Earlier this week, the Nobel Committee gave famed folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many people embraced the award; some were apathetic; a lot of people were pretty miffed (looking at you, Morales). I was pretty skeptical at first. I wondered how the heck you could get an award for literature, an award that has been won by everyone from Toni Morrison to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Rudyard Kipling, if none of the work he was being judged for had been published as writing. I could see giving Dylan the award if he compiled his lyrics as collections of poems, but it seemed like a bit of a stretch to me to give him the prize.
I started thinking about why so many people were against the award. It wasn’t like the committee’s justification (“for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”) was that much of a stretch. I think people are resisting the award because great authors, especially in America, are given much more credibility than musicians. Literature is looked at, especially in academic circles, with a sort of reverence and respect that music does not get. Literature is analyzed in college classes, PhD dissertations, and is seen as a window to the soul. It has been seen for centuries as the highest form of human expression.
Music, on the other hand, is considered only entertainment. A lot of that has to do with the spectacle surrounding music and musicians. Musicians, especially the most visible ones in the mainstream, live much more lavish and crazy lives than any author might. While most modern-day authors are trying to scrape by, DJ Khaled is cruising around Miami on his jet ski. Another part is the stimulation that music provides. It’s easier to jam out to your favorite song than to really vibe with literary or academic writing that takes a long time and effort to comprehend and digest. Music, on the surface, takes less time to understand than literature, which might explain why it’s seen as an inferior art form. The effort and education required to understand literature, as well as its societal support, legitimizes it.
Granted, DJ Khaled is no Socrates or Goethe. There are always going to be musicians who don’t really have anything deep or insightful to say. However, we’re ignoring the vast majority of musicians, who are really trying to make art that is truly valuable to society. A big reason that the mainstream is ignoring the art being put out nowadays is that the modern day Robert Frosts of the world don’t look, live, or talk like them.
I’m talking about rappers.
Rap goes against every bit of the establishment and academic reverence that praises literature. It is loud, bombastic, and historically made by people who are uneducated and regarded as uncultured. The slang and profanity often used in rap causes academic red flags to go up. If you tried to play “Alright” for an Ivy League professor and tried to explain its legitimacy, the protective walls would go up right away. The inner city and black culture have been associated for years with drug use and violence, which hurts the art form’s credibility in a pretty large way. The music is by nature very rebellious against the aforementioned establishment, which is invested in holding up the importance of literature. Producers (in a legal sense) steal music from other people to make beats.
Many of these artists have been rejected because they haven’t gone through many of the institutional hoops that almost every other respected author in history has. But then the whole reason hip-hop started was that the system had failed them, academically and socially. As a result, many rappers essentially have the skill of someone like Shakespeare or e.e. cummings, but no respected outlet to publicize their artwork. So instead, they took to putting down poetry over music. I’m of the firm belief that if hip-hop artists published their work in more academically respected media, namely in print, they would receive mainstream academic acclaim. Instead of putting Leaves of Grass on the required reading for college classes, students would be in the bookstore buying print copies of Illmatic and To Pimp a Butterfly.
The fact is, we aren’t generating many interesting or relevant traditional poets anymore. We are, however, generating artists who speak to modern issues in society, including race and poverty. We should be listening to what they have to say and start treating what they have to bring to the table much more seriously.
This whole situation is pretty crazy and, to be honest, a little sketchy, but I’m happy that a precedent has been set for the value of music’s artistry. This is an important first step for music to be regarded as equal to literature in terms of its poetry. Maybe, in twenty years or so, we’ll see a rapper awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” as some of them deserve to be.