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What Is Hip Hop Poetry?

By T. Webster
Updated: May 23, 2024

Hip hop poetry is a style of poetry that embraces words and phrasings akin to those of hip hop music lyrics. As with traditional poetry, rhythm and rhyme are important in the hip hop genre, though the styles are significantly different. Traditional poetry also is more often written down and then read from a page, while hip hop poetry may be written down but then is delivered or performed; improvisation frequently comes into play during such a performance. Some discount hip hop as a poetry style, but others say hip hop music lyrics have always been poetry, and they embrace hip hop poetry as a way of making the study of poetry more interesting to younger generations.

Poetry is defined as the use of language in a way that utilizes its aesthetic quality. It is not simply about using words to convey information but to create or express emotion. Hip hop has its primary roots in rapping and disc jockey voice-overs during the playing of rhythm and blues songs. The music is sometimes edited to create various patterns or rhythms that complement the lyrics.

One of the most noticeable similarities between hip hop and traditional poetry is the use of rhythm, or a beat, to deliver language. Both art forms use rhythm by arranging words so they form a certain meter. Hip hop tends to use rapping and music to accentuate this rhythm, while classic poetry is delivered without music and relies on the person reading it to discover the rhythm.

Traditional poems and hip hop lyrics often use the same rhyming techniques. Certain syllables of words may be rhymed, for example. The last word of each sentence or phrase also may be rhymed. Traditional poetry also uses language to convey something beyond the literal meaning of the words. Symbolism, which uses one thing to represent another, is a common technique in both poetry and hip hop.

Alliteration and similes also are utilized by both traditional poetry and hip hop poetry. One form of alliteration uses a series of words that start with the same letter. Similes are anything that claims to be similar to something else.

Despite the similarities, some maintain that hip hop poetry is not at all like traditional poetry. Some hip hop artists are so concerned with rhyming that they put together phrases that make no sense, critics say. The emphasis becomes how the words work together rather than the actual meaning conveyed by the words.

The topic and tone of hip hop poetry also set it apart from classical poetry. Common themes in some hip hop music include crime, drug use and violence. The use of insults or obscenities also is common in hip hop, but not necessarily in traditional poetry.

The debate over whether hip hop poetry is truly poetry may linger for some time, but those who support its inclusion in the general category of poetry do so, in part, because they see it as a way to interest younger generations in poetry. Many youths in the 21st century are familiar with hip hop music and its lyrics. Bringing those lyrics into the classroom can serve as a way of introducing new generations to traditional poems by the likes of Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Shakespeare, supporters say.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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