"The Breakbeat Poets" Review

Hip Hop's contemporary genesis was "The Break"; the looping legend of the 1970s South Bronx block party where DJ Kool Herc and two turn-tables sparked a revolution. Once considered a fad subculture, Hip Hop became a powerful force permeating world culture like few art forms have done before. Over 40 years later, whole generations have grown up with Hip Hop as the soundtrack to their lives. The Break Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop is the culture's first poetry anthology.

The poems are centered around writing about what you know; stories of new kicks, metal detectors, first kisses, gangbangers, and broken bottles, institutional racism, gymnastics on box-spring mattresses, Food & Liquor, the south side, and Kanye West, the west side, jukin' your crush in your mother's basement, and free or reduced lunches, Black Futurism, and kids who lack futures, The War On Drugs, the suburbs, coroners, Coronas, "ghetto" names, Diasporic frames, code-switching, DJs and emcees, droppin' dimes, pitching quarters, loose squares, Air Jordans, gold ropes, lynchings, Kings, pawns, and pawn shops, crack cocaine, pickup games, ethnic sounding names on job applications, MPCs, brown paper bags and brown paper bag tests, and standardized tests, laughter, front porches, fire escapes, no escapes, Reaganomics, hula hoops, Fruity Loops, peace and love.

Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall are the editors of the anthology. The artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, Coval is the author of several poetry books, and the founder of Louder Than A Bomb, the world's largest youth poetry festival. Lansana, a faculty member of the Creative Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute, is author of poetry, textbooks, and children's books. Marshall received his MFA from the University of Michigan, and recently won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for his first book, Wild Hundreds.

"The Breakbeat Poets" could be described as a "mixtape" spanning the time from Hip Hop's birth to its explosion. The 78 poets in the book are from all over the country, born between 1961 and 1999. The pen and the mic are synonymous in this collection, each literary emcee recording a different perspective on what it means to live in this society. As you turn the page, the mic is passed on, and the cypher continues.

Each poet brings their own style to the cypher as well. Your arms are too short to box with Kristiana Colon. Jessica Care Moore drops bombs ("in wars they kill the poets first") in her "mic check, 1-2". Denizen Kane layers the meaning of "flow" in provocative ways the young and OGs can relate to. Paul Martinez Pompa "ethers" American hyper-militarism in his "I Have A Drone" speech.

Throughout the book, the poets articulate a sense of "double consciousness", trying to navigate urban and suburban terrains while reconciling conflicting experiences with race, class, sexuality, religion, capitalism, etc. To sample Walt Whitman, they "contain multitudes" that either coexist or conflict, like when Coval says "the music is solace and ammunition", or Joy Priest's "No Country For Black Boys". Hip Hop and rap music has long dealt with the struggle of the self (the individual and collective), and these poems continue that tradition.

But despite differences in experience, Hip Hop is the lens youth across all social and economic backgrounds use to connect with and make sense of the world around them. They are students of the game, studying Big Daddy Kane and Keats. They are beat-makers, sampling Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Maya Angelou, Tupac, Robert Frost, Rakim, Amiri Baraka, Khalil Gibran, and more. They speak with diction that scares your parents; break barriers, bounce and break your back, break norms and forms.

The editors tapped Chicago-artist Hebru Brantley to do the cover art. Brantley's works are "remixes" in a sense, combining different forms and inspirations in what he describes as "pop infused contemporary art inspired by Japanese anime and the bold aesthetics of street art pioneers Jean Michel Basquiat, Kaws, and Keith Haring."

It would be interesting to see if there is anything lost or gained in translations to and from spoken word. Though the prose still holds weight, Danez Smith's live performances of "Dear White America" are intense. Jose Olivarez's "Ode To The First White Girl I've Ever Loved" is a powerful memoir about self-love, romantic love, and the politics of normalcy. Hearing him perform it is moving, but being able to engage it as text adds distinct intimacy and layers to the piece. This is a great read for not only for established poetry-heads, but also beginners dabble in spoken word.


*A few of my favorites: "Fast - - how I knew" by Roger Bonair-Agard, "Manifesto, or Ars Poetica #2" and "Preface to a Twenty Volume Homicide Note" by Krista Franklin, "mic check, 1-2" by Jessica Care Moore, "how to get over (for kanye)" by T'ai Freedom Ford, "I Have a Drone" by Paul Martinez Pompa