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June 22, 2024

BreakBeat updates poetry with hip-hop

By WILL KIRSCH | February 11, 2016


Dian Lofton/CC BY-NC 2.0 Safia Elhillo was one of the performers at the BreakBeat event.

The Center for Africana Studies hosted a reading by three poets and contributors to the recently published anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop on Feb. 8.

The reading featured Quraysh Ali Lansana, one of the volume’s editors, as well as Tony Medina and Safia Elhillo, two of its contributors. The readings were accompanied by music courtesy of DJ Daniel Kisslinger.

All three poets read from the BreakBeat anthology, a collection born and bred in hip-hop, and other written works. The BreakBeat Poets shifts away from past traditions and toward a more contemporary style. It focuses on the language of music and the themes of urban modernity.

Much of the work in the anthology lends itself to being read aloud, just as hip-hop is meant to heard. The book seems to be an attempt by both editors and contributors to celebrate an art form which has long been discredited by mainstream society. They want to show that poetry can be accessible and populist. Following this theme, Lansana opened with a passage from the book’s introduction, “Hip-hop saved American poetry.”

The first reader was Lansana, a veteran poet and professor who was mentored by Gwendolyn Brooks. He walked to the podium with confidence to the classic rap song “Paid in Full,” by Eric B and Rakim. Lansana, who was one of the anthology’s editors, covered some of the key features of the book, noting that half of the contributors were women.

He then launched into fellow editor Nate Marshall’s piece, “Prelude (RIP),” which imagined death as both a graffiti artist and a woman. Lansana then read his own poem, “crack house,” which narrated the image of squalor and destitution room by room. Lansana’s poem was brutal reality, a sharp depiction of a woeful setting.

The second reader was Elhillo, a young Sudanese-American poet. Elhillo’s entrance was accompanied by Jay-Z’s, “Big Pimpin’.” Elhillo kept her introduction short, clarifying some of her background, jokingly telling the audience her horoscope sign and professing a love for the Wu-Tang Clan.

She then launched into her work, flowing lines rich with imagery that covered topics ranging from diaspora, identity, disconnect and language to love, ignorance and divorce. Elhillo’s poetry was marked by abstractions that were both clear and suggestive but still indirect.

It was a fitting introduction for Medina, who took the stage as Kanye’s “Touch the Sky” played in the background. Several of Medina’s poems were far more humorous than his colleagues, but were by no means light-hearted.

The poet delivered a tirade against Donald Trump, read a “secret letter” from President Barack Obama and mocked the animosity between Drake and Meek Mill. Medina also read two strong poems separately discussing the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. The question and answer period was as interesting as the talk itself. Lasana took time to elaborate on graffiti, one of the five elements of hip-hop, and his perception of it as art.

He and Medina then went on to cite their inspirations. Lasana discussed the stimuli he finds all around him and the guidance he received from his mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. Medina agreed with Lasana’s first sentiment, explaining that he finds much of his creative energy by engaging with his environment in the people, places and things. Elhillo said that her muse was her own emotional trials and tribulations, which seem evident in her poetry.

An interesting question came from an audience member who asked for a comment on the conflict between “academic” poetry and spoken word. The pair responded saying opinions on what constituted “low” and “high” were just that: opinions.

The trio also said that they had received resistance from some faculty while on their reading tour.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the nature of poetry, the talent of these authors is undeniable and their attempts to save hip-hop from its relegation to the fringes of art are nothing but admirable.

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