Rapping with Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was known for breaking nineteenth century literary conventions with “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But, according to jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria, he also had an impact on modern music.

“He’s the first gangster rapper,” said Bronx native Sanabria, who has performed with influential artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente. “He’s dealing with murder, lust, madness; that’s not too far removed from what happens in the hip-hop world.”

Poe is not too far removed from the birthplace of hip-hop either. He wrote several works that include “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” while living in a little white house known as Poe Cottage near Kingsbridge Road in what is now the Fordham section of the Bronx.

Many Bronxites are not aware of Poe’s time in the borough, but a group of people passionate about preserving history is trying to change this.

City Lore, an organization that promotes art and cultural traditions throughout New York City, will help the cause with ‘Quoth the Raven’: Edgar Allan Poe en El Bronx, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. The event plans to feature poems Poe wrote in the Bronx paired with Afro-Cuban music styles.

Spoken word artist Caridad De La Luz, known as La Bruja, is scheduled to recite the poems along with original interludes while Sanabria, who arranged the music, performs with his band Quarteto Aché.

The event is part of the POEMobile initiative created by City Lore and Bowery Arts and Science, in which a truck stops at various locations throughout the city and projects poetry onto the sides of  buildings in English and the language of the dominant ethnic group of the area.

“I hope people know that there’s this great poet form the Bronx, he wrote this stuff while he was in the Bronx, the Bronx has this great history,” said City lore folklorist Elena Martinez, Sanabria’s wife.  “But on the other hand, I hope that they’ll just enjoy it as well.”

One of the people working to protect that history is Angel Hernandez, an educator for the Bronx County Historical Society. Hernandez came up with the idea for Poe poems mixed with Latin music after having conversations in Spanish with people curious about Poe Cottage. A 2010 event called Salsa Poe began the Poe-Latin music pairing, and Saturday’s event will feature the same musical lineup and artists as that event.
The performances are part of Hernandez’s Bronx Latino History Project, which will highlight the borough’s Latino history and make it accessible to Latin Bronxites. “People living in the Bronx, they’re not rich,” Hernandez said. “It is a working class borough and they don’t know that Poe lived just as poor and humble as a lot of Latin American immigrants today live.”

A look at the house, which is part of the National Register of Historic Places indicates just how simple his life was. The three-room cottage looks more like a miniature doll house between industrial-looking buildings along the Grand Concourse and Kingsbridge Road. It was home to Poe, his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm from 1846 to 1849.

P. Neil Ralley, the cottage’s tour guide, said most of the cottage’s visitors are school groups or people who have come specifically to tour the place, but curious locals also come in and ask about the cottage.

David Cannon of Kingsbridge said he had heard of Poe but didn’t know he lived in the cottage. “Now I can take my nieces and nephews and say Edgar Allan Poe was here,” Cannon said while sitting on a bench at Poe Park. “When they ask me, ‘who was that guy?’ I’ll tell them now, and that he lived here.”
Though Sanabria said Poe never boasted in his work like rappers do, he expects ‘Quoth the Raven’ attendees to connect Poe to hip-hop. They will see Poe’s work in many contexts, as the lineup includes “Annabel Lee” over a mambo beat and “The Bells” over a Cuban conga de comparsa. Sanabria said an introduction to Poe could inspire people to study other important historical figures.

“There’s a whole world beyond just comic books and rappers,” he said.

A Poe Cottage tour gave Kenneth Grant of Astoria all the inspiration he needed.
“I plan now to do some more studying to follow up, learn more about him,” Grant said. “I didn’t know anything about the science fiction aspect of his writing or some of the other stuff, so I’m curious now. I want to take this further.”

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