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The Black Arts Enterprise—Professor Howard Rambsy

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Besides sharing parents and a last name with Howard Rambsy II, I had the opportunity to share the stage and serve on a panel of respondents with him at Make It Funky III. This experience gave me the opportunity to view Howard as more than an older sibling, but to also gain a deeper sense of the work he is doing. More importantly, I have come to understand how it extends our conceptions of African American literature and performative culture.

Professor Adam Bradley’s lecture focused largely on the linguistic aspects hip-hop and offered explanations for how/why scholars can interpret rap music as if it were poetry. Bradley advocated for innovation in the sense of adapting new approaches and creating new standards to study hip-hop culture and relate it to the larger field of literature.

Howard’s response allowed me to think critically about his scholarship of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). His book The Black Arts Enterprise investigates how through collaborative means participants in the BAM helped to develop new critical approaches to African American literary art. Taking this into consideration, Howard’s responses were valuable since he was able to point-out distinct overlaps and variants of hip-hop artists and poets of 1960s and 70s—especially, those between what we know as underground or independent artists.

Below, view the video where I was able to get Howard’s thoughts on his visit to KU.

Video Design Credit: Brandon Hill—University Kansas Student of Film and Media Studies

4 thoughts on “The Black Arts Enterprise—Professor Howard Rambsy

  1. But hip hop is not poetry. I hate to be technical about it, but their things that poets do that hip hop artists do not take in to account creating lyrics. Just as poets, cannot do some of the extraordinary free styling that forms the foundation of hip hop. Your brother's efforts ultimately dismantles hip hop as an independent art form that has its own "rules" . It appears that he seeks to connect it with poetry to give it a validity that it has achieved on its own just as effectively, certainly much more accessibly.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I would caution you from defining poetry (and, hip hop for that matter) solely by these "technical features." I mean, can poets really not freestyle? And, do rappers really not write? Are both of these technical features mutually exclusive of each other?

      Actually, when examining the cultural, historical, and political features that characterize black poetry and black music, the similarities become more apparent. Take Margaret Walker's poem, "For My People" and compare it to Jay-Z and Kanye West's song "Made In America." Both pieces reflect on the larger history of black people in America and muse on a spiritual salvation.

      Looking at the larger tradition of African American literature, it follows logically that hip-hop extends from literature. Take a look at this video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI9jZQwbQdY) where Amiri Baraka discusses his ideas about this "evolution" and how black arts poets were the original rappers. Even then, I would challenge Baraka and say the idea of rhyming over music extends even predates the Black Arts Movement.

      If we consider poetry solely an art form that exists on a page and rap music an art form that exists solely for musical value, I think we are placing it in a vacuum. One of Jay-Z's chief goals in writing his memoir "Decoded" was to explain the particular ways in which rap music is, in fact, poetry. To take his words, "there is great writing in rap as well. Great storytelling" (see link, here: http://gossiponthis.com/2011/06/15/jay-z-explains-decoded-poetry/).

      So, yes! Thanks again for the comment and lets keep the dialogue going!!!

    2. But, let's be clear–poetry is what happens when EVER human beings create musical sounds w/ language. This is how blacks have always defined it, and if he reads Book of Rhymes by Adam Bradley, it's hard to argue that MCs aren't using the very same kinds of linguistic devices that literary poets used more half a mlllenium ago. It's just a different type of poetry, just as sermons are forms of poetry. They aren't literary poetry; they're just a different type. And let's also be clear about the history of ideas that produced the emergence of the MC in the first place–those are Africanist ideas that are directly related to previous art forms. This is a key point because we live in an age where people get knowledge about tv and other capitalist sources where information about black culture is usually distorted and/or erased–even by individuals who are black. Hip hop is certainly not more important than was blues music, but if you know anything about the blues, it was a poetic form too. In fact, ALL of the song forms that blacks have created are poetic forms–and this is no fantasy or some angry black radical response. It's just to say there is a history of artistic ideas and development. Now, the responder and others who haven't had the time, interest, and/or opportunity to read black writers (and I'm not talking about the scholars right now; I mean black writers), may not ever be able to understand this because they won't understand the broader concepts that are embodied w/in hip hop. But this doesn't mean it's not true. It simply means that he or she will cling more passionately–and defensively–to his or her view. So, yes, it's true that that Lil Wayne isn't a poet in the terms that this society has made up and imposed so well that this reader won't question them. But then, I'm old enough to remember when those very same people who created and enforced that narrow definition of poetry ALSO said that even black writers like Sterling Brown weren't poets either. My own father, who was born in 1929 and has no degree whatsoever, said, "[MCs] create some pretty good poetry." And his response is identical to Adam Bradley's. I can assure you that they've never met, and I could provide other examples. But the point is, it does no disservice to hip hop–that is, it doesn't dismantle the specific aesthetics of hip hop–to say that MCs are poets. Even some of the greatest MCs themselves have referred to themselves as poets. So to paraphrase Lauryn Hill, he or she might do well to come again.

      T. Bolden

  2. I would first like to say great posts by all of you. But to the first post that challenges the argument that rap is poetry. I am prompted to raise the same question that Professor Howard Rambsy articulated, "Whose poetry is hip-hop"? I agree with the latter posts that the music definitely has glaring similarities to poetic iterations, but it can largely stand on its own as an art form. While it may not be considered poetry (for several reasons) by the larger white western world, that does not mean that it must be the case. The social, political, and economic implications of admitting that hip-hop follows in the great tradition of poetry, are many. The most obvious answer to me is that it would dismantle critiques of black music as destructive, tasteless,and intellectually bankrupt. Again, the better question to raise is not whether it is poetry, but whose poetry is it?

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