own chapter to a history that is older than America as we know it. They’re keeping the conversation going.