When Ye – the artist formerly known as Kanye West – said on a recent podcast that he doesn’t read books, some people wondered if he was sending the wrong message to children.
These questions have taken on added importance in light of the fact that Ye recently launched Donda Academy, a private educational venture named after his late mother, Donda West, who was an English teacher herself.
As a rap artist, author, and scholar, I would never say that reading a lot of books is the only way to gain knowledge or be smart.
After all, I created the first-ever peer-reviewed hip-hop album released by a college press. For my PhD thesis in 2017, I made a rap album and resisted all calls to submit a formal written explanation of the work.
Even as a former high school literature teacher, I never believed that the only way – or even the main one – for people to demonstrate their intelligence was to read books. I think that to freestyle – i.e. write and recite seemingly spontaneous rap lyrics on the spot – requires levels of intelligence that are often overlooked or racistly dismissed as “natural talents” that don’t require study. nor practical. For example, the mind-blowing 10-minute freestyle that rapper Black Thought performed live on New York radio station Hot 97 in 2017 is a display of genius that’s the result of years of study and practice.
In some ways, you could say that Kanye West and I are on the same page. Where I disagree with Ye, however, is in his complete rejection of reading books, which he likens to “eating Brussels sprouts.” Rap music is many things, but it includes a lot of respect for literature.
Kanye as “Gatsby”
Books have an important place in hip-hop. As I have pointed out in the various chapters of books I have written on different aspects of rap music – and in the classes I teach – a multitude of lyrics containing direct and indirect references to a rich array of literary works. These works span several millennia and come from all over the world.
And long before the book hate controversy, I once referred to Ye as hip-hop’s Jay Gatsby, a reference to the central character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” because of the parallels striking that I have seen between their lives. The novel contains teachable comparisons to “Graduation” in its use of the flashing lights metaphor for hope and desire for wealth and class.
While Kanye West professes a disdain for books, the same cannot be said for many of his predecessors and contemporaries.
For example, in 1996 Tupac Shakur released his 1996 album “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory” under the pseudonym Makaveli – a variation of the name of author Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s 16th-century works “The Prince” and “Discourse on Livy” might offer interesting insights into the album and the creative process Tupac undertook during the last period of his life. For example, Machiavelli details his famous observations about gaining and maintaining political power in “The Prince.” Similarly, Tupac ends his album by talking about his own ancestry in some way, shouting “military-minded soldiers” and detailing the predicted rules of war.
What follows is a brief overview of other notable examples in which rap artists refer – directly or indirectly – to influential literary works written by authors around the world and across the ages.
“Thieves in the Night” by Black Star in 1998
This song names and quotes “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. The song’s hook borrows and revises the quote from the novel:
“…for we weren’t strong, only aggressive; we weren’t free, just fired; we weren’t compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well-mannered. We courted death to call ourselves brave , and we hid ourselves like thieves of life.”
Noname’s 2021 single “Rainforest”
This song directly names the 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth” by psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon. It is a lyrical allusion to the lingering effects of colonialism.
KXNG Crooked and Joell Ortiz’s 2022 song “Heat Wave”
Crooked makes a passing reference in this song to Plato’s philosophical text “Symposium”, in which characters, including the philosopher Socrates, confront each other by performing improvised speeches. Plato doesn’t write about rap battles exactly, but there are similarities.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly”
There are interesting parallels to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” throughout the album. The insistent reference to “yams” on the song “King Kunta” evokes the scene from the 1952 novel in which the narrator encounters a vendor selling yams, which remind him of his home, so he eats them until they eat him. make them sick.
The Roots’ 2004 album “The Tipping Point”
This album takes its name from a book by Malcolm Gladwell from 2000. Gladwell describes a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”. The album cover features a photo of a young Malcolm X, presumably at a tipping point, before he became a world-renowned Muslim minister and eventually co-wrote the influential 1965 “L ‘autobiography of Malcolm X told to Alex Haley’.
Common’s 2000 album “Like Water for Chocolate”
This album takes its name from the 1989 novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. The book uses magical realism to convey the emotions of the main character, Tita, to people who eat the food she prepares while caring for her mother, which prevents her from fulfilling her true desires.
The album also contains a song called “A Song for Assata” which contains audio of an interview Common did with exiled black freedom fighter Assata Shakur, author of the 1989 book “Assata: An Autobiography”. .
Dead Prez’s 2000 album “Let’s Get Free”
This album presents many illusions and literary influences. Notably, the lyrics of the song “We Want Freedom” begin with the words “I Ching”, which is the name of an ancient Chinese text. The band’s logo includes a symbol, hexagram 46, used in the text that represents the word “army”. The stic.man member says the symbol is meant to represent “forward movement, progress and adaptation in our lives”.
Rapsody’s 2019 album “Eve”
All of the song titles on this album are notable women’s names. ‘Eve’ is the first woman named in a major literary work – the Bible – and several of the other women mentioned are authors, including ‘Oprah’, ‘Myrlie’, ‘Michelle’ and ‘Maya’. The song named after Maya Angelou focuses on themes from Angelou’s work and also quotes from her writings.
Perhaps Kanye West’s recent remarks on reading will inspire thoughtful conversation about how American society views reading and determines intelligence. If so, the archives of hip-hop—whether in book or music form—offer an abundance of ways to deepen those conversations.
AD Carson, assistant professor of hip-hop, University of Virginia
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.