Poetic Justice… It’s in the Lyrics!

I don’t know if you have ever experienced the following, but it happens to me quite often: you hear a song on a radio with a beat that captivates you. It has a great hook and chorus that are easy enough to remember. You buy a copy for your mp3 player and are listening to the song constantly. After a few more days, you actually take the time to listen to the lyrics and are aghast that the song is suggesting you do things that would definitely end any future bids for public office… OR in a better scenario, you find the song is encouraging you to think about an issue or social justice topic such as climate change, in a different light, or become an active participant against the societal ills that may surround you. It happens to me more often than I would care to admit; the music outweighs the lyrics and I immediately miss the intended (and unintended messages). I found this is one of the reasons poetry slams have become a popular venue for some hip-hop artist here in NSW, as well as throughout Australia. These artist use the poetry slams as a way to make sure their voices (and in some cases) lyrics, are heard above the music.

Some of the first events I attended when I arrived in Sydney were the final “heats” for the Australian Poetry Slam http://australianpoetryslam.com/ (heats or semi-final competitions were held in the eight states of Australia; with the final competition taking place in Sydney). Hip-hop has a strong present at each heat and slam I attended. Hear David Kopycinski at the heat in Glebe:

I connected with Miles Merrill, the national coordinator of the poetry slam (and a pretty good poet), to find out more about the competition. He noted that hip-hop artist often compete in the slam, and that Omar Musa, a hip hop artist from Queanbeyan, NSW won the slam in 2008. Miles observed that sometimes artist become frustrated that their message is ignored over the beat, and hence find spoken word competitions a great way to be heard.

Ironically, the beat is why some artist chose hip-hop to deliver a message. The average hip-hop song has 75-120 beats per minute (bpm), with 90 bpm being about average for an artist who is considered “wordy”, and higher bpm (120+) for songs intended moreso for dancing than conveying a message. (A ballad is about 65 bpm; most pop songs aren’t much faster 80-90 bps). A hip-hop song also gets in about 16 bars per verse, as opposed to 8 bars found in most other genres. These rates are not random. Artists know that people have a short attention span, and radio stations tend to want songs that are less than 4 minutes long. So16 bars per verse allow an artist to say quite a bit in a short amount of time. (I actually learned this along with the students enrolled in MC Trey’s class mentioned in a previous blog). I say all of this to point out that the hip-hop artist gets to say much more in a quicker amount of time than say, the pop artist. Listen to Kaitlyn Plyley and DVS talk a little bit more about this topic:

DVS also shares his views on how global hip-hop is being used to educate the world on social justice issues.

You might wonder if everyone in hip-hop is talking so fast, how can you understand what is being said? My mother would say that you can’t. (I love you mom), however, I respectfully disagree. Hip-hop artist will tell you that you have to take time to listen, and sometimes decipher what is being said. As Kaitlyn noted, “…[hip-hop] values modern word play”. Not all artists, however, agree hip-hop is the best method of getting messages across. For example, this year’s winner, Kelly-Lee Hickey, who won $11,000 in prizes including an ultimate writers festival tour of Bali and China, no longer uses hip-hop. A former hip-hopper, Kelly-Lee appreciates the rhythm and groove of hip-hop, has decided to slow down her delivery so people could savor every word. She thinks about the economy of words and how you can say as much as possible with a small range of words. Listen to her talk about Australian culture: http://vimeo.com/19511407.

As I mentioned in my introductory blog, the poetry slams provide a way for the diverse community of people that live throughout the country, to connect in a more intimate way. While a resident of Sydney may see people from all over the world as (s)he travels to and from work, this does not guarantee they will have meaningful interactions with the people they encounter in passing. These poetry slams provide a venue for people from all walks of life to share their inner thoughts, personal stories, political views, and lessons learned in a safe yet artistic manner.

Nationality is not the only thing eclectic about the group of people participating in, and watching the poetry slam. Contestants ranged in age from teenaged boys to the elderly women. Men and women seemed to be evenly represented as well. Diverse religious views and ideologies were expressed without debate. An informal survey led me to meet bankers, housewives, law students, multimedia designers and writers who all had the alternate personality of a poet. They delivered messages that ranged from dating, love, sex and marriage, to political strife, race relations, war crimes and other social justice issues.

The National Poetry Slam is not the only venue in Sydney. I have seen several. Another that has a large hip-hop presence is the poetry caravan that takes place in at least three venues in one night. While some of the artists come prepared with a few poems from their repertoire, some make the daring choice of freestyling a poem. The freestyle poem is created on the spot using randomly picked words the in house or online audience selects (either in person or via twitter) to talk about a topic an audience member shouts out. The online audience can’t see the performance, but can follow #hashtag updates some audience members and performers choose to share during the performance. In an upcoming blog, I will give you a closer look at some of the hip-hop artist that participate in the caravan… particularly L-Fresh the Lion, and Rima Najm – aka Soul Beats, who you may remember from my Blog on East London-West Sydeny. They have some important things to say.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your comments, questions, observations…

One thought on “Poetic Justice… It’s in the Lyrics!

  1. nice interviews. It’s nice to hear some of the artists’/poets’ thoughts in their own words and their (and your) own accents. It’s a nice reminder of the global nature of this enterprise.

    It’s also an interesting tension you bring up. The beat and short length might be a reason someone listens to a song, which gives it wider exposure than it otherwise would have. But just because someone listens to a song doesn’t mean that they hear the message. Also, because of the speed the lyrics have to be delivered fewer people may be able to understand the lyrics. The fact that there are sites on the internet dedicated to listing funny misherad lyrics doesn’t bode well for getting a message across. I guess getting the listener to decipher and attend is the key but how to do it exactly? I suppose being catch can’t hurt.

    This discussion reminds me of some of the discussions I’ve heard about bandwidth. About how people adapt their communication style when they have less time or space available for their message.

    As always, interesting stuff.


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