It was Wordsworth who wrote in the language of the common man, thereby giving a microphone to those on the edges of society. Are the rappers of today following in his footsteps?
Earlier this year, Kanye West criticized Barack Obama’s alleged inefficacy as president. Unimpressed and arguably bitter, Kanye tweeted in April, “Obama was in office for eight years and nothing in Chicago changed.” This alone, was unexpected, but then he aligned with Donald Trump. After disassociating himself from Obama for passivity, Kanye compared himself to Trump, saying, “We are both dragon energy.” He even adopted Trump almost as kin and referred to him as “my brother.”
This sparked major controversy, propelled by journalists and social media. The Left began questioning his credibility by reporting issues in mental health (suicidal thoughts) and personal relationships (marital drama), implying that Kanye’s statements were irrational, uncharacteristic manifestations of stress. The Right began claiming him as their advocate, grouping him with Candace Owens. Both political spheres used him to support their narratives and agendas. Others, like Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, commended the independent thinking but warned, “in our celebrity-driven culture, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to those who haven’t spent a lot of time studying policy. That’s how we end up with celebrity politicians, emotion-driven policy and reality television substituting for news.” With a few unexpected tweets, Kanye West shocked the United States, provoking major discourse.
True, Kanye is not a political expert, but Shapiro undervalues the relationship between the rapper’s content and his social influence, which politically pervades. Shapiro acknowledges this connection to a degree, observing, “With that said, Kanye West did something deeply important over the last two weeks: He opened up the debate,” but he continues to focus on intellectual credibility, undermining social influence. Shapiro fails to recognize the intrinsic relationship between social and political movements.
Nothing separates politics and society; they’re interactive and interdependent. Societies create governments to establish order, and politics organizes society. There is a complicated, perpetually-shifting dynamic between politics and society, in which both affect each other in turn. This is an inherent and necessary dynamic, not exclusive to the United States or modern culture.
I want to focus on the social influence. As Shapiro says, the United States has a “celebrity-driven culture,” but, while it may not have been so extreme historically, it is not an entirely new phenomenon. Poets have been representing and influencing society for centuries, and rappers, as the new poets, are now fulfilling their role. In this essay, I want to explore the traditional role of poets and their impact on society. Then I will compare modern rappers with historical poets, assessing their roles as cultural representatives and socio-political influencers, using the rising artist NF to represent contemporary rappers in juxtaposition to William Wordsworth of the British Romantic Movement in the early 19th century (~1800-1830s). Finally, I will assess Kanye West’s position, and why it is so controversial.
William Wordsworth: Repurposing Poetry
William Wordsworth, an early and distinguished leader of British Romanticism, popularized the use of poetry as a reflection of the common man by shifting his target audience—writing for the average laborer rather than the privileged aristocrat. In doing so, he radically changed the language, content, and purpose of poetry.
Though highly educated, Wordsworth rejected the traditional, complex vocabulary and syntax of poetry, directed towards scholars and aristocrats. Instead, he imitated common speech and featured daily life, extending his writing to the mass population. This was radical and risky. Many misunderstood his intentions, criticizing Wordsworth as an amateur. His Preface to Lyrical Ballads was written as an explanation, but it became a fundamental outline of Romantic principles. In it, Wordsworth clarifies:
“Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men. Unless therefore we are advocates for that admiration which depends upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from hearing what we do not understand, the Poet must descend from this supposed height, and, in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other men express themselves.”
Wordsworth wanted to meaningfully engage and impact his audience more than he wanted to impress them.
By shifting his target audience, Wordsworth modified his content. Rather than epic poems, tragedies, ballads, or romances, he wrote of simple, daily life. The poems demonstrate that daily life is not as insignificant as it seems. In “Simon Lee,” a poem about a pitifully weakened, old man who was once strong, Wordsworth specifically addresses the issue of a story. He writes:
“O gentle Reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.
What more I have to say is short,
And you must kindly take it:
It is no tale; but, should you think,
Perhaps a tale you’ll make it.”
He gave meaning to a man’s mere, mundane existence. He created significance, not stories, in the peasant’s simplicity. He wrote about real people and real life.
Wordsworth’s poetry spoke not only to the aging, but the marginalized in general. “The Thorn” portrays a tormented woman whose lover abandoned her and implies she killed the baby. “The Idiot Boy” affectionately depicts a mentally-disabled boy and his anxious mother. “We Are Seven” features an innocent girl who insists “We are seven,” though two of her siblings are dead. And “Surprised by Joy” reveals Wordsworth’s grief as he recounts a moment of happiness, in which he forgets his daughter’s death, only to then remember his sorrow even more profoundly. He wrote openly and emotionally. Instead of distancing himself as a great poet, Wordsworth intimately related to his audience.
Because they emphasized the majority and the marginalized over the privileged, the Romantics also supported the American, Haitian, and French Revolutions. Wordsworth wrote “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” in 1803, sympathizing with a murdered slave of the Haitian Slave Rebellion. He united people through shared experiences and demonstrated the commoner’s plight. His work reflected the lives, experiences, and emotions of neglected masses to unite and empower them.
Wordsworth discovered the power of popularity, which liberated him from the content guidance and censorship of wealthy patrons. The silenced majority did not impose demands; they embraced his work. By speaking to them and on their behalf, Wordsworth provided recognition, significance, and validation for the people at-large. His writing spoke for them in a way that they could not due to their limited access to mediums such as poetry.
William Wordsworth shifted his audience, which shifted his content, and caused a shift in power. By relating to people and representing them, he became an influencer, reshaping how they perceived themselves and their roles. Wordsworth’s redirected writing was not only influential to art and literature, but also radically destabilizing to social and political systems.
Like William Wordsworth, Nathaniel Feuerstein, popularly known as the rapper NF, relates to his audience, making himself a representative and influencer. He builds a relationship with listeners. And he creates “real music” with authenticity and transparency because the foundation of any relationship is trust. NF highlights this authenticity in his song “Real“: “You wanna know where my heart is? / I stand out ‘cause I wear my garbage.” He continuously reiterates the theme in other songs, such “Intro III” (“Real music ’til the day we die, right? / Yeah, ain’t that the slogan, Nathan?”) and “Therapy Session” (“You wanna know what it’s like if you met me in person? / Listen to my verses”).
NF recognizes that the way to reach people is not by flaunting superiority or grandstanding but the opposite: humility and vulnerability. To relate to his audience, he must be vulnerable, honest, and expose himself. As Wordsworth transparently grieves the loss of his daughter in “Surprised by Joy,” NF transparently grieves the loss of his mother in “How Could You Leave Us?” a song about her drug overdose and his anguish. Unashamed, NF, like many rappers, openly confronts them in his lyrics. He addresses physical abuse (“Mansion“) and drug exposure (“My Life“). He also confronts emotional turbulence. His lyrics address emotions: anger (“Remember This“), depression (“Paralyzed“), anxiety (“Outro“) and anthropomorphize them:
“Anger’s a liar, he ain’t got no respect
I fell in love with my Pain and I slept with my Regrets
Happiness saw it happen, maybe that’s why she up and left
Joy called me a cheater, said she ain’t coming back”
-from “Remember This“
The rapper’s mission is to honestly express himself and impact others with music. NF states this in “Therapy Session,” which records encounters with fans deeply affected by his music:
“Kids hit me up, say they slittin’ they wrists on the daily
This music is more than you think
Don’t book me for just entertainment”
He addresses how these testimonials, in turn, affect him—the privilege and pressure they induce, and his difficulty negotiating them—yet, regardless of personal struggles, NF reinforces his relationship with the audience. In “Outro,” he re-affirms his dedication by closing, “I’m just teaching ’em something they couldn’t learn in the colleges / This is for the kids feeling like they live at the bottom.” The music is valuable because of the mission; it is the medium that enables his outreach.
While NF expresses his struggles and empathizes with his audience, he also empowers listeners by challenging them. In “I’ll Keep On,” he promotes perseverance by admitting his weaknesses and sharing what strengthens him. In “Wake Up,” he uses a more forceful approach, provoking self-awareness and action. Like Wordsworth, NF writes intentionally for his audience’s benefit, not just as “entertainment” but as a representative and influencer.
Kanye West: Ye, The People
Ostensibly, the Kanye Controversy is a political upset, but it is really a disruption of the deeply-rooted role of an artist. It is a disturbance in the artist’s relationship with his followers. As a rapper, Kanye West is a representative and influencer for his audience, socially and politically. He is a public figure. His abrupt and shocking realignment was not received as an individual transfiguration, but a major overturn for the masses. Because he was a symbolic leader who shifted abruptly, his audience felt that they had been misled and then abandoned, so naturally, they reacted strongly. The rapper’s ideological conversion became personal to his followers, who experienced a disconcerting mixture of confusion, betrayal, denial, and anger, bordering on animosity.
Kanye’s song “Ye vs. the People” was not meant to be a rejection of “his people” or an internally divisive tactic to split his audience. Rather, it was his effort towards reconciliation. He used music as he always had, to reach listeners. He sought to reassure them that he was still their advocate and had not really changed. The song was Kanye’s attempt to preserve his role and restore his relationship with “the people.”
In “Ye vs. the People,” Kanye creates a dialogue with fellow rapper T.I. to address his audience and give them a voice. T.I. expresses the hurt and bewilderment of Kanye’s followers by pointing out, “All them times you sounded crazy / We defended you, homie /Not just to be let down when we depend on you.” This perceived betrayal contextualizes their anger as they challenge Kanye for his “blatant disregard for the people who put you in position” and question, “Don’t you feel an obligation to them?” But “Ye” argues that he still serves the people. He responds that he does feel impressed with a strong obligation: “to show people new ideas.” He negotiates the role of representative and influencer.
Kanye considers himself a mediator between people and ideas. Unlike politicians, who represent their constituents in an office from a distance, artists cultivate personal, intimate relationships with patrons. This relationship enables influence:
“Make America Great Again had a negative perception
I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction
Added empathy, care and love and affection”
Kanye is not seeking selfishly to defend his reputation. Rather, he seeks to rectify its misinterpretation. He dedicated his career to reaching and serving the audience, and he continues to even now. “The people” accuse Kanye of being “stubborn, selfish, [and] bullheaded,” but he insists that his stance is shared by many others: “Lot of people agree with me / but they’re too scared to speak up.” He refutes the notion of selfishness and replaces it with the antithesis: sacrifice. For “the greater good of the people,” he endures criticism and risks his reputation.
“Ye vs. The People” is meant to be restorative because, as an artist, Kanye’s role is to collaborate with and empower the people. What troubles him most is the breach in their alliance. Opposition with the audience contradicts his traditional role as an artist. It is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. He wants to restore his role and partnership with the people. He wants to be a voice for them and provide an open platform. In his last lines, Kanye suggests:
“Alright, Tip [T.I.], we could be rappin’ about this all day, man
Why don’t we just cut the beat off and let the people talk?”
Legacy: Rappers are the New Poets
Wordsworth revolutionized poetry and art by shifting his emphasis to the audience and relating to them through common language and life. He gave the silenced many a recognizable voice, despite risking his reputation. Likewise, NF receives criticism for being nonconventional, but he embraces it: “Feels good to be here now / I’m a weird person with a weird crowd” (“Outcast“). Now, Kanye West experiences his destabilizing effect as an artist and the accompanying opposition. Artists must manage the delicate, and sometimes (seemingly) incompatible responsibilities of representing and influencing their audience. All of this emerges from artists valuing their audiences and cultivating relationships with them.
More than giving his readers a voice, Wordsworth spoke directly to them. He changed their perception of themselves and their status in society. His words unified and emboldened them. It wasn’t just his writing but the effect of his writing that procured Wordsworth such a remarkable legacy. Today, his descendants are contemporary rappers, like NF and Kanye West. These artists speak for themselves and the masses. They generate validation for a large population.
Rap isn’t merely music; it’s meaning. It’s art—resonating and powerful. It’s social, cultural, and political. Kanye West’s direct influence on politics is fairly small, but his indirect influence is incalculably extensive. As Ben Shapiro warns, he should not be taken seriously as a political expert, but neither should he be disregarded as a social figure. Shapiro is wrong to divorce the political and social spheres. Kanye West made himself a social representative and influencer as a rapper, building on the traditional role of poets.
Sophia Redelfs is studying English, with an emphasis in literature at Columbia College in Missouri.