When rappers become literary gurus, times are truly a-changin’

Friday April 20 2018

This file photo taken on June 11, 2009 shows US singer Bob Dylan performing during the 37th AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Michael Douglas at Sony Pictures in Culver City, California. Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. PHOTO | KEVIN WINTER | AFP


This week, allow me to become a bit of a dilettante.

I love listening to music, but I can’t sing a single note without making the frogs in the nearby swamp cringe.

I am also a little cosmopolitan in musical tastes; I have no particular affinity for any particular type or genre, or really care whether the rendition is in Sanskrit or any other language so long as it contains discernible melody and rhythm.

In short, the message doesn’t matter so long as the song is catchy, hummable, and easy to sing loudly in the privacy of the bathroom.

I must confess I do not write this piece in the light of deep understanding of what makes good music, but as an uncultured layman who is as happy listening to Jose Gatutura belting out Thii Ukiumaga as he is enjoying "The Blue Danube" by the great Austrian composer, Johann Strauss II, I wouldn’t even have anything against hip hop music if only there was a little more music and a lot less rap which, in my largely untutored mind, amounts to meaningless, grating cacophony.

The reason for this lengthy disclaimer is that in 2016, a very unlikely figure, a musician who has been on the scene since the 1960s, was surprisingly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, edging out great writers of fiction who, in the minds of many, should have been recognised for their literary contribution.


Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel for, allegedly, “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

The man is best known in Kenya for his song, "Blowin’ in the Wind", released a year after our independence.

The fact that this and a few other songs he composed are still popular decades later in many parts of the world must mean something, though connoisseurs of literature, many of whom cannot have a real understanding of the influence his lyrics had on the American counter-culture era, were understandably taken aback.


How can a musician win a Nobel Prize for Literature for compositions that have had little impact on what has happened in the rest of the world in the past five decades?

However, there was a precedent.

In 1913, Indian musician Rabindranath Tagore won the prize, but then he was also a poet, artist, novelist and all-round guru who broke new ground as the first non-European to be so honoured.

Can we really say the same about Bob Dylan?

Is it right that the man should join the likes of Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, Wole Soyinka (1986), Albert Camus, Salvatore Quasimodo, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, and many others totally unknown outside the groves of academe?


On this one, the jury is still out. To paraphrase Dylan’s own words, “the times, they are really a’-changing’.”

The other surprising award which prompted a few gasps was the Pulitzer Prize for Music which went to Black American rapper Kendrick Lamar a week ago.

The Pulitzer is a strictly American prize which recognises excellence in journalism, both print and online, fiction, poetry and editorial writing.

Other categories include investigative reporting, feature writing, international reporting, music, and 12 others.

All the awards in the music category have in the past gone to composers of classical and jazz, not hip hop.

When I learnt that this year’s Pulitzer went to Lamar, I sought to know exactly why, and did a little research, beginning with the winning album titled "Damn".

Immediately, my curiosity turned to consternation when the very first song, "Loyalty", in which Rihanna features, started with a video of half-naked dancers provocatively wiggling their backsides.

This was in sync with the vulgar and misogynist lyrics bordering on the obscene, which were mystifyingly described by the award jury as capturing “the complexity of modern African-American life”.

I highly doubt that African-Americans talk like that, but if "Damn" was the best hip hop album of the year, then our own rappers stand a chance to soar to great heights, considering that most of their lyrics are even more incomprehensible if not as coarse.

But then again, this is unlikely considering that we don’t have an award scheme comparable to the Nobel or the Pulitzer, which is a wake-up call to those of our philanthropists who love the arts.

There is no earthly reason why, beside miserliness, they cannot fund an award scheme which will benefit this country’s budding Kendrick Lamars.

Magesha Ngwiri is a consultant editor. [email protected]