If you’ve dismissed rap as being just the expletive-laced, nonsensical vernacular of the downtrodden and angry, then it’s way past time for you to listen more closely. Rap, which has been around now for nearly half a century, has become the most popular form of American contemporary poetry today. Its powerful, lyrically complex rhymes and rhythms are heard and enjoyed globally.
For the last 10 years, first at the University of Connecticut and now at UCLA, Amber West has used hip-hop lyrics as the literary vehicle through which she teaches academic writing, critical thinking, analytical reading and rhetoric. A lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs since 2016, West teaches the English composition course “Identity and Representation in the Post-Hip-Hop Era,” with a focus on diversity. She asks her students to write about rappers’ messages; the politics and poetics of hip-hop songs and music videos; and issues related to identity, diversity and representation.
Not everyone appreciates rap as poetry worth studying. “Some people are skeptical when you call it a form of poetry, but they’re also skeptical if you call it a form of music,” West says of the hybrid art form.
But rappers often use the same techniques that poets have been relying on for centuries: imagery, metaphor, simile, persona, rhyme and rhythm, and attention to language. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar have found critical acclaim for their work. The Compton, California, native captured the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his rap album, DAMN., beating out both a five-movement cantata written for chamber choir and a composition for string quartet that premiered at Carnegie Hall.
Hip-hop has also gained legitimacy as a subject of literary scholarship. Today, West’s students study the poetry of such rappers as Salt-N-Pepa, Eminem, Jay-Z, Bad Bunny and Lamar.
When West was developing her course in 2011 as a Ph.D. student, she was excited to read The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, written by Adam Bradley, a Harvard-trained literary scholar who pioneered the study of this art form. “Here was this scholarly book about rap as a form of poetry,” West says. “I got the green light. If anyone tried to question what I was doing, now there was scholarship to back me up.”
Rap’s hypnotic rhythms will now resonate even more on campus, as Bradley, a scholar of African American literature and culture, has joined UCLA as a distinguished professor of English. As founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture, he’s brought the RAP Lab with him.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.