I recently witnessed a conversation between a student and a professor about the definition of poetry. A student was asked the name of one of his favorite poets. He replied that while he was not very familiar with classical poetry, he was a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar. The teacher then asked whether Kendrick Lamar could be considered a poet. “Kendrick,” he said, “can never be the next Keats.”
The response to this statement was amazing. The student responded that more people were familiar with Lamar than Keats; that Lamar currently had a much bigger influence on popular culture than Keats. And when the professor asked, everyone in class agreed that they were familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s work; a couple of students claimed that they were familiar with John Keats’s poetry. Everyone could name Lamar’s recent work; few could name anything that Keats had produced.
I am admittedly not very well versed in rap, hip hop or pop music. As you may have noticed from my previous columns, I am much more familiar with classical music than I am with popular forms of music. But even I had heard of Kendrick Lamar: My dad became a huge fan of Lamar this past year after reading about To Pimp A Butterfly and witnessing his performance at the Grammy’s.
On the other hand, I am not terribly familiar with Keats’s poetry. I read some of his sonnets in A.P. Literature when I was in high school. Besides this, I know little to nothing about his career or his oeuvre. Historically, I can characterize him as an English Romantic poet from the second generation of Romantic poets. I know that his poetry is usually grouped with Shelley and Byron. Besides that, I know very little about Keats.
Though our academic and cultural institutions may tell us that Keats is a more influential or important cultural figure than Lamar, the experiences of most college students would seem to dispute this claim. Though I could understand why the professor might suggest that Keats’s poetry was of a higher artistic merit than that of Lamar, doesn’t our generations affinity for the words of Lamar challenge this assumption?
One common assumption about popular artists is that they represent a fad, that the work that they are creating is of less intrinsic artistic worth and that it will be forgotten by later generations. But Lamar seems to have overcome the generational boundaries that one would ascribe on a fad. My dad, after all, is a 49-year-old Google employee who usually listens to the popular music of his generation. His appreciation of Lamar’s music is a testament to the cross-generational appeal of Lamar’s music.
The inclusion of hip-hop music in our popular culture represents the gradual disintegration of racial, social and economic barriers between different subcultures. As Lamar illustrates, artists growing up in Compton are able to integrate themselves as never before into the larger cultural lexicon, moving past the strict subcultures to which they were previously confined.
These artists also face significantly less pressure to censure their art to meet the demands of popular culture. Twenty or 30 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an artist such as Lamar being able to address issues of race in such a head-on manner. Yet modern artists can address these issues without fears of blacklisting and outright persecution, just those of conservative outcry and negative reviews. Though not yet complete, our popular culture is constantly becoming more inclusive toward artists of all walks of life.
For another example of this I am reminded of MUSKET’s recent production of “In The Heights.” As I interviewed the cast about this production, they kept returning to this idea of depicting the real Latinx experience on stage. They spoke about the failures of musical theatre to accurately depict Latinx individuals. They spoke of the casting of a white actress in “West Side Story” and the depictions of the Latinx community as in this play as violent and incapable of adapting. And they spoke of the joy they felt in positively depicting the Latinx community on stage; the honor the felt to welcome midwestern audiences to the wonders of Washington Heights.
Some may view our lack of familiarity with classical artists like Keats as a sign of cultural or educational decline. But what good is the study of these classical artists if they perpetually alienate so many members of our society? Why should the work of hip-hop artists be treated as anything less than poetry if they represent the spoken words of those that were historically excluded from poetry?
When it comes to questions of John Keats and Kendrick Lamar, it is time to challenge the idolization of Keats in favor of the inclusion of Lamar. It is time to tear down the exclusive definitions we hold of high art in favor of including those who have been historically and systematically prevented from being considered as high art.
Genre-defining boundaries are evaporating, in some instances far faster than we can fully understand. We are moving toward a world in which it is the quality of one’s art and not the nature of one’s background that determines artistic merit. While we maintain the exclusive ranks of great artists that we inherited from academics of long past, it is time for us to widen the lense of what we believe to be a great artist. Let history take Keats, I want to tell the professor, and let us take Kendrick.