“Somebody tell me what makes good lyrics,” says Anthony Morales on the first day of Hip-Hop and Poetry class at El Puente, a high school in Williamsburg. He opens his arms to the class, surveys the students, and snaps his head back toward the chalkboard. As he moves, his oversized gray T-shirt and baggy jeans bounce, shift, and settle, giving the impression of a body in perpetual motion.
“What makes you say, ‘That has flava, yo’?” he asks again.
The 15 or so teens remain silent.
“Flow,” one finally ventures. Morales writes it on the board.
“Delivery,” someone else says. He adds it to the list.
“And what else?”
“That’s under flow,” says Morales. “What is the most important thing? What makes you think, ‘That was tight’?” The sound of a practicing drummer and bassist filters in from a nearby room. It’s loud, but Morales has a voice that carries.
“Content,” he says after a moment. “What are these people saying? What are they talking about? Are they thinking deeply?” His forehead glistens in the fluorescent lights overhead, and the armpits of his T-shirt are damp with sweat. Half an hour into the class he’s only gotten more animated, more emphatic.
With the students’ help, he’s compiled a list of the top MCs on the chalkboard behind him: Mos Def, Ludacris, N.W.A, Shyne, and Run-DMC, to name a few. Now Morales places a disc into a portable CD player he’s brought.
“The key in this class is for you to listen,” he says as the music begins. “I want you to hear each and every line they spittin’.”
Though it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish 24-year-old Morales from his students, he is indeed a trained professional. He holds a master’s degree in English education and a bachelor’s degree in English and Latino studies, both from Columbia University. He attended the same elite boarding school as both the current and former Presidents Bush—Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. And in 2003 he won the Bronx Writers’ Center Fellowship, a $5,000 grant awarded to promising New York writers under 30.
But Morales is best known as a spoken-word poet. He began writing and performing at 14, worked his way through the poetry slams at the legendary Nuyorican Poets’ Café, winning the title of Fresh Poet in 2001, and in 2002 appeared on Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO.
This year he began teaching full-time at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg.
Now Morales asks: “What do you think, in terms of skills, that people need to freestyle? What skills are you using to make up a rhyme?”
As with the content question, the kids aren’t sure what he’s getting at. Attitude? Style? Heart?
“Imagination,” Morales says finally. “You can be as bugged out as you would like to be. A lot of people think, you gotta be the most awful gangsta ever, ever, ever—that you gotta bust a million guns, and you have to have sex with so many people, and you have to smoke so much, and drink so much. That’s not the point. The point is to say how you feel.”
Now the class has arrived at the much-dreaded participatory part; Morales wants to wrap up class with a sample freestyle session. Before they start, he offers some general advice.
First, to overcome timidity, “spit [rhyme] in front of a mirror,” he says, “because your eyes are looking right at you, and you can’t avoid your own reflection.”
Second, “don’t worry about being nice”—meaning don’t worry about perfection. “Nobody in here is gonna be Biggie overnight.”
And third, he wants the class to remember that freestyling is about releasing that “little cap right here,” he says, indicating his Adam’s apple with a karate chop. Once you release the block, the words just flow.
Dr. Nicole Marwell, Morales’s undergraduate advisor at Columbia University, remembers him well. She first met him when he approached her with a project proposal: the history of Nuyorican literature from Piri Thomas to Big Pun. Though the scope of the project was enormous, Marwell approved it. His enthusiasm and dedication impressed her. And after she first saw him perform, she understood its source.
Morales was “committed to expressing the real life of himself and the people he grew up with,” says Marwell. Above all, she says, he believed in the power of words and the act of writing. “The ability to take your experience and rearticulate it is transformative,” she says. “It helps you get through life.”
Rocky LaMontagne, who has organized poetry slams at the Nuyorican for 11 years, laughingly recalls when he first saw Morales perform some eight years ago.
“He went up and read a poem at about 300 miles per hour,” says LaMontagne. Though Morales needed some coaching in his delivery, his poetry caught LaMontagne’s ear.
“His work had a full idea,” says LaMontagne, now Morales’s booking agent. “Some people, their work—especially when they’re that young—is very generic and very simple.” But Morales “had a good complete writing style, better than his age.”
And the reason, LaMontagne thinks, was simple. Unlike many young spoken-word poets, Morales knew he was part of a tradition, heir to the legacy of poets like the Reverend Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, and Miguel Piñero. Morales, LaMontagne saw, had read the work of his precursors. But while he clearly looked to his forebears for inspiration, his work reflected an awareness that times had changed. Hip-Hop’s hard-knock bluntness informed his sensibilities more than R&B’s romancing or salsa’s dulcet nostalgia. And—what truly differentiated him from his predecessors—Morales, a second-generation Puerto Rican from the Bronx, didn’t consider Puerto Rico his long-lost homeland.
“They’re truly Nuyorican,” says LaMontagne of Morales’s generation. “It’s almost like being biracial: You’re Puerto Rican, but you’re from New York. It’s a different experience, it’s a different point of view.”
After class, over a Presidente and a Newport in the moldy back patio of a Williamsburg bar, Morales puts it another way.
“I love Puerto Rico,” he says. “But I feel a lot more comfortable being Puerto Rican here than being Puerto Rican—or being Nuyorican, really—in Puerto Rico.”
Yet what being Nuyorican means is itself an important question, one that Morales repeatedly mulls in his work.
“Quien soy yo?” begins one of his poems—“Who am I?” After considering myriad possibilities, the poem concludes:
We be the language of the empowered
Hooking words from the nectars of two flowers
All showers be gray on a sunny day
But the rainbow has got to be tan bonito
Where the Sofrito be sizzling
That be where I be
What a home cooked pollo tastes like
That be what I be
Cold bullets flying through the air
That be how I be
When la musica del barrio blares on a summer day
That be when I be
Quien soy yo?
Authenticity, irregularity, similar to no other
That be who I be
Morales says he remembers precisely when his preoccupation with identity began: at Philips Academy, the mostly white prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, which he attended on a full scholarship.
“I was in the real minority,” he says, “one of the only Puerto Rican males from New York City, and I didn’t even know what that meant. Until you’re a little speck of the chocolate chip in the big glass of milk, you’re like ‘Damn, I’m still chillin’ with the cookie, right?’” In his case the cookie was New York City, his reference point, and the Bronx in particular—or the B-X as he calls it. Morales was no longer chillin’ with his cookie; he was adrift in a sea of milk. But on break from school he came across his first book by a Nuyorican writer, Piri Thomas’s 1967 classic Down These Mean Streets.
“For the first time I actually felt like, you know, somebody understood my experience,” he says, swatting at an inexplicable swarm of mosquitoes that, despite the autumn chill, still inhabits the patio. Exasperated, he pulls up his sweatshirt hood for protection, flashes a smile, and reassumes an expression of heavy-lidded contemplation. “Somebody was actually thinking about who I was, and it gave me the ability to feel comfortable.”
Now, as a teacher “I just try to pass on love of the knowledge,” he says, to “give kids the opportunity to have the same experience I had when I read Down These Mean Streets. That shit fuckin’ bugged my mind and blew me away.” If he succeeds in helping even one kid feel less alone, and maybe even become a writer, then “man, I fuckin’ done my job.”
Back in class, the kids have pushed the chairs aside and formed a loose circle. Like all teens, they fidget, feigning boredom in an effort to avoid looking nervous. But Morales isn’t letting anyone off the hook.
“If you are not in the cypha [circle], then you must be on the outside of the cypha or writing a rhyme,” he says. Then he puts in a homemade compilation of beats, scanning the CD until he finds a slow, easy one.
He kicks off the freestyle session himself.
“This is basic, how I face it,” he begins, pushing into the beat, relaxing out of it, and then bearing into it again. As he progresses, he matches spirit with hear it and preacha with teacha and beatcha. The kids act bored, but at moments when the rhyme is particularly clever, smiles appear.
When he’s done, he tries to pass it off “to the left,” but no one obliges.
“Don’t be scared,” Morales says. “Just open up your mouth and do it.” The kids stare at the scuffed linoleum. But Morales knows it’s only a matter of time.
“Y’all wanna do it,” he yells at them. “I know it because I see it!”
Moises Velasquez-Manoff is a writer based in Manhattan.