So, I was listening to Beyoncé, right, when something happened.
Haunted comes on, and this lyric strikes me…
I can sing a song for Solomon or salamander; We took a flight at midnight and now my mind can’t help but wander; How come?
Girl. Queen Bey references our literary Queen Morrison and now my mind can’t help but wonder…how many other musical artists are shouting out literature in their music? So I did some crate digging and found these other lyrical head nods to classic literature that will awaken the literati in all of us.
Caged Bird, Alicia Keys
I know why the caged bird sings; Only joy comes from song; She’s so rare and beautiful to others; Why not just set her free…
On her debut album, Alicia Keys penned homage to Maya Angelou’s debut autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It’s interesting to note that Keys was around the same age that Angelou ends the first of her autobiographical series. In this state of becoming woman, the caged bird seems to be a timeless analogy.
Do For Love, Tupac
My heart is sayin’ leave, oh what a tangle web we weave/ when we conspire to conceive…
It’s simply a matter of time before Tupac is listed with literary giants such as Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Sir Walter Scott, whose poem “Marmion”, Tupac references in Do For Love. A literary and political buff (like Scott), Tupac’s discography and lyrical prowess reflects the impact many of these literary artists have had on what will be his legacy, raising up the voices of the silent. Also, let’s not forget his Niccolò Machiavelli inspired alias, Makaveli, which was a result of reading The Prince. (see why I will always refer to The Prince as that damn book)
100% Dundee, The Roots
Globe traveling, throwing your verse like a javelin; Things Fall Apart, and MCs unraveling…
This entire album is a hat tip to Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, and Black Thought is no stranger to literary references. If you’ll remember the publishing of a censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Black Thought referenced the hypocrisy of replacing the n-word in the novel with “slave” because *clears throat* it was awkward… for the teachers. Black thought freestyled, “You best keep a weapon like a shirt tail, tucked in, ’cause I’m taking n*ggas out like Huck Finn.” Really though, the whole damn freestyle is an ode to American literature. Take a listen…
Willie Burke Sherwood, Killer Mike
So I convinced myself it was better to be Jack in Lord of the Flies; It’s a book I read, books I read, ’cause I’m addicted to literature…
This autobiographical track references The Lord of the Flies by William Golding a story about kids going in different directions. Killer Mike goes on to say, “Ain’t no room for the civilized; When the wild men rumble in the jungle; And that’s why Simon and Piggy died; Ralph survives, but he lives changed.” A true testament to the decisions kids have to make in a world designed against their survival.
Just Begun, Jay Electronica feat. Talib Kweli
They snitching like Donnie Brasco, I’m counting like Monte Cristo; The ghetto full of betrayal like Iago and Othello
Not only does Kweli begin the track with a nod to the eReader that has revolutionized reading, the literary double kick that follows is remarkable. His reference to Alexander Dumas then Shakespeare…yes, yes y’all.
The Manifesto, Talib Kweli
We all miss you, what your mind gone fishin’ like Walter Mosley?
Okay Kweli! Not one to miss an opportunity to drop some literary knowledge, this hat tip to Mosley may or may not have some hidden meaning, but I haven’t read the Easy Rawlins series yet (I know, I know) to know what it could be. Any takers?
Ms. Hill, Talib Kweli
She used to love to buy the books by Octavia Butler
Parable of the Sower, the main character’s name was Lauren
What the album did for black girls’ souls was so important
Now you’re just showing off, sir. But this ode to Lauryn Hill is an ode to all black girls. Octavia Butler’s work and Hip Hop have some strong parallels, especially in regards to survival, and naturally, Kweli would be the one to bring that to our attention.
You know what we never hear about…what rappers are reading. As much as hip hop gets a bad rap, it’s clear that literature has played a huge role in the craft of many MCs. We should talk more about the books that have inspired some of the great lyricists of our day.
Want more good stuff? Subscribe to our email list for a weekly email with the best articles and videos featuring Black culture.