Rap is a poor prelude to poetry;Opinion

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
I WAS the envy of almost every teenager in Britain recently. Invited to attend the annual Music of Black Origin awards at the Royal Albert Hall, I sat in splendour as a guest of Channel 4 which was televising the event. Last year, I failed to identify a single act successfully.

This time, I spent half an hour in a record store, with the hope of at least recognising one or two of the musicians. Able to smile knowledgeably as Destiny's Child, Beverly Knight, Jay-Z and others strode across the stage, it looked like being a good night for my street cred.

Tina Turner, even older than I, helped by outdoing the younger acts for style,poise and energy. I am sure that she has the equivalent of Dorian Gray's portrait hidden in her attic. Muscular young dancers gyrated away in the background, so that even if you didn't fancy the music, there was something worth looking at.

It was all going so well, until the appearance of the young woman who is probably the best soul singer in the world today, improbably beautiful, and a role model for young girls everywhere.

Lauryn Hill sent a video message to thank British fans for her award. She rambled on about an encounter she had with a bag lady, who refused her offer of a 20-dollar bill, and then seemed to remember where she was, and said goodbye.

Hill, as well as being a great singer, does some rapping. Like all millionaire rappers, she is obsessed with being poor and underprivileged. Rap lyrics, which are spoken or shouted to a more or less melodic backing track, all dwell on similar topics - the ghetto, women, the rapper's own greatness and an all-purpose incantation to be rebellious.

"Heads high" says one of the most popular; no one knows what the rest of the lyrics say, but the slogan is usually enough to get everyone going.

Rap is the lingua franca of today's pop music. Even the soft pop acts include the odd rap, to look a bit harder. As some of the boy bands prove, it's not simple to do. However, it is easier than writing poetry or singing serious music.

Yes, there are genuinely talented performers. Puff Daddy's lament for a lost brother, I'll Be Missing You, was genuinely memorable. Coolio's reinvention of Pachelbel's Canon in D as a hymn to the struggle against the ghetto was innovative and intelligent. No one can argue with the talent of our own Benjamin Zephaniah - least of all me, since I gave him his first TV spot. So the anxiety I felt when I heard that some teachers would use rap to draw children towards serious verse on National Poetry Day does not arise from snobbery.

Rather, I worry about the limitations of rap as a medium of expression. It is trapped by having to work to a basic rhythm. Its preoccupations, though there are exceptions, are crude and misogynist. In the brilliant evocation of South Central Los Angeles, the movie Boyz 'N The Hood, a young woman says to her boyfriend, himself a rapper, "Why are you always calling us ho's?" (Ho is short for whore). The answer is instant: "Because that's what you is, bitch." It's not untypical. The usual rap is little better than a contemporary nursery rhyme. It stretches neither the vocabulary nor the imagination.

I'm aware that teachers face a struggle to keep work relevant and to engage their students. I know that many will hope that this will grab the attention of minority students in particular. But students should not be led to believe that this is a contemporary substitute for Milton, or Keats, or even Walcott. That would be doing a disservice to the young people who need to gain most out of school. Let's not "dis" ( as in disprespect) the rappers; but teachers should not turn an entertainment which just occasionally rises to the status of art into a soft option for the disdavantaged.

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