Home > Big Picture > From Langston to Smokey to Rakim: Black Music Poetry

From Langston to Smokey to Rakim: Black Music Poetry

Poet Langston Hughes not only inspired a host of African American poets, but also some of music's greatest lyrics.

Good morn’ or evening, friends.  Yesterday, February 1st, marked the beginning of Black History Month.  Conveniently enough, yesterday was also the 109th birthday of Langston Hughes, arguably the most celebrated African-American poet of the 20th century.  Throughout his 65 years of living, as he traveled the world from Mississippi, to the Euphrates and to Harlem, Hughes, who followed the path led by poets like Paul Lawrence Dunbar, eloquently combined the dialect of the turn-of-the-century Black man with methods of English rhetoric, and expressed not only his own deep wisdom, but the experience of his fellow descendants of slaves; thus inspiring poets like Nikki Giovanni along the way.  Hughes found a way, whether he knew it or not, to simultaneously emote the climate of his present and forecast the events of our future.  Here are some examples of what Langston Hughes left behind:

“I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins” – The Negro Speaks of Rivers
“My old man died in a fine big house; My ma died in a shack; I wonder where I’m gonna die, being neither white nor black?” – Cross
“What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore? – Lenox Avenue Mural
Don’t you fall now – For I’se still goin’ honey; I’se still climbin’, and life for me ain’t never been no crystal stair” – Mother to Son

Great poets have often been given a special level of reverence in history; regarded as prophetic sages, with their works referred to for council and introspection.  With that said, Black recording artists and lyricists, while receiving more attention than that of poets,  were not, and have not, been given the same sort of respect, due to the dismissive context that Black music has been placed in over time.  Music, in and of itself, is poetry, free to be interpreted in infinite fashions by those who listen to it.  And those who’ve written the words to said music were, and are, no less talented, poignant and influential as the likes of Mr. Hughes, Maya Angelou and others.  In fact, song lyrics have reached far wider than any words on a page possibly could.  Be it soul music, jazz, rap and/or rock and roll, African-American lyricists of the 20th and 21st centuries have documented the full range of human emotion and the African-American experience in the most profound manner imaginable.  For your education, here are some of the best lines from Black Music’s greatest poets:

“The way you wrecked my life was like sabotage, the love I saw in you was just a mirage.” – William Robinson, Jr. ; The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles

“Blood pressure rising, you damn near lost it; hit the ground burning and woke up frostbit.” – William Griffin; Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, Eric B. & Rakim

“Time will show the value of what you mean to me; more precious than silver, more precious than diamond rings or anything that I could give you.” – Eldra Debarge; Time Will Reveal, DeBarge

“Spirits stay mute while your egos spread rumors; we’re survivalists turned to consumers, just to get by.” – Talib Kweli Greene; Get By, Talib Kweli

“As today I know I’m living but tomorrow could make me the past, but that I mustn’t fear, for I know deep in my mind the love of me I’ve left behind.” – Stevland Morris; As, Stevie Wonder

“How I long to know the truth; There are times when I look back and I am haunted by my youth.” – Nina Simone; To Be Young, Gifted & Black, Nina Simone

“They pretend to be my friend when all the time they long to persuade you from my side; they’d give the world and all they own for just one moment we have known.” – Edward Holland, Jr.; Bernadette, The Four Tops

“The revolving door, insanity every floor; skyscraping, paper chasing, what are we working for?  Empty traditions, reaching social positions, teaching ambition to support the family superstition?” – Lauryn Hill; Mystery of Iniquity(All Falls Down), Lauryn Hill

“Please shallow your pride if I have things you need to borrow, for no one can fill those of your needs that you won’t let show.” – William Withers, Jr.; Lean On Me, Bill Withers

“Now I know we have great respect for the sister, and mother it’s even better yet; but there’s the joker in the street loving one brother and killing the other; when the time comes and we’re all really free, there will be no brother left, you see.” – Curtis Mayfield; We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, Curtis Mayfield

“Now Question: Is every nigga with dreads for the cause?  Is every nigga with gold for the fall?  No; so don’t get caught up in appearance.” – Andre Benjamin; Aquemini, Outkast

“No chains around my feet, but I’m not free; I know I am bound here in captivity; I never know what happiness is; never know what sweet caress is, still I be always laughing like a clown.” – Bob Marley; Concrete Jungle, The Wailers

“Some of us try as hard as we can; we don’t want no sympathy, we just want to be a man.” James Brown; I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open the Door I’ll Get it Myself), James Brown and the J.B.’s

To punctuate the message I’ve tried to convey, I will leave you all with these words from Dr. Cornel West: “We come from a tradition where the musicians are supreme – There are 10 works of musician genius for every one work of literary genius.”

Thank you for reading, and remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of America’s population, but that tenth is talented.

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Categories: Big Picture
  1. Jacki Woods
    February 3, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Nicely written Matt and so poignant and true. Not many know of our great poets; it seems as if the music is a vehicle for the lyrics or poetry. The difference is: how many people sing along to a song word for word, and don’t get the message or don’t actually realize the poetry underneath. A song has a catchy hook, or a sweet melody to get our attention and THEN some take the time to “hear” it. It takes patience and commitment to read and feel the emotion of poetry.

    Your articles are always intriguing and thought-provoking; keep ’em comin. Big Ups and much love, Cuz. – Jacki

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