Adam Bradley first learned Shakespeare, Coleridge and Keats at the knee of his grandmother, Jane Frances. Then, after hours of home instruction, he stole away with his little brother to listen to some hip-hop and try out the latest in break-dancing moves.
Adam Bradley, hip-hop scholar
Conventional wisdom hints that home-schooling children in safe, suburban confines results in erudite, literary adults. So it did with Bradley, who later earned his doctorate from Harvard University. Growing up a mixed-race child in 1980s Salt Lake City, it also made him a one-of-a-kind homeboy.
“Because I didn’t attend school, I lived in the neighborhood,” he said during an interview from his California home, where he’s an assistant professor at Claremont McKenna College. “I lived on a street called White Circle.”
Ironic ring of the Salt Lake City street name aside, Bradley lived in a home surrounded by culture. His grandmother played classical music throughout the house. His grandfather Iver, a professor of economics at the University of Utah, discussed politics and social issues at the dinner table. One of his uncles, Jim Bradley, would go on to a career in local politics as a Salt Lake County council member.
After his home-school educational days, Bradley enrolled in public high school, graduating from Olympus High School in 1992 and going on to attend the Portland liberal-arts-focused Lewis & Clark College. By then he’d been steeped in the classic novels and poetry of the
African-American experience, Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison foremost among them. Bradley’s passion wasn’t lost on John Callahan, a Lewis & Clark humanities professor. After a 17-year friendship with Ellison, it just so happened that Callahan was also executor to the late author’s literary estate.
In desperate need of help collecting manuscripts and other odds and ends to compile Ellison’s unfinished novel, Juneteenth , Callahan enlisted his young student. Given the parallels between Bradley’s family life and those of the characters in Ellison’s unfinished novel, the partnership between Bradley and Callahan made headlines in an August 2007 Washington Post Magazine feature.
Like Bliss, the central character of Ellison’s Juneteenth , Bradley never met his father until late in life. “For my father did not die, but willed to leave. And because he is black, my mother white, and I am somewhere in between, I have guarded his image as a complex source of my identity,” Bradley wrote in a college essay.
Barely into his mid-30s, Bradley has emerged as one of the foremost commentators on African-American literature, including a recent National Public Radio program on Maya Angelou. Jim Felt, who remembers teaching Bradley history and journalism at Olympus, isn’t surprised. “He was an exceptionally fine writer,” Felt said.
Despite the remarkable Ellison scholarship notched into his academic résumé, Bradley longed to study his first literary love: hip-hop. “Even as a kid, I could sense there was a connection between the poetry I’d read with my grandmother and the music my brother and I would listen to,” Bradley said.
He’s sketched 248 pages worth of connections, to be exact, published to acclaim earlier this spring. His first book, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop , was termed “a tour de force” that “rescues the forgotten vanguard of American poetry” by such African-American luminaries as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Taking apart poetic elements of rhymes by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Nas and other hip-hop artists, Bradley compares them to acknowledged works by Langston Hughes and Shakespeare. He then declares many hip-hop musicians every bit as accomplished as classic writers. Never mind that one set of verse stands alone while the other is best heard with a beat. “Where meter is ideal, rhythm is real,” Bradley writes in his book.
It’s not an easy book. Bradley, who studied under the esteemed Harvard poetry critic Helen Vendler, takes readers through such literary terms as “accentus,” a Latin term meaning song added to speech. Yet it’s still an approachable read.
Given that April is also National Poetry Month, Bradley’s book is also culturally relevant in a way few poetry tomes are. One reason hip-hop is segregated from traditional poetry, Bradley argues, is its sheer popularity. No one has to like or enjoy hip-hop or rap as art or music, he writes. But no one can ignore it either. “Of course, not all rap is great poetry, but collectively it has revolutionized the way our culture relates to the spoken word,” Bradley writes.
While not compelled enough to download the latest Jay-Z album, Jim Bradley said he was impressed by his nephew’s literary argument. “With my [own] two sons playing [hip-hop] all the time, I can at least look for other things than just the volume knob so I can turn it down,” Jim Bradley said.
For those familiar with both worlds of hip-hop and African-American literature, Bradley offers an intriguing match of pairs from each: Langston Hughes’ closest equivalent in the rap world is Rakim, playwright and poet Amiri Baraka’s literary soulmate is KRS-1, John Keats ranks with Tupac as both died far too young, while Gwendolyn Brooks compares best with Lauryn Hill.
Bradley stops short of finding a match for Ellison, a writer he describes as defiantly black and defiantly American, and who saw no contradiction in either. “Maybe the closest Ellisonian out there right now is [President Barack] Obama, who embodies the ‘beautiful absurdity’ of our American identity — the one out of many,” in a sound-bite quote that expresses the thoughtfulness of the young Utah-reared urban commentator.
The Salt Lake Tribune