Sunday 26 July 2015

Simon Armitage, The Last Poets & Cultural Appropriation

 "Screaming "brand new", when they just sanitized the old shit" - Mos Def
I’m a fan of Simon Armitage. I have studied his poetry and taught it to GCSE students in Hackney classrooms and often, students appreciate poems like ‘Harmonium’. It’s a rich prompt to get students to think of what can come to symbolise a relationship, from a worn out piano to an unsung father figure. I’m also glad for his new position as Oxford professor of poetry. When this was announced, The Telegraph picked up on Armitage stating he; 

“Will use rap and hip hop to explore the definition of modern poetry so the literary form is not thought of "as a museum". 

A contentious statement, but for the most part he is right to point out that rap and Hip-Hop culture are relevant to western poetry traditions, I don’t feel the need to explain why and how, we’re beyond that argument nowWhat I did find interesting is when Armitage states;

We might need to consider what constitutes poetry, and rap might be one of the answers. If it comes up I'll probably talk about Kate Tempest - though she might be hip hop.”

Really? Kate Tempest is his entry point to validate the bridge between rap and poetry? I know Kate, I think even she would be embarrassed by this remark, but even though I understand Armitage’s intention, you got to be aware of the consistency in which black culture is appropriated by white mainstream media and why there is a carelessness to this statement, as Oxford Laureate, there is new volumes in his voice. Armitage does go on to say he wants the next person taking his place to be a woman, so in a way he could be setting up the stage for someone like Kate to be considered, very noble of him.

Last week I performed at Latitude, standing backstage with Bohdan Piasecki when Simon Armitage walked into the room and I was like “Shit, Simon Armitage!" I had so much to say to him but where do I start, how could I not come across as awkwardly overeager?” Then, as sudden as Simon appeared, the members from The Last Poets walked in and sat on the sofa, brushing past Simon, who now had nowhere to sit.

Hopefully I don't need to explain who The Last Poets are, but they are basically, alongside Gil Scott Heron, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, credited among the pioneers of Hip-Hop culture in America. I had to take a minute to take in that these men were in the same room, not knowing the significance of the other and I, a poet and lover of Hip-Hop, could've taken the responsibility of introducing these two missing links and probably done more for poetry in the UK than any essay I’ll ever write.

That bridge Simon was building between rap and poetry, a lot of that was built by the guys from the other side of the Atlantic, who had just taken his place on the sofa. If only I had taken that picture, it would’ve been the poetry equivalent of John Lennon meeting Chuck Berry. The difference there is John Lennon understood the issue of cultural appropriation and famously, when asked if he was inspired by black music, Lennon stated, “of course, is there any other kind of music?”.

I’m not saying poetry is a “black” thing, that would be ridiculous, language isn’t racial, it’s cultural. I’m saying, if Simon Armitage is going to talk about under representation and feel a need to rethink our relationship with the ideas of what poetry is, who it is by and who it belongs to, he must go all the way and perhaps educate himself on the subject before he becomes another white man claiming his people invented something they didn’t.

Source -

Didn't get to speak to Simon Armitage but I did speak with The Last Poets and Eimear Mcbride

If you are interested in further reading, I'd recommend Nate Marshall's Breakbeat Poets Anthology.


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