WHEN Ye — the artist formerly known as Kanye West — stated during a recent podcast that he doesn’t read books, some people questioned whether he was sending the wrong message to children.
Those questions took on more importance in light of the fact that Ye recently launched Donda Academy, a private educational venture named after his late mother, Donda West, who was herself an English professor.
As a rap artist, author, and academic, I would never argue that reading lots of books is the only path to gaining knowledge or showing intelligence.
After all, I created the first-ever peer-reviewed hip-hop album published by a university press. For my doctoral dissertation in 2017, I made a rap album and resisted any calls to submit a formally written explanation of the work.
Even as a former high school literature teacher, I never believed the only way — or even the primary way — for people to demonstrate intellect was through reading books. I think that performing a freestyle — that is to say, writing and reciting seemingly spontaneous rap lyrics on the spot — requires levels of intelligence that are often overlooked or racistly cast off as “natural talent” that don’t require studying or practice. For instance, the mind-blowing 10-minute freestyle that rapper Black Thought performed live on New York radio station Hot 97 in 2017 is a master-class demonstration of brilliance that is a result of years of study and practice.
In some ways, you might say Kanye West and I are on the same page. Where I disagree with Ye, however, is in his total dismissal of reading books, which he likens to “eating Brussels sprouts.” Rap music is a lot of things, but it includes quite a bit of reverence for literature.
Books have a high place in hip-hop. As I’ve pointed out in the various book chapters that I’ve authored on different aspects of rap music — and in the classes that I teach — a wealth of lyrics that contain direct and indirect references to a rich array of literary works. These works span multiple millennia and originate from across the globe.
And long before the book-hating controversy, I once referred to Ye as potentially being hip-hop’s Jay Gatsby, a reference to the central character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, because of the striking parallels that I saw between their lives. The novel contains teachable comparisons to “Graduation” in its use of the flashing-lights metaphor for hope and desire for wealth and class.
While Kanye West professes a disdain for books, the same cannot be said of many of his predecessors and contemporaries.
For instance, in 1996, Tupac Shakur released his 1996 album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory under the alias Makaveli — a variation of the name of author Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s 16th-century works The Prince and Discourses on Livy could offer interesting insights into the album and the creative process that Tupac undertook during the final period of his life. For example, Machiavelli famously details his observations on obtaining and keeping political power in The Prince. Similarly, Tupac ends his album by talking about his own ascendancy of sorts, shouting out “soldiers with military minds” and detailing foretold rules of war.
What follows is a brief overview of other notable instances in which rap artists refer — either directly or indirectly — to influential literary works written by authors from around the world and throughout the ages.
BLACK STAR’S 1998 SINGLE ‘THIEVES IN THE NIGHT’This song name-drops and quotes Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The hook of the song borrows and revises the quote from the novel:
“… for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.”
NONAME’S 2021 SINGLE ‘RAINFOREST’This song directly names the 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth by psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon. It is a lyrical allusion to the ongoing effects of colonialism.
KXNG Crooked and Joell Ortiz’s 2022 song “Heat Wave”
Crooked makes a passing reference in this song to Plato’s philosophical text Symposium, in which characters, including the philosopher Socrates, compete performing improvised speeches. Plato isn’t exactly writing about rap battles, but there are similarities.
KENDRICK LAMAR’S 2015 ALBUM TO PIMP A BUTTERFLYThere are interesting parallels to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man throughout the album. The insistent reference to “yams” on the song “King Kunta” evokes the scene from the 1952 novel in which the narrator encounters a vendor selling yams, which remind him of home, so he eats them until they make him sick.
THE ROOTS’ 2004 ALBUM THE TIPPING POINTThis album borrows its name from a 2000 Malcolm Gladwell book. Gladwell describes a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” The album cover features a photo of a young Malcolm X, presumably at a tipping point of sorts, before he becomes a world-famous Muslim minister and eventually co-authors the influential 1965 The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.
COMMON’S 2000 ALBUM LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATEThis album takes its name from the 1989 novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. The book uses magical realism to convey the emotions of the main character, Tita, to the people who eat the food she makes while being a caretaker for her mother, which prevents her from fulfilling her true desires.
The album also features a song called “A Song for Assata” that features audio from an interview Common did with exiled Black freedom fighter Assata Shakur, author of the 1989 book Assata: An Autobiography.
DEAD PREZ’S 2000 ALBUM LET’S GET FREEThis album features many literary illusions and influences. Notably, the lyrics of the song “We Want Freedom” begin with the words, “I Ching,” which is the name of an ancient Chinese text. The group’s logo comprises a symbol, hexagram 46, used in the text that represents the word “army.” Group member stic.man says the symbol is meant to represent “forward motion, progress and adapting in our lives.”
RAPSODY’S 2019 ALBUM EVEAll the titles of the songs on this album are the names of noteworthy women. “Eve” is the first woman named in a major work of literature — the Bible — and several of the other women mentioned are authors, including “Oprah,” “Myrlie,” “Michelle” and “Maya.” The song named for Maya Angelou focuses on themes in Angelou’s work and also quotes from her writing.
Perhaps Kanye West’s recent remarks about reading will inspire some thoughtful conversation about how American society views reading and determines intelligence. If they do, the archives of hip-hop — whether in book form or music — offer an abundance of ways to take those conversations to greater depths.
A.D. Carson is an Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop at the University of Virginia.