Dr. Tara Betts is a poet and professor. She has written for and been anthologized in a number of publications, including Poetry Magazine and The Breakbeat Poets, performed at a variety of venues, and taught at several universities and for nonprofits like Young Chicago Authors. Her newly published collection of poetry is titled Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016); she is also the author of Arc and Hue and numerous chapbooks.
Betts came to poetry after a lifetime of listening to hip-hop and a career in Chicago radio. Her life as a poet and a teacher of poetry is tied, in past and present, to Chicago’s hip-hop scene.
I think many people know you more for your poetry than your involvement with music, so what is your involvement with Chicago music?
One of the things that led me to poetry was music. When I was an undergrad at Loyola University on the North Side, [it] had yet to have a hip-hop radio show [on its station.] [Lional Freeman and I] started [the show on WLUW 88.7, Loyola’s radio station], and then I came up with the name for it, [The Hip Hop Project.] In the process of doing that show, we met a lot of people who were part of Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene: graffiti writers, DJs, hip-hop writers. Some of them are still making music today. Some of them are doing different jobs in the [Chicago] scene, in different clubs…Some of us went on to do stuff with Def Poetry Jam [and] met other artists through that, or we ended up doing performances. My friend Nikki Patin and I ended up opening for Jill Scott [once.] It’s been kind of interesting to be a poet and [interacting] with all these other musicians. There’s been a lot of overlap with poets and musicians in the city.
What does hip-hop mean to you?
For me, hip-hop was my childhood. I grew up in the Midwest. I mean it’s not like East Coast hip-hop, because it’s not the same environment, but in terms of how it awakened a lot of people in my generation to storytelling, to politics, and to seeing something, it felt more culturally alive and relevant than a lot of stuff that we heard as kids.
Did you first become interested in poetry or hip-hop? Or did you become interested in them at around the same time?
You know, it’s funny. I’ve always been a reader, so I’ve always loved books. Hip-hop I probably loved since I was in grade school because I remember pressing my shirts for school and listening to WGCI because I grew up in Illinois just outside of Chicago, so we would get WGCI and that was our main radio station. I remember listening to Dana Dane, Slick Rick, and Rappin’ Duke, which Notorious B.I.G references on “Juicy.” He says,
“Remember Rappin’ Duke, duh-ha, duh-ha
You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far”
He’s referencing an actual song that we would’ve known back when we were little kids, and you would laugh at it. But it’s one of those early rap songs that you heard on the radio. That’s probably one of my earliest memories, and there are certain great beats that I remember. My grandparents owned a tavern. They didn’t have a lot of hip-hop on that jukebox, but a lot of stuff [on that jukebox] eventually ended up getting sampled.
How would you say hip-hop influences your poetry?
I think it inspired me to have a more narrative impulse and the desire to push for concrete detail. It made me think that stories by people of color were valid and powerful, and I think as a woman too, I found myself wanting to tell women’s stories because sometimes hip-hop doesn’t do it for me. Or, I think there [are] other sides to the narrative. One of the poems that people know from my body of work is called “Switch.” And it’s because I was listening to a song by Nas [“Black Girl Lost”], and [asking], “Why are you telling the story? The girl can tell her own story.” So that was the impetus.
I think it was interesting to ask my students at UIC, “How many women rappers can you name?” It was quiet for a beat, [then] they all said Nicki Minaj. A couple people said Iggy Azalea. And that’s a problem, because you can probably name this person, this person, this person if we look at men.
I think [poetry and hip-hop] can influence each other, but I think they can be their own things that stand separate onto themselves. Poetry is—as much as we like to say it’s an art of concision and art of words—also about what we sonically interpret from the poem. It’s like, does [the poem] sing to us? And not just on an emotional level, but what do you hear when you read it out loud? I think that’s when poetry is most like music. I definitely think that there can be overlap where they start to inspire each other, but they can also exist on [their own].
What about your childhood and experiences with hip-hop and poetry influenced you to want to create a radio station at Loyola?
Particularly because Loyola is still in Chicago proper, and there were all these other major universities around us that had one and we didn’t. My friend Lional and I, we were very aware too. And I think in some ways hip-hop is still considered to always be a black art form, and in many ways it is. But I also tend to think, it came from Black, Latino, and Caribbean artists, otherwise we wouldn’t have it, period. This is a global art form, and how do we encourage people to respect it and treat it as such, because it was something that we really cared about. We started [making] little pluggers—this is when you still made paper pluggers and you didn’t post it on the Internet or do a GIF—and we went to all the cyphers. We hit up all the other radio shows, mailed stuff out, and just put our name out there. [This] was helpful in terms of getting us interviews with local [and] visiting artists. We got to meet Afrika Bambaataa. We had Crucial Conflict on the show. I think we had Common on the show. We had a lot of folks. And I think in that process, it was exciting because—I think now it would be more difficult to do in that way because the mediums have all changed. Even though I know the show has a Facebook page now, I don’t know the hosts who run it, but the [Hip Hop Project] is still going, so I guess the vision and goal was really powerful and it stuck.
When you and your friend would personally go out and look for all these hip-hop artists, how did you know who and what to look for?
We knew where certain hip-hop spots were, and we knew some people. But we would just go to [a] spot, and there would be a group of graffiti [artists] and they would be like, yeah, there’s this thing on Saturday, and you go to that. Or we’d meet another DJ who would be like, I’m spinning at this. So it was a kind of structure where you would just branch off and go. You didn’t have tweets or anything to tell you that. You just went and followed it organically.
Many people don’t think of music as something that you can seriously study or write scholarly papers on. Do you feel music can be like that?
Oh, but you so can! It’s been very interesting as a professor to start looking at what are the scholarly texts around hip hop, you know, by people like Mark Anthony Neal, Tricia Rose, [and books like And It Don’t Stop] by Raquel Cepeda, which is all hip-hop journalism articles. I’m also trying to get kids to look at what the genre does, because it forces you to look at details. It forces you to look at how does a writer create a scene? How does a writer create historical context? Rolling Stone, Vibe, Pitchfork, and Consequence of Sound, how do each of them cover it differently? So, you can show people, even with similar content, that there [are] different approaches to how you can talk about a subject. I think I’m kind of excited about that as well. How do you show people there’s more than one way to write about the same thing?
Could you talk a little more about the relevancy of poetry and hip-hop to life, not just as things that we just listen to and consume?
I mean, I think in some ways hip-hop [has] that same kind of function that these poems I was just talking about [have]. You’re either looking for some sense of empowerment or affirmation, or you’re looking for a space that feels like—I don’t even want to say it’s an escape—I think it’s a space where you feel it’s inclusive of who you are. Some of our stories can be very real, and detail someone’s reality, but some of them can be something where it’s like, why can’t we daydream? Why can’t we imagine what it would be like, you know? And I think sometimes that’s not always a bad thing. Now for me it’s like, sometimes I want it to be a little less materialistic, but I think you can say that with a lot of music. It’s either too materialistic or too romanticized, so it’s that fine line of being critical and aware.
On being critical of hip-hop, how have you been critical or encouraged other people to do it?
I think that was part of why I went face-forward into poetry because I got tired of fighting with people who act like women aren’t supposed to be here. I just said, “OK, I feel like I can write, and I don’t have to keep proving myself that I should be here.” What no one tells you is that as a writer, people don’t expect women to write, or they categorize you and say, “Oh, you’re confessional, you’re not serious about your craft.” Or if you’re a woman and you come into a room, everyone assumes, if the person in your life is a man and does something in a similar field, he helped you with that. There are these little subtle moments of sexism—or not so subtle—where it’s not much different in hip-hop or writing or any other genre. Other than that lived experience, I think it has also been not just through conversation, but really paying close attention to what I’m listening to. I think sometimes, with most music we probably suspend judgment, but I do find myself asking questions. I think, “How does this relate to sexism? How does this relate to homophobia? How does this relate to the economic circumstances of different people?” I would like to hope that there will be more artists drawing that sort of attention. I think some hip-hop artists are good at making fun of that or doing something completely different, but they just don’t get the mainstream attention.
Betts will appear at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore with Emily J. Lordi for a discussion on Lordi’s book Donny Hathaway Live (33 1/3) on January 13 from 6pm–7:30pm. Lional Freeman, also known as Brother El, who Betts co-founded Loyola University’s first hip hop radio show with, still makes music. He is a part of Makers of Sense and The Present Elders, an electronic music duo. You can find him at thebeatbank.net