Poet Nikki Giovanni says she's "enchanted" with children's literature, because it's like folk literature.
Poet Nikki Giovanni says she's "enchanted" with children's literature, because it's like folk literature. Michael Kiernan
An illustration from Hip Hop Speaks to Children.
An illustration from Hip Hop Speaks to Children. Kristen Balouch
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nikki Giovanni, pictured in 1973, has been writing poetry for decades.
Nikki Giovanni, pictured in 1973, has been writing poetry for decades. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In school, kids learn about words, syllables and stresses that make up the iambic pentameter.
They learn poetry with rhythm. Award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni says there is another way to learn it — with a funky beat.
While some people might not think of hip-hop as poetry, Giovanni says it fits her definition because it uses cadence and creativity to capture the human experience.
Giovanni's new book, Hip Hop Speaks to Children, is a celebration of poetry that includes several examples of rhythm and rhyme by artists ranging from Langston Hughes to Queen Latifah.
"Hip-hop is a cultural expression — it's embracing," Giovanni tells NPR's Michele Norris. "And we wanted to cast as big a net as possible, so people can see in the house of hip-hip there are many rooms."
The book touches on love poems, blues tunes and jazz — even gospel, including a live session where actress Val Gray Ward reads from The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.
"It's not religious what we're trying to do; we're trying to deal with the cultural end of it," Giovanni says. "So if we have a young, Jewish kid in East Point, North Carolina, who has no occasion to go into a black church, they can now begin to understand, 'Oh, this is where that cadence comes from.' That the history is going to be there, and they can enjoy it without having to compromise their religious beliefs."
The cadence helped people in congregations remember the words, which is what Giovanni aims for. Children's literature, Giovanni says, is like folk literature — and the folk "had to have a way of conveying information," so they used a cadence.
When asked what her favorite track is in the book, Giovanni says it's one of the poems she wrote: "Ego Tripping."
"It was one of the doors that opened one of the rooms in my house, because it's a braggadocio poem. On the other hand, it's a shout-out to Langston Hughes," she says. "It's absolutely one of my favorites. I'm embarrassed. I'm blushing because, 'Oh, god, she didn't really say one of her own [poems].' "