Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature – Kanye 2017? Sure, why not?
If Dylan can earn recognition for his contributions of poetic expression, maybe rappers should be next in line
Back in my days of studying English Literature, we were consistently taught the importance of The Romantics and the impact that modernists like T.S. Eliot and Yeats had on the English canon. A fleeting reference was once made to the poetry of hip-hop in a lecture about the use of the vernacular in poetry and it was something that remained with me. When I went on to write in depth on the poetry of hip-hop, I found myself asking why more attention wasn't given to the beauty, intricacy and power of the lyrics that I had spent a huge part of my life appreciating.
The recent announcement of Bob Dylan as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature has already caused much debate in the world of social media, with academics, musicians and fans arguing on both sides. One tweet in particular, that jokingly predicted a Kanye West win in six years, has taken me back to my days of English Literature. Why is a rapper winning a Nobel Prize for Literature so far-fetched? And why is there such a resistance to acknowledging the brilliance of the poetry of hip-hop?
Don't even THINK about acting this surprised when Kanye wins his Nobel Prize probably less than six years from now.— D👻niel Kibblesmith (@kibblesmith) October 13, 2016
First surfacing in the South Bronx area of New York in the early to mid-70s, hip-hop is arguably one of the most important cultural forces of the past century. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois note in The Anthology of Rap that 'Rap is the poetry of the hip-hop culture' and as a part of that culture, rap music is what gave a powerful voice to the impoverished, inner-city youths who were economically and socially stifled in a society in which they were largely ignored. Hip-hop was and remains a form of black self-expression, one that has arguably had a massive effect on popular culture as we know it.
According to the Nobel committee, Bob Dylan's prize has been awarded to him 'for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition', a comment that cannot be denied. Dylan, as a songwriter, has contributed key works to a number of genres and musical eras. But his words are essential to this; without his lyricism, his music would be devoid of true emotion and soul. So yes, Dylan deserved the win. But perhaps his win is a positive step in the direction of diversity as far as the Nobel Prize goes. If Dylan could win for his 'poetic expressions within the great American song tradition', surely an argument could be made for the inclusion of hip-hop, as a part of African-American tradition and culture?
Certainly, there are issues relating to the perception of hip-hop as a form of 'low-culture', perhaps prejudicially due to its origins as a genre dedicated to voicing racially charged topics. Furthermore, whilst there are a wide range of interesting and topical themes covered in hip-hop, this is often overshadowed by the misogyny and sexism that exists elsewhere in the genre. There is also a refusal amongst many to define rappers as poets, an argument which is flawed due to the fact that many early forms of rap were rooted in old poetic traditions such as that of the ballad. The way in which a rapper is able to communicate their lyrical identity effectively is highly dependent on the nature of their rhymes and wordplay. Like rhythm, rhyme is celebrated within hip-hop for the way in which it distinguishes rap from other forms of contemporary music and poetry. The stylistic dexterity of some rappers, past and present, who are able to communicate a lyrical identity with skill is not just impressive, it should be recognised for its influence in African American culture and the wider literary canon.
Maybe Kanye isn't the right choice for a future Nobel Prize in Literature. But Kendrick Lamar? Nas? Talib Kweli? Maybe one day their art will be recognised just as Dylan's is now.