If the timeframe of a generation is roughly twenty-five years, then talk of a “hip-hop generation” may already by now be quite antiquated. Hip-hop’s dominance—its influence as a style, a genre, a mode of expression and way of life—has already lived well past the quarter-century mark. Whatever its cultural manifestation may be, it seems to have transcended most expiration dates; the understanding of it and its artistic impact must evolve accordingly.
The BreakBeat Poets exemplifies one such noteworthy approach in this vein. Though the back cover description of the book as “the first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation” certainly trades in the tried and true terminology, its subtitle on the cover—New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop—carries with it a far and more appropriate greater sense of historical gravity.
It is in all honesty quite surprising that it has taken this long for an anthology of this nature to arrive. One would have thought that the first anthology of poetry “by and for the Hip-Hop generation” would have been at least twenty years old by now. At the same time, it may be little wonder that it has taken as long as it has.
Hip-hop, despite its global influence, despite being a conduit of billion dollar industries churning out music, clothing, and so much else, is still viewed by a sizable portion of modern America as a threat to all it holds dear. For proof of this, one need only look at the racialized panic of Fox News, where anything from a hoodie to loud DJ music are emblematic of violent depravity.
In such a context, and if the editors are to be believed, then The BreakBeat Poets is something of a watershed moment. And there is little reason to not believe the book’s editors. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall are all accomplished poets and wordsmiths in their own right. All three grew up steeping their identity in the beats and rhymes of hip-hop’s seminal years.
The book is organized chronologically, not necessarily according to when a poem was written, but according to when its author was born. The first contributor, Randall Horton, was born in 1961 and is old enough to have grandchildren by now. The final two, Nile and Onam Lansana (sons of the above editor) are barely old enough to be out of high school. The last thirty pages of the text—“Ars Poeticas & Essays”—are dedicated to various artist statements and short expositions that, in some ways, do just as much as the book’s introduction to frame the significance of the poems themselves. Quraysh Ali Lansana writes in his essay:
I consider myself, for the most part, a direct descendent of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), at least contextually. BAM doctrine supported art “for, by, and about Black people.” This tenet was introduced to me by my siblings’ afros in 1973. It was reaffirmed by hip-hop, furthered by my work in Chicago’s public schools, and crystallized while raising four sons in what some people call a “war zone.”
This should be juxtaposed with what Kevin Coval writes in the introduction, where he describes
How we flip it and make it fresh, our own, how it’s similar attention to the syllabic breath unit paid by Gwendolyn Brooks, John Coltrane, and Lil Wayne, how it’s some AFRICOBRA kool-aid color realist portraiture and also legible/illegible graffiti wildstyle and sometimes simultaneously Sun Ra futurism/future world/reclamation of history, on some Lerone Bennett Jr., Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn-type shit.
Between these two sequences, one starts to get a sense of this book’s importance. There has been plenty of examination of the influence that Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and other artists of the Black power years have had on hip-hop. However, most cultural historians would place anything having to do with the movement since then firmly in the postmodern epoch and therefore incapable of reaching a totalistic narrative that includes every era.
For Coval, Lansana, and Marshall, in contrast, there is a thread running from the best of the modernist poetic canon into the wordplay, breakdowns, and reinventions of hip-hop. The decline of the social movements of the 1960’s, the dramatic restructuring of work and life by capital (essentially the broad characteristics of neoliberalism) were irresistible in terms of shaping what would become hip-hop. Far less attention has been paid to how the culture has sought to bring these fractured pieces of everyday life back together. The polyrhythmic overlap of sounds, the blending of past aesthetics into something that embraces the future with open arms, the twisting of words into a viewpoint that is at once both hyper-real and vehemently opposed to mere materiality; all reflect that there is no contradiction between the specificity of individual experience and the ability to create a thoroughly new way of looking at the world that puts its outcasts, its rebels, and its oppressed back at the center.
As for the poems themselves, they are rich, diverse, and taken in their chronological whole, constitutive of an arc, an evolution of four decades of experimentation against marginalization. There are heavyweights of hip-hop poetics here like Willie Perdomo and Suheir Hammad, as well as relative unknowns still making their way onto the scene. Some works are agitational, others more contemplative, some painfully realist and hard, others more whimsical and playful. Some are strictly narrative in form, others drastically unconventional in mapping out their imagery. There are poems here about work or lack thereof, love and heartbreak; the trauma of the Vietnam war as processed by the son of refugees, Ronald Reagan’s funeral, the first time you got a crush on someone who wasn’t “your own” race, the practice of code-switching, odes to DJ’s, prisons and the new Jim Crow, twerking, the tragic loss of friends or family, and Pluto’s ever-shifting place in the cosmos.
Quite often, this breadth of scope is communicated in just a few short pages. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s four poems move from descriptions of homeless men that recall the field hollers of slavery into a single mom’s anxieties over climate change, from recounting Sundays with family into a tribute to the late, great Amiri Baraka. (In fact, Baraka comes up a few times in BreakBeat Poets, further underlining the impact of BAM on hip-hop.)
Other times this breadth is only apparent over a longer course. At first examination there is little drawing together the works of Malcolm London and Tarfia Faizullah. The first of these is Chicago-born, a young Black male, likening the intersection of an inner city to an absurd, tragic baseball game. The second is the Texas-raised daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants rifling through the physical and psychic traumas endured by women during the 1971 War of Independence. Though neither experience can be folded into the other, the words of both carry with them a profound sense of amazement at the act of survival.
And then there is Joy Priest’s “No Country For Black Boys,” a simple yet subtle play in poetic form which insists that, while Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were of obvious and opposed ends of a spectrum, they were also intertwined in a perverse dance of white supremacy:
home heart savage life. get trial & conviction
suspended over a hollow point on my Florida sidewalk. remember me
remember to call out to a mother’s pain. die with only a ghetto
name. they don’t know heart. how does it feel? listening to
your screams apart from your body expire these assholes
man w/ gun. he is the one who always get away, but i am the one who
survives in America
Taken as a whole, The BreakBeat Poets is an impressive achievement, showing how the creativity, the sincere philosophical intellectual commitment of hip-hop make it worthy of its own “age.” The same way that the pianist’s stride stepped between the twang of the juke joints and the fevered forward blast of jazz, hip-hop remains our epoch’s aesthetic vocabulary to reach between the destruction of the past and the hope of the future. It is unafraid to be dark and Gothic, and in the same breath grasps toward something new, fresh, and vibrant. It is both “old school” and obsessed with the new, never turning its eyes away from the reality of decay never forgetting that, as Tupac once reminded us, a rose can still grow from the concrete.
Ages, like generations, may be fictions, but they are also lived experiences. The BreakBeat Poets confirms that the pain and promise of these experiences can be turned inside out, radically transforming the way we view the world. Whether they can take the next step in actually reshaping the world is still an open question, pregnant with its own explosive potential.