Unbound: Inua Ellams' R.A.P Party

Poetry and hip-hop combine at R.A.P Party. Inua Ellams tells us more

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 01 Jul 2019
  • Inua Ellam

Remember a couple of years ago when the Nobel committee had us all yelling at each other about whether or not Tangled Up in Blue was actually literature? Well, the poetry community has kind of been having that debate in miniature ever since hip-hop came crashing through and shook up our whole understanding of what is and isn’t poetry.

“I discovered poetry at the same time as I discovered hip-hop, in Ireland where I lived for three years,” explains Inua Ellams, acclaimed poet, playwright and rap aficionado. “When I came back to the UK and started working as a poet, I discovered this growing discourse and argument between various camps of rappers and poets. Specifically, more from the poetry camp who were declaiming hip-hop and saying ‘No, it’s not poetry!' blah blah blah."

So what do you do when your two loves are at war? How do you reconcile the fact that two of your great passions, rap and poetry, can’t seem to get along? You throw a party.

A R.A.P (Rhythm and Poetry) party, to be specific. Bringing together an eclectic selection of poets for rap-inspired readings and melding their flow with a rap-stacked DJ set, Ellams’ R.A.P Parties look to tear down the barriers and bring together everyone who loves writing and rhyme. “I really wanted to democratise poetry and just take all the stuffiness out of it,” he explains. “One way to do that was to surround the experience of poetry with music and a relaxed environment. And that’s where the R.A.P Party came from.”

It’s a big ask, requiring the deprogramming of some very deep-seated ideas about what poetry is or can be. Ellams is well aware of this challenge, and of where it comes from. “For me, that’s all plugged into how poetry has been taught for centuries here. It’s always been seen as the preserve of the upper middle class. It’s always been seen as if the poets were incredibly conceited and were trying to hide something from the public, and you had to mine it for the truth. And if you got it wrong, you’d be seen as stupid.”

Overcoming attitudes that are instilled in school is tough, but Ellams won’t be taking on the challenge alone: from London’s Young People’s Laureate Theresa Lola to Scottish spoken word poet Jenny Lindsay, slam wunderkind Harry Baker and Welsh polymath Joe Dunthorne, he’s assembled a ferocious team to help him rewrite the narrative at their Edinburgh International Book Festival Unbound evening.

“R.A.P parties tend always to be fun. Even if the poems are terrible, the song choices are good. If the song choices are terrible, the poems are good," Ellams jokes. “So we cover all the bases and people come for either. It always feels like you’re at a house party where some guests get up to make very eloquent speeches rather than a literary night or a club night.”

Maybe your bedroom is filled with dog-eared Yeats collections, maybe Wu-Tang Clan CDs. Maybe Lauryn Hill turned your world upside down the first time you heard her, maybe it was Sylvia Plath. Maybe, like Ellams and his friends, you’re just as crazy about both. Whatever your background, if you’ve got a love for words and rhythm, this party is the place for you.

If you aren’t sold already, maybe Ellams’ own description of what to expect on the night will entice you: “I expect to be surprised and to see very beautiful subversion at play. And, above all, I expect to shake my ass and have fun.”

Need some music to get you in the mood for the R.A.P party? Inua Ellams has the playlist for you:

The R.A.P Party, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Fri 16 Aug, 9pm, free and unticketed