Guest Post by Dagesh Forte – “Rhythm And Poetry”
Dagesh Forte is the blogger pseudonym of a scholar in biblical Hebrew. You may recognize him as a regular contributor of posts to the blog unsettledchristianity, including a provocative piece noting how “biblioblogs creep into places that maybe they shouldn’t be.” (In the same post, he reveals his part in the “now defunct Hebrew and Greek Reader weblog,” a site that interacted with some of Suzanne’s posts, and mine also, at our other respective blogs.) We are delighted that he has contributed the following guest post here at BLT!
— J. K. Gayle
RAP is a powerful tool. RAP comes from Hip-Hop, the cultural movement that birthed DJing as its own type of music (instead of just a record spinner who introduced songs), break dancing, graffiti art, and RAP music. RAP has come to be stereotyped as crass, sexually and violently explicit, misogynistic, and a host of other negative things that have caused America to label many RAP albums with the tag “EXPLICIT”. Even so, RAP dominates the music scene here in the USA and internationally. I think its high-time that Bible translators begin to explore RAP as a vehicle for translating biblical poetry.
So let me introduce you to four of my favorite rappers. I think they can provide a foundation for how to make good rap.
Gil is not what we think of when we think of RAP. Gil was a blueman, a jazz musician, and a beat poet. But unlike other beat poets, Gil’s poetry was about race, specifically black Americans. Gil died in 2011. The latter part of his life was marked with multiple jail sentences for powder cocaine possession and possession of a crack pipe (Until recently, crack cocaine offenders were given lengthier sentences than were powder cocaine offenders). His greatest hit was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
The music of Gil Scott-Heron is important to me because its beautiful and honest and painful. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the modern (and very American) constructs of “black” and “white” will identify with or feel convicted by some of Gil’s words. Gil showed me how I benefit from institutional racism. And he did it in a way that I could accept because his way was poetic. As Bible translators, I think the lesson we can learn from Gil is that poetry can offend and convict and bring what is in the dark into the light and it can do it in a way that is undeniable.
KRS One is from the early days of Hip Hop and the RAP that came from it. His music is an excellent blend of rhyming techniques with powerful content. He challenges black Americans to reject labels put on them and he invites all people to think before they speak. He is a scholar of Hip Hop. Sometimes when I want to listen to KRS One, I have a hard time deciding if I want to listen to his music or one of his lectures. KRS One shows that sermons can be rapped. Here’s his early hit My Philosophy.
KRS One also give regular lectures. You can find them on YouTube. Here he is commenting on guilt and Genesis 3.
The Wu-Tang Clan
I love The Wu. Wu-Tang is the soundtrack to my undergraduate years. The Wu-Tang Clan is the longest surviving (minus O.D.B.) RAP group from New York. In my opinion, they are the best. The Wu-Tang Clan makes blues music in RAP. This is the voice that says, “If there is a God, he doesn’t love me.” The Wu is a look at the underbelly of American life. Their music makes me think of hard-to-hear psalms like #137. Here is “Heaven and Hell” from Raekwon’s solo album “Only Built For Cuban Linx N*****”. Though his solo album, the whole Wu-Tang Clan joins in the album and this song.
For decades, Spanish RAP was terrible (in my opinion). Spanish rappers mimicked the techniques that they heard from American gangster RAP. For the most part, that technique was rhyme with a very predictable cadence. In the last few years, I have been impressed with the RAP of Maria “Mala” Rodriguez. Her RAP does not sound like American RAP in Spanish. She plays with Spanish as a Spanish speaker would, not as an American would. Her lyrics are biting and raunchy. And sometimes she growls like a death metal singer.
Mala’s music reminds me that poetry is different from language to language. Rhyme is entertaining in English, but in Spanish it can be incredibly boring (and easy since nouns end in either -o or -a). Here is the single “33” from her 2013 album “Bruja”.
Could RAP translations of Psalms be a useful exercise? I think when we hear a translation of a psalm that causes the foot to tap and the head to nod to the beat, then we’ll know.