The Professor of Hip-Hop: Adam Bradley’s Poetic Mission

What do Lauryn Hill and Emily Dickinson share? The Sound of Music and Juggaknots? For Professor Adam Bradley it’s all part of his mission to connect hip-hop to a poetic American tradition. By Nick Romeo.

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“This is one of the foremothers of hip hop,” Professor Adam Bradley said to a class of 70 undergraduates one morning at the University of Colorado. Projected on a screen behind him was a still shot of Julie Andrews smiling and snuggling with the Von Trapp children in the film version of The Sound of Music. Once his students’ laughter subsided, Bradley played three short clips: Julie Andrews beaming rendition of the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane’s moody riffs on the same melody in 1964, and an underground hip-hop group called the Juggaknots’ remix of Coltrane from the late 1990s. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” had morphed into “Only preservation of the funk is why I kick this / As I give a simple diagnosis of the sickness” with a hip-hop beat, but the melodic lineage linking Julie and the Juggaknots was clear.

For students familiar only with mainstream images of hip-hop, Julie Andrews was one of many surprises in Bradley’s course. One day they heard beats from a group representing the homo-hop movement called Deep Dickollective, whose main rapper describes his aesthetic as “nigga-nerd shit-talk-swagger with a dictionary instead of a pistol.” Next they listened to the lesbian artist Medusa’s “This Pussy is a Gangsta.” While he also teaches mainstream artists like Jay-Z and A Tribe Called Quest, Bradley wants to show students hip-hop’s dimly lit corners: the MC known only in a Brooklyn neighborhood, or the shaky live concert footage captured on handheld camera. The underground and fringe groups help students realize that hip-hop is broader and more complex than any of the caricatures popular culture promotes.

Since publishing Book of Rhymes (2009), and The Anthology of Rap (2010), Bradley has become one of the most eloquent public champions of hip-hop poetics. While scholars such as Tricia Rose and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have argued for the cultural and intellectual significance of hip-hop, Bradley is one of the pioneers of a more aesthetic approach to the form. He wants to seduce new audiences and make current fans appreciate the depths of poetic craft in what he calls “the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world.”

While dozens of hip-hop artists Bradley included in The Anthology of Rap were happy to see their work called poetry, some stars reject the label. LL Cool J and Eminem have both dismissed the idea that they are poets. Eminem told an interviewer he couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a poem, while LL Cool J didn’t want to be associated with a genre perceived as lifeless and obsolete. “Some people worry about the taint of association,” Bradley said. “They think calling hip-hop poetry would make it dead, lifeless, and irrelevant, since that’s how they see poetry.” Certain professors see a chance to benefit from this associative taint. After all, if calling hip-hop poetry drains hip-hop of vitality, then calling poetry hip-hop might just bring poetry back to life (at least for those who think it’s dead). When students see Lauryn Hill and Emily Dickinson paired, Hill might lose some perceived cool, but Dickinson could also gain some.

Just as some hip-hop lovers reject the hip-hop-is-poetry equation because they see poetry as obsolete, some poetry partisans resist it because they see it as simplistic and clichéd. Bradley argues that trite, unsophisticated lyrics don’t invalidate powerful and original ones any more than lazy, predictable 17th century doggerel disqualifies John Donne as a poet. All use patterned, rhythmic language, just with different degrees of skill and subtlety. There’s a key distinction, in other words, between using the word poetry as a descriptive statement and an aesthetic judgment. Yet since the publishing of Book of Rhymes, which used close readings to justify the claim that hip-hop merits formal analysis, Bradley has seen how easily the topic becomes politicized. “I’ve stepped away from pushing the rap-is-poetry cause, because I saw that this assertion did more to cloud than to clarify issues that matter to me. It became an argument that left the lyric and entered the culture wars.”

Bradley’s initial interest in hip-hop was hardly aesthetic. He just liked the rage and rebellion of the lyrics. As a teenager he listened to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power.” “What power was I fighting? I wasn’t sure, but I liked the fact that my mom didn’t like the song.” Bradley still quotes lyrics from the song: “Elvis was a hero to most / but he never meant shit to me—you see / Straight-out racist, the sucker was simple and plain / (Motherfuck him and John Wayne).” He found the rage of the lines contagious, though he wasn’t really sure what caused it. “I remember thinking, what’s wrong with John Wayne? The dude’s a cowboy, that’s kind of cool. And I didn’t know who Elvis was, but I was pissed at him.”

When he went to Lewis & Clark College as a freshman in 1992, he entered a phase he now calls “my comic radicalism.” “Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie was big, and I ordered six different Malcolm X hats with those iconic scripts and colors. It was a matter of style but also of asserting my blackness.” He returned home to Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving break determined to display his newfound racial identity. “I tortured my half-brother, who’s all white, blonde hair and everything. I refused to call him Jack. He was White. I’d say, pass the mashed potatoes, White.” He didn’t stay in his comic radical mode for too long.

By the time he arrived at Harvard to start a PhD in English, he was starting to embrace what he calls, quoting Ralph Ellison, his “insider-outsider” status. One of his mentors was Cornel West. “I grew an afro, I even tried the brother thing for a while,” he said, referring to West’s habit of calling people of all races brother or sister. He also found a mentor in Helen Vendler, a scholar famously attuned to the formal aspects of poetry.

As a teaching assistant at Harvard, he passed out a questionnaire to students asking them to list previous experience with African-American literature. A black student gave a simple answer: my life. Bradley was sympathetic, but skeptical. “I wanted to recognize differences of personal investment in a subject, but for something to be an academic field it has to be accessible to all, not just to black students.”

Bradley still resists the idea that race gives anyone a monopoly of insight into black music and literature. “Many people take an Af-Am lit class and they feel like it’s a voyage to some exotic country. I try to avoid performing blackness and playing the tour guide.” Instead, he tries to promote a direct connection between his students and the material by deflecting attention away from himself as the authority. “If you get deep enough into the culture and history of hip-hop you become wary of anyone labeled an expert.”

Wherever Bradley has taught—at Harvard, Claremont McKenna, and the University of Colorado—he has met students who think they are experts. Many have strong preconceptions about hip-hop that they impose on whatever they hear. Bradley recalled one student who wrote a paper on Queen Latifah’s song “The Evil That Men Do.” “You could tell that she had this idea of what hip-hop was. Her paper was all about how it was so hard for Queen Latifah to grow up in the projects. I said ‘look at the song, read the lyrics, it doesn’t mention the projects!’”

Two warring images of hip-hop tend to dominate popular culture. One presents hip-hop as synonymous with cop-killing gangster rap, a music promoting money, misogyny, and violence. The opposing image features the so-called conscious rapper who responsibly addresses social issues in tame language, offering what Public Enemy’s Chuck D called “Black people’s CNN.” Bradley sees the gangster image as a crude caricature, but he’s also impatient with those who want to legislate the content of hip-hop and limit it to a particular “positive” message. “What makes hip-hop is the multitude,” he said. “I’m not inherently skeptical of popular taste. The self-described protectors of hip-hop who say, 'Only this is real, and we should get rid of everything else'—they only exist because hip-hop is popular. And it’s popular because of people who like more things.”

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When I spoke to Cornel West about hip-hop, he described American culture’s “tremendous resistance to seeing hip-hop as poetry.” One prominent resistor was “brother Larry Summers,” the former president of Harvard, who, according to West, didn’t want the school associated with hip-hop or the spoken word album West released while teaching there. (Summers stated publicly that he was “proud” of the Afro-American studies program, and wanted all of its faculty to stay at Harvard.)

West also feels that many of today’s most gifted rappers are not sufficiently engaged in politics. “Jay-Z and Kanye, they’re lyrical geniuses, but they’ve got to wake up. They lack political courage and bow to tremendous commercial pressures.”

Bradley politely disagrees with his former mentor. “I definitely hear what Cornel’s saying, but it’s like Michael Jordan said when he was asked to back a democratic candidate: Republicans buy sneakers, too. Jay-Z’s an artist, but he’s also a savvy businessman. I might use that platform differently, but there’s integrity in his position.”

While Bradley doesn’t want to reduce hip-hop to political activism, he often finds politics latent in the personal stories of hip-hop songs. “Hip hop was born in the first person, in the “I” of the slave narratives,” he told his class one day. Some critics, notably Adam Kirsch, have argued that the self-aggrandizing common in hip-hop lyrics has stunted the art form’s growth, trapping it in an eternal adolescence of egotism. Bradley, however, sees the insistent “I” of hip-hop as a formal constraint that spurs creativity: Jay-Z’s line, “Like short sleeves I bear arms” is more about the ingenuity of a pun than boasting. He also notes that while some rappers, like Kanye West, vacillate dramatically between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, others use an obviously hyperbolic style for comic effect, and others avoid swagger and boasts.

In class one day, Bradley paraphrased a test for poetic quality that Amiri Baraka devised: approach a group of guys on break from a construction job, recite your poem, and if you don’t get hit in the head, it’s good. Next he quoted the poet Adrian Mitchell’s remark that “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” Though he asserts the aesthetic legitimacy of hip-hop, he doesn’t assume that poetic quality must equal obscure and difficult work. For Bradley, the good song is often the one that the guys on their lunch break listen to.

As class was ending, I chatted with a student named Vincent Torres, a freshman from Commerce City, Colo. He was a hip-hop fan before the class, but he listened in a different way now. “My buddies don’t see hip-hop as poetry,” he said. “They think it’s just boasting. But I’m working on them.”