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This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a genre of music that experiments, rebels and defies any single definition. To mark the occasion, the Newsroom Projects and Initiatives team at The New York Times asked Mahogany L. Browne, an author and the first-ever poet-in-residence at Lincoln Center, to write a love letter celebrating hip-hop’s long-lasting effect on culture and music.
In the article’s introduction, Veronica Chambers, the lead editor on the piece, offered her thoughts on hip-hop’s evolution: “Rap music, at its core, has been a 50-year love affair with the English language,” she wrote. Ms. Chambers had worked with Ms. Browne in 2022 on a Modern Love collaboration about Black love and knew immediately that she would be the perfect person to capture pieces of hip-hop’s essence.
To pay homage to the genre’s wide range of styles, Ms. Browne chose to create a cento poem — a piece composed of lines from different works — made of lyrics from hip-hop songs. The result is a love story in verse between a man and a woman who meet on a New York night, their tale told through found lyrics from 60 songs across five decades. Many of the lyrics were submitted by Times readers.
A team of editors, designers and a photo editor brought the story alive online using archival photos of M.C.s, rappers and producers. They also made the experience interactive: By hovering over a lyric, a reader can hear a clip of the original song; an annotation also appears, providing context on the track and its artist.
In an interview, which has been condensed and edited, Ms. Browne discussed bringing the poem together and what hip-hop meant to her.
How would you describe the focus of the piece?
I wrote it with the intention of finding vulnerability and intimacy in a language that has been notably known for violence and destruction, and even the political stance of hip-hop.
Hip-hop really is a tool of observation. And I wanted to show that love was a large part of all of that work. If some of it feels terse or violent, honestly, that feels like the most American thing about it — our romance in America is embroiled in this tension. This tension is: Maybe we live, maybe we don’t. We die to love. We fight to love. I wanted to highlight it and pay homage to it.
You start the poem with the first line of “Regulate” by Warren G and Nate Dogg, arguably one of the most recognizable lyrics in hip-hop. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. I’m one of those artists — specifically when I’m commissioned to do a piece — who thinks about it as not correct or right, but about it hitting the right note, conveying the scene without me having to explain it. The editors were extremely helpful. We were all on the same page of having that first line give us a landscape and a sound that everybody knows, even if you hate the song.
The song came out during a time when the West Coast and East Coast were beefing. To have a song that is that prominent, I wanted to make sure that no matter who you are or where you are, you will remember the whistle, you remember that “doo doo doo.” And you’re instantly placed in this beautiful nightscape where this love story begins to unfold.
Did you want the lyrics to combine to create a larger meaning, or did you want each lyric to have its own meaning, or both?
I was trying to create something larger. If I got stuck saying, “This is the lyric from this song that’s about this political, dangerous moment,” then I would not be able to find my way back to the love. I would be stuck in the current moment of that song.
So you were also thinking about content as opposed to emotion? Making it lyrically coherent?
It oscillated between the two, like anything that you’re creating. I was most concerned, though, about the intentionality with the language. I chose artists who I was inspired by. There are even some lyrics that I like better, but I didn’t necessarily agree with their stance on the world. I had a lot of those moments where, as genius as someone is, there was some friction for me as a listener and a hip-hop lover to ask, “Is this love, too?” The creator in me, who’s borrowing from all of these creators, wanted to make sure that I honored them and I was honoring myself as well.
I read about your editing process for your poem “Inevitable” — you said that the more you edited, the more you realized you were only a mirror of your own memories. Does your understanding of a piece often evolve as you edit? Did that happen here?
Absolutely. This poem did not start out as a love story between two people. It was supposed to be a love letter to hip-hop through space, time and borough. Folks who were reading it from the Times team asked, “Where are we going, and why are we invested?” So then I had to make the stakes very clear.
We actually cut two stanzas; it was too long. So it absolutely changed because I was responding to space and time. Intuitively, I was also responding to: Where am I going? Does this make sense anymore? If I’m talking about a love story between Brooklyn and the Bronx, Staten Island, even New Jersey (shout-out to Jersey), how do I make sure that I’m talking about the world? I’m trying to be mindful.
The poem is its own artifact, its own living organism if you allow it to be. And cento poems do that.
What does hip-hop mean to you?
If you would have asked me that 25 years ago, when I first realized it was speaking to me and through me, it was a language of articulation. A love language for me. And a placeholder in my life for when I started standing up for myself and speaking up for myself, and speaking out against things that I thought were not only detrimental to my safety, but detrimental to our community. Hip-hop artists gave me the wherewithal and the lexicon and the swag. So if anything, hip-hop made me; it gave me language.
It allowed me to feel like the playing field was equalized. I can walk in a room and not be looked down upon because of these hip-hop lyrics that were very much shaping the room.
It was no longer, You can’t speak like that. It was more, Speak up.
Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times. More about Emmett Lindner
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