Hip Hop and the Classics: Emotional Expression in the Classics and Modern America
Michael draws comparisons between the writings of classical poetry and contemporary hip hop lyricism, highlighting certain universal themes and ideas that persist throughout the ages in art.
I’ve always loved poetry. The ability to express oneself through the written word is so powerful and has led to my passion for classical poetry and hip hop. For the purposes of this article, I personally think that rap can be classified as poetry, with various beats enhancing lyrics and serving as the poetic metre of these compositions. While modern rappers may not necessarily have been directly inspired by the classics in their songs, I think that many of the themes which classical poets like Catullus wrote about permeated across generations of writers up to modern day hip hop artists.
Firstly, Catullus’ collection of poems, which I’ll refer to as the Lesbia Saga, captures the entire journey of Catullus’ love for Lesbia, from initial infatuation to ultimate acceptance of his rejection, just like many of Tyler, the Creator’s songs. Catullus 5 Feature represents Catullus’ delusion over Lesbia, begging her to ‘Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus’ (‘Let us live, and let us love, my Lesbia’) (Cat 5). Later in the poem, Catullus loses himself in his own delusion, going on a lustful monologue about how he wants Lesbia to:
‘Da mi basia mille, deinde centum, dein mille altera, dein secunda, centum, dein usque altera mille, deinde centum, dein, cum milia multa fecerimus, conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus’
(‘Give me 1000 kisses, then 100, then another 1000, then a second 100, then each another 1000, then 100, then, when we made many 1000s, we will confuse them all, lest we know’).
This poem highlights Catullus’ own refusal to accept that Lesbia is no longer interested in him, fixating on that initial fantasy of their love, envisioning a reality of an impossible relationship, becoming spiteful towards her in later poems after coming to terms with reality. Another classical poet who does something similar to this is Sappho, especially in Sappho Fragment 31, where she yearns for another woman sitting across from her – her heart races as time seems to pause when she hears the other woman speak.
Tyler, the Creator’s song, WusYaName, from Call Me if You Get Lost, similarly, envisions the future with a random woman he sees on the street, longing for her love, hoping that it would provide him with emotional fulfilment, and asking ‘WusYaName, girlfriend, WusYaName’, imagining all the things that he and this nameless woman could do in a relationship together. The echoing vocals in the song emphasise Tyler’s desperation for the fulfilment this self-conceived relationship will give him. Reading and listening to these examples makes you genuinely feel the gravity of love and the universal human feeling of love at first sight, allowing the audience to feel like they are Catullus/Sappho/Tyler, picturing their own fantasies as they sit across from their crush, the whole world stopping every time they hear them speak.
Catullus 16 is a type of poem in the invective style, meaning that it is basically a diss track, which Catullus wrote in response to the primary antagonists in the poem, Aurelius and Furius, for calling his poetry effeminate. In Catullus’ invective on Aurelius and Furius, he defends his own masculinity by placing himself in a position of dominance: ‘Pedicabo ego vos et Irrumpabo’ (‘I will orally and anally rape you both’) (Cat. 16). Catullus also refers to them as ‘Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi’ (‘sodomite Aurelius and catamite Furius’), terms that, in Roman society, would place them below Catullus on the social pyramid (Cat. 16). Catullus continues to insult their masculinity and counter their accusations of the effeminacy of his poems.
In Ice Cube’s own invective (diss track) against N.W.A, No Vaseline, Ice presents a narrative, after experiencing issues with collecting his portion of the royalties on N.W.A’s music, where he metaphorically anally rapes his former-friends with how hard the entire rap goes against N.W.A, following a very similar pattern to Catullus 16. Throughout No Vaseline, he associates the increase in wealth and popularity of N.W.A with a potential disconnect of the group from their start in Compton, now that they have ‘moved to Riverside‘, disparaging their identities as rappers. Specifically, the line ‘The Villain does get f***** with no Vaseline’, along with other lyrics which probably can’t be published here emasculate the other members of N.W.A, just as Catullus does to Aurelius and Furius.
While it quite unlikely that Ice Cube and Tyler, the Creator were directly inspired by Catullus and Sappho, many of the universally human themes of longing for love and retaliation connect 1st Century B.C.E Rome and modern American culture making me appreciate my two passions of classical poetry and hip hop even more.
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