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. Both those statements carry a lot of unspoken weight: If you dismiss these genres 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 created exclusively 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, through which young musicians built entire cathedrals of rhythm from tiny, repeating beats carved out of pop. They dug into old records and found a universe of new songs, hiding in the grooves. But the lyrical tradition goes back to times before record players—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 enough Jeff Chang’s excellent 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation—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 more than 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 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 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.
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 arts simply aren’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. Vermillion, 1508 11th Ave., 709-9797, minorarcanapress.com. Free. 21 and up. 7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 24. Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.