Rap artists who were recently compared in a study by data analyst, Matt Daniels, proved that the unique number of words that artists such as Aesop Rock, GZA (solo work) and several other members of Wu-Tang Clan have incorporated into their lyrical vocabulary is quite impressive. In fact, William Shakespeare’s own expansive vocabulary and creative genius were used as a barometer for comparison in the study. However, this article does not intend to divulge into the expansiveness of these vocabularies, but instead, compares rap artists to Shakespeare in a more nuanced way.
Rap can be used as a tool to urge youths to critically analyze, interpret, and question the world they live in just as the work of Shakespeare does. In doing so, the foundation is constructed as listeners create their own identity within that world. It allows them to see where they fit in the picture in terms of education, government, police, media messages, equality and so forth. Bringing rap into critical engagement allows people to ask themselves how they personally contribute, consume, and invest in a structure where they belong. Knowing this is one way to create change.
Despite the fact that some individuals would faint at the notion of comparing rappers to Shakespeare (sit down, because it is happening), it is important to note that rap lyrics when studied from a critical, postmodern perspective challenge people to question the society they live in, just as Shakespeare’s work did. So why is Shakespeare’s material considered more culturally relevant than that of artists such as Wu-Tang Klan, Ice Cube, Biggie, Tupac, or Jay Z?
Just because there is an overwhelming representation and study of white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon men in mainstream education does not mean that the material they produce is any more valuable than the knowledge, histories, and experiences expressed in the lyrical poetry of rap.
Culturally relevant material can be seen in the lyrics of songs such as C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) by rap artists, Wu-Tang Clan, which informs the listener of the struggle to survive on the streets and succeed.
“It’s been twenty-two long hard years of still struggling
Survival got me bugging, but I’m alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake in the ways of the world cause $h!t is deep
A man with a dream with plans to make cream
Which failed; I went to jail at age of fifteen”
(C.R.E.A.M, Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers), Loud Records 1993)
For those whose life experiences reflect the detailed lyrics of wordsmiths, such as that of Wu-Tang Clan and the working-class struggle, one can benefit from the empowerment that comes from legitimizing these experiences that are relevant to multiple ethnicities and cultures in a more inclusive and democratic form of pedagogy. The knowledge gleaned, experiences had, and voices of these individuals should not be silenced, but instead, should be the beginning of critical conversations about society.
If one is unable to relate to the lyrics of some of these artists, then it is all the more reason for them to engage in the critical discussion of the life experiences spoken of, in order to dispel stereotypes, enlighten false perceptions, and decisively challenge mass media representations around them.
Shakespeare’s ability to capture the human experience in simple yet profound verse attributes to his enduring popularity. Today’s Shakespeareans may not hail from Renaissance Europe but their art still possesses the same capabilities to bring their audience closer to the imaginative and cultural experience of others.
It is important to expose the dominant ideological discourses and hegemonic practices that relate to education in order to understand that engaging in the study of rap lyrics is just as important in engaging in the study of Shakespearean sonnets.
“If I say stop the violence
I won’ t chart
Maybe I should write some songs like Mozart
Cause many people don’ t believe rap is an art.”
(House Nigga’s, Edutainment, Jive Records, 1990)
Rap is not just words strewn together that rhyme. It is an expression of lyrical poetry that embodies the experiences and feelings that come with any form of art. This means that is political in nature, self-expressive, and a reflection of the world and culture that is lived, realistic and worth understanding.
Albeit some believe that Shakespeare is vastly different from today’s rap artists, the capacity for both languages to capture the human experiences remains the same. When rap artists are compared to Shakespeare, one can see that both are equally important and yet, not equally valued.
Whereas Shakespeare’s canon is paramount to traditional approaches of cultural analysis, these critiques need to be expanded to include versions that capture the voices of society at large, in present-day, as opposed to lessons that can be incorporated from the past, from select social classes, and then applied in a disconnected way to everyone.
Rap artists and Shakespeare can be compared; the only issue is whether or not society is willing to let that comparison be made in a manner that is democratic, inclusive, and empowering.
Opinion by: Amiya Moretta