Essays

Could a Rapper Ever Win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

There's not a particularly huge space between Dylan and the likes of Nicki, Kendrick or Nas.

by Tim Hakki
01 March 2017, 1:34pm

When Bob Dylan was crowned with the laurel wreath of Nobel recognition in literature last year, the internet got het up. Rumours of Dylan's shortlisting by the committee have swirled every year since 1996 but often were dismissed as pipe dreams. Permanent secretary for the Swedish Academy Sara Danius defended the win, comparing Dylan to Sappho and Homer and arguing that poetry and song were once conjoined – in fact, Homeric and Sapphic songs pre-date the concept of literature altogether, and only became defined by the written word after they'd survived long enough through oral transmission.

Viewed from 2017, Dylan's work is of a different time: of vinyl and print press. Still, an interest in canonising him isn't anything new. Christopher Ricks's 2003 book Dylan's Visions Of Sin presents a zealous case for Dylan's printed lyrics being as poetical as the work of John Keats; the inclusion of some of Dylan's lyrics in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Oxford Book of American Poetry, alongside the publication of his Complete Lyrics, have further ensured his ubiquity in English departments everywhere.

We've seen a similar move with rap. Tricia Rose's 1994 book Black Noise and 1997's Norton Anthology of African American Literature both wrested rap from wax and mic to page, while you'd have already seen the genre taken seriously as an academic subject in African-American Studies departments in the US since the 90s. In fact, pop culture and cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg made a case for rap being thoroughly postmodern as early as 1988. In his essay "Putting the Pop Back into Postmodernism", he argued, among other things, that rap is quintessentially postmodernist through its loud and boastful assertion of an existence beneath power structures that have made that existence difficult – not quite your average Blogspot hot take.

For Andrew Warnes, a professor of American literature at Leeds University who teaches Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet to postgrads, rap and the African-American literary tradition both capture the quiddities of the black American experience. "The African-American cultural tradition is often rooted in the expression of a human identity against the odds. That's what African-American culture often does," he tells me. "It's the artist asserting his or her right not just to exist but right to feeling, to emotion, in the face of massive racist oppression. If I had to distil it to a unifying cultural ethos, I think it's something to do with survival and the insistence on human presence, and I think you can hear that in the blues, you can hear that in the writing of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and I think you can hear it also in hip-hop."

So, onto the prize. According to Alfred Nobel's will, the prize for literature is awarded "to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". This has been wildly open to interpretation during the last century, but essentially Young Thug, Lil Wayne, and Drizzy, won't win in this lifetime. Their apolitical navel-gazing is unlikely to curry favour with academics looking to hip hop for social idealism. Elleke Boehmer, professor of world literature and an expert in the Nobel Prize at Oxford University, says that "from time to time the Nobel committee surprises us, but traditionally they award the prize to somebody who is not just perceived as a significant writer, noted for their style or the coherence of their prose. It's also awarded to a writer whose vision matches that particular moment, politically. It's not actually a million miles away from how the peace prize is awarded."

Both a product of canon and an MVP in creating canon, the Nobel committee occasionally picks unknowns, like Svetlana Alexievitch in 2015, to thrust into fame. But the concept of "canon" is inherently tricky. Canons are protean, reformed throughout generations by those with access to them. For thousands of years in the global north this has been literate white and middle-class (or equivalent) males of European ancestry. Wole Soyinka's win in 1986 shone the spotlight on African literature, but in recent years bookies' favourite Ngugi Wa Thiong'o has been consecutively denied the prize. And between Dylan and Toni Morrison in 1993 not a single American won, an observation that prompted accusations of anti-Americanism and a set of generalisations about American literature in 2008 from then-permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl. Ill tidings for African-American musicians, then.

Rap itself can be equally problematic. Even the most idealistic artists can struggle to justify a broader lexicon that includes homophobic, misogynistic and racial slurs. Eminem's use of the word "faggot" is prolific, while the post-NWA use of the word "nigga" as a term of endearment doesn't sit well with everybody. Public Enemy's "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Nigga" was a disavowal of its flagrant use, and in 2014 rapper Swiss of So Solid Crew released a song  to caution the mainstream use of "nigga" in light of the word nigger's horrific historical context (a move greeted with support from Akala). Beyond this tangled semantic dispute sits another debate centred on misogyny, and whether it's become embedded in the genre's language. Kendrick Lamar is arguably the most zeitgeist-y rapper of the Obama era, with albums that have prompted close readings and lyrics that transformed into the clarion call for pro-black, anti-police brutality marches. Yet, to the Nobel Prize committee member, even K.Dot is potentially checkered by the profanity of "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe".

Then again, Lamar's work could seem meek when juxtaposed with that made by previous Nobel winners. A cursory glance down the list of laureates leads you to controversy: Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden is a jingoistic call to arms for white imperialism; William Faulkner urged desegregation efforts to "go slow"; and a complex debate still rages around possible anti-semitic elements in TS Eliot's work. None of these are "ideal" directions, and while the language of hip-hop may often offend, it also has the power to silence detractors who call the literature prize a glorified second peace prize.

"Should the Nobel laureate always be a polite figure?" asks Warnes, of Leeds University. "Clearly the answer to that is no. They've got to be quite controversial, challenging and provocative figures in order to gain that kind of importance. If the hip-hop lyricist's sheer bawdiness is being posited as the problem that would prevent the rapper from gaining the Nobel laureate, I would not be onboard with that because it conjures an idea that laureates are polite and impeccably behaved figures. And if that's becoming true, then it's losing its passion for literature itself. Literature isn't really like that."

The biggest hurdle in rap's race to the prize, then, is actually its infancy. Bob Dylan topped charts long before the genre grew out of New York's boroughs, after all. "If it were the case," Boehmer says, "that a rap artist had a body of work that had been produced over four or five decades that really maintained that peak of excellence or brilliance or social acuity, then you could imagine a rap artist being awarded the Nobel Prize. But I would say that we're not there yet in any sense. I couldn't begin to think of somebody who might fit that mould." She agrees though, that rap bears striking resemblance to poetry. "A lot of poetry comes out of song tradition and folk tradition, and what's really interesting about those traditions is how rhyme works to thread meanings together, or to help us remember the poem or the song, and you can see rap lyricists very much working within that tradition."

Nobel recognition also poses problems for hip-hop culture. Where Dylan ballads like "Boots of Spanish Leather" fit almost snugly into the iambic common verse metre best exemplified in Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, rap's flows are intrinsically bound to beats. "When you put these words on a page something is lost," Warnes says. "It's reduced to stillness, it's presented as poetry – but it's not poetry, it's danceable lyric. If you insist that a hip-hop lyricist needs to be read as a poet, isn't the implication there that they're not a hip-hop lyricist, they're a poet? They're mutually exclusive."

Theoretically, rap could win the Nobel Prize. Chuck D, Ice Cube, Rakim, Kendrick, Killer Mike, Kano, Mike Skinner, Little Simz and countless others, all tread the well-worn path in that illusory "ideal direction", but it will likely be decades before they're considered. Would recognition from the venerable committee even matter? Footage of protesters singing Kendrick's "Alright" at a police harassment rally, or of anti-Trump protesters chanting "T5" by the Swet Shop Boys, speaks louder of the essential spirit of rap than bestowing any given artist with an honour at a Scandinavian banquet. Maybe instead of asking hip hop to fit itself to Nobeldom, we should really ask Nobeldom to be a little more rap. Ya feel me?

You can argue with Tim about rap and the Nobel Prize on Twitter.

(Lead image source photos by Adam Baker and Aaron Vasquez)

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Nobel Prize in Literature