Exploring the Tight Bond between Music and Poetry

[By Cindy Lyles]

Whether found in Amiri Baraka mimicking piano chords in “In Walked Bud” or in quoting the 1970s Hit “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got (Diamond in the Back)” like Allison Joseph does in “Thirty Lines about the Fro,” music has a home in poetry. Melodic tunes tend to set the mood and evoke just the right feeling the poet needs to convey a story. The previous two examples and so many more exemplify this idea, but just as music enhances poetry, so too does the artistry of poetry add to music. Such is the case with rapper Kanye West’s “Never Let Me Down.”

The song, released in 2004 on West’s College Dropout album, features Jay-Z and Chicago poet J. Ivy. The poet adds to the track by powerfully delivering a message of undying support for and devotion to mankind and to future generations, which is evident when he expresses that he’s “trying to make it better for these little boys and girls.” The poet has a clear dedication to the people and community around him.

Even more notable than his communal commitment is how J. Ivy passionately recites perhaps, some of the most memorable lines in the poem. He avows, “Yeah, I need my loot by rent day / But that is not what gives me the heart of Kunte Kinte / I’m tryina give us ‘us free’ like Cinque / I can’t stop, that’s why I’m hot / Determination, dedication, motivation / I’m talking to you, my many inspirations / When I say I can’t let you or self down / If I were of the highest cliff, on the highest riff / And you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life in my grip / I would never, ever let you down.” This declaration alongside the tone of his delivery gives listeners chills and leaves them feeling like the poet is not only talking to his “many inspirations” but also to any person who hears him.

From J. Ivy’s verse, poetry contributes to music by saying that which the rapped verses cannot express on account of rhythmical and metrical adherence. Because the poet speaks his verse instead of rapping it, he doesn’t have to conform to the strict musical limitations that the rappers do, and therefore, uses his poetic freedom to offer a more comprehensive view of the song’s main idea of not letting others down. In other words, J. Ivy’s poem fills in the blanks left by the other rappers. Without his poem driving home the main point of the song, the track would arguably be less compelling.

J. Ivy’s verse on “Never Let Me Down”

J. Ivy’s performance of his verse on Def Poetry

Just as poetry summons music to set a mood and evoke certain feelings, music relies on poetry to say that which it cannot express, which overall enhances the musical composition as seen in Kanye West’s “Never Let Me Down” featuring poet J. Ivy. Regardless of which art form cameos in the other, music and poetry play off of one another in fascinating ways. That interplay conveys a long-lasting, mutual bond worth noticing.

Cindy Lyles is a poet, graduate student in literature, and program coordinator for Black Studies @ SIUE. In addition to producing verse, she writes about black women and urban space, African American poetry, and her hometown East St. Louis. This past summer, Cindy participated in a Sonia Sanchez Seminar sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison.

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