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‘I’ve read the secret, I know the meaning’: When rap and classical literature meet

Rosa Chalfen examines the links between rap and classical literature.

What do Charles Dickens, Alice in Wonderland and Kilburn-bred rapper M Huncho have in common? Quite a lot, as it happens. Two of the most popular rap songs of the last month, M Huncho and Unknown T’s ‘Wonderland’ and Arrdee’s ‘Oliver Twist’, feature famous works of classic literature as their titles and inspiration. It’s a fact that might surprise readers and listeners. Surely Lewis Carrol’s hallucinogenic Wonderland and Dickens’ Victorian slums are a world away from contemporary British rap?

But ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ cement a far stronger connection between literature and rap than either discipline has been given credit for. Cultural purists have always struggled with the idea that song lyrics can be considered literary forms equal to novels or poetry, as exemplified in the public outcry against Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. What critics often fail to understand is that it is language at the heart of both of these art forms, the thing that connects and unites these two seemingly dissimilar practises.

The resistance to rap as an object of literary analysis from within the traditional cultural establishment is a difficult one to unpack. As well as a fear of non-established forms of literature, there is doubtless an element of racial and social prejudice that obstructs rap becoming as central to culture as it should be. The use of non-standard English in rap lyrics, as well as its reputation as a misogynistic and violent music genre, alienates the traditionally white world of literary criticism. If Dylan’s famous and traditionally ‘poetic’ language causes such a stir within traditional literary circles, what chance do the lyrics of an 18-year-old kid from Brighton have?

The fear of popular culture integrating into so-called ‘high culture’ is, of course, totally ironic, given that contemporary critics rarely have a good view of which books will endure in popularity and which will not. For example, Alice in Wonderland failed to be named in an 1888 poll of the publishing season’s most popular children’s stories, despite its popularity with adults and children alike. Similarly, the original Oliver Twist was not published by a prestige print house but, like most of Dickens’ novels, serialized in the popular magazine Bentley’s Miscellany from 1837 to 1839. Two books which had no place in higher literary circles of the period have become two of the most famous and popular books ever written, both with numerous important manifestations in contemporary culture of which Arrdee and M Huncho’s music are only recent additions. What these songs represent is the merging of popular culture and traditional culture that questions the very foundations of these arbitrary terms and encourages the validation of both as legitimate culture.

In a recent interview, Arrdee took on a giant of the culture establishment: Capital Xtra’s Classical Kyle. The classical saxophonist has interviewed some of the biggest rappers for Capital Xtra’s Youtube series, but the look of pure joy on his face as the name of Ardee’s single is revealed to him—”Dickensian!”- is unparalleled. “That’s the whole concept of the song”, Ardee replies coolly. Although Classical Kyle appreciates the classical violin that echoes through the song, the language gap between the two musicians makes for embarrassing viewing. “I don’t think that Charles Dickens used the words ‘take the piss’” he tells Ardee primly, before quizzing him on the meaning of lyrics such as “thot” and “Adeola”. Is this interaction between popular culture and traditional culture a step in the right direction, or does it simply illustrate the impenetrable gap between them?

Unlike Classical Kyle, I think that ‘Oliver Twist’ is a masterful lyrical adaptation of Dickens’ original. The whispered “gimme some more” refrain that seems to haunt the song like a ghostly Miss Havisham along with the strains of the classical violin echo not only Dickens’ book but also Carol Reed’s 1968 musical adaptation and its subsequent stage production in a way that cleverly fits the song into a long line of successful Dickensian adaptations. Ardee clearly sees himself as a modern-day Oliver Twist, having “taken risks to get to this sitch”, weaving Dickens into the classic rap narrative of ‘nothing to everything’. However, it’s also a universal theme that has captured the attention of readers, viewers and listeners for centuries, as Ardee notes in his classical Kyle interview: “We always want more- us as humans, we all want more”. If Dickens’ Oliver Twist is a story of wanting the bare minimum—food, a home, a family—Ardee won’t stop there. “You want more you don’t get their pleading, bruv, fight for your cause kicking and screaming” he tells listeners. How would Dickens’ original have been different if Oliver Twist had kicked and screamed, instead of pleaded? This is an Oliver Twist reimagined as a tale of anger and resistance.

Ardee and Dickens’s concern with poverty and social justice links book and song together even more closely. Dickens would famously walk the streets of London’s East End for hours, observing the extremes of Victorian poverty and spinning some of his greatest characters out of it. Oliver Twist is one of his most politically damning novels, exploring the vicious cycle of poverty through Oliver’s tragic narrative and also that of Nancy, forced into a life of prostitution and domestic abuse. Ardee restages this exploration of poverty in his native Brighton: “Cos I come from the shore, but the poor part, all you see is crackheads fiendin”. For those who think Brighton is all vintage shops and pebble beaches, Ardee reveals its seedy underworld in a way parallel to Dickens. It’s a theme that preoccupies much of his music, including his other major single 6am in Brighton. Just like how Dickens’ Oliver Twist is an irrevocably London tale, Ardee places an ungentrified Brighton at the heart of his music, using it to explore themes of poverty and drug addiction that perhaps exemplify how little society has changed since Dickens’ era.

As well as adapting Dickens’ themes for his own purposes, Ardee’s ‘Oliver Twist’ shows a real interest in literacy as a concept central to rap. “I’ve read the secret/ I know the meaning” he claims in the song’s lyrics, exerting a power over language that is key to his success. What is the ‘secret’ he has read? Is it Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which he has understood in ways that other readers can’t? Or is it something else? The line seems to recall Saussure’s system of semiotics, in which the sign is divided into the signifier (‘sound-image’) and the signified (‘concept’). Ardee has seen the sound-image and grasped the concept in a manner out of reach to those around him. This self-conscious literariness is even more evident in M Huncho and Unknown T’s ‘Wonderland’. Rather than referring to Lewis Carrol’s classic directly (although its heady, hallucinogenic atmosphere does recall the book itself), the song is centred around the independent magazine Wonderland in which M Huncho was a cover star in 2021. Journalism, classical literature and popular music thus converge in an explosion of language.

The song is not just a reference to M Huncho’s presence in established literary culture, however, but a deeply ironic satire of standard and nonstandard language. The song’s refrain—”I took some pics for a magazine, Wonderland/With an extended clip in the magazine” – plays on the meaning of ‘magazine’, a slang term for a container used for holding rounds of ammunition. High culture is juxtaposed with the violent, messy reality of the streets. It’s an in-joke that runs not only throughout the song but also in Suave’s music video, which switches trippily between gothic dining rooms, magical woodland spaces and west London driveways, blending fairy-tale and reality together. Similarly, the lyrics play on Carrol’s cultural symbolism: “How can I trip ’bout a bitch that I never had?/She must think I’m living in Wonderland”. Just as Carrol’s Wonderland is an alternate reality where the unexpected always happens, the song establishes a ‘wonderland’ where its singers are in love, as opposed to the commitment-phobic and violent world that they actually inhabit. It’s a masterful inversion of Alice in Wonderland’s traditional connotations, once again demonstrating how classical literature can permeate popular culture in unexpected and innovative ways.

If acolytes of ‘high culture’ and traditional literary criticism are prepared to broaden their horizons to popular culture, then rap is a genre that can enrich our understanding of classic literature and language itself. Through its literary self-consciousness and reinvention of established themes, songs like ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Wonderland’ bring Dickens and Carrol’s works firmly into the 21st century and ensure the endurance of their literary legacies in a myriad of unexpected ways.

Image Credit: Aleksandra Pluta.

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