It was the great Nina Simone that once said:
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
This very sincere and astute statement can be said of spoken word. Just as its kindred counterparts of the art world, if not more so.
As radical creativity and sociopolitical furor merge, it is art people turn to for refuge. Performance poetry is satisfying the current symptomatic desire for sincere, undiluted truth and this sort of profound contemplation. The past two years it’s seen a rising demand and once again dominates stages and digital platforms everywhere. From festivals to YouTube, the underground scene to The Royal Academy – the revival of this art form is being acknowledged on an international scale.
A brief history: spoken word & performance poetry
Although performance poetry can be dated back to ancient times, most notably renditions of Homer’s Odyssey, many will say it started with the Beat Poets of post-WW2 America. A group of writers, namely Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neil Cassidy started questioning not only the status quo but the conventional laws surrounding literature.
This was this introduction of ‘sound poetry’ that combined the phonetic aspects of human speech to that of literary language. The Beat Generation aligned themselves with Jazz and the music bars in San Francisco, so their poetry became a sort of euphonic performance – spoken word was born.
The next step in the evolution was one that would change both music and performance poetry forever. During the 1970’s Gil Scott-Heron devised a combination of spoken word, melismatic jazz and soul that essentially created a proto-Hip-Hop. This dubbed him ‘the first rapper’ and ‘The Godfather of Hip-Hop’. His enraged and powerful recitals called out the injustice of forced integration and discrimination against African-Americans. Furthermore, his hit record ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is probably the most significant song in spoken word.
By 1990 performance poetry was more recognised than ever before. People would join collectives and competitions known as ‘Slams’, a term coined in Chicago, to share and recite in front of an audience. Eventually, poets were able to make full-time careers out of this sort of work and even tour the world.
Accordingly, Def Poetry Jam, a spoken word television series launched in 2002 saw the advance of a more mainstream performance art. The show was certainly a nod towards the roots of Hip-Hop and the likes of aforementioned Gil Scott-Heron. Although very popular, Marc Smith, the founder of the Poetry Slam Movement stated it was “an exploitative entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry”. It went off air in 2007.
The revival: spoken word reborn
It’s interesting to consider the environments in which spoken word generated interest. As with most art, it is indeed very telling of the times. In an age of selfies, reality TV and zero-hour contracts; Britain First, Candy Crush addicts, benefit cuts and that age-old, furrowed brow of consumerism – a generation returns once more to Performance Poetry to question and to heal.
The artists spearheading this new advance live across the pond from their poetic forefathers in Britain. The likes of George The Poet, Scroobious Pip, Dizreali and Kate Tempest have been invigorating the festival scene, it seems, with as much rigour as they can muster.
Tempest is the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry. The original flare she has for hip-hop and gritty storytelling has placed her on a global platform. These unreserved rhymers have paralleled a mainstream music industry which is steadily favouring a more intellectual sound.
The hive of creativity amongst young people is buzzing. We live in an exciting age of communication and are increasingly discussing topics which had, for too long, been swept under the rug. Gender fluidity, eating disorders, sexual inequality and introversion to name a few. However, we are also aware of the juxtaposed threat on our freedom of speech i.e. government’s disregard for public protest, corporate spies investigating our private emails and messages. It’s no wonder the reaction is that of a rather visceral rendition.
So, what’s next?
From the monolithic, sunless streets of our urban cities where verbal combatants spit fire to electronic rhythms to the classroom. Where innovators are using performance poetry to build youth literary, presentation and leadership skills – spoken word has many benefits beyond its creative appeal. It is proven to reduce anxiety. It allows people to reflect and broaden their creativity and imagination, to connect better with other people and with themselves. This not only improves strength of character within the individual but could introduce a far more liberal and healthy attitude towards a sense of community.
One of the beauties of this art form is that it’s also very accessible. You don’t have to study music theory to join in or be a Van Gogh on the paint palette. All you need is a good understanding of the English language, the courage to be absolutely open when you put pen to paper and the confidence in people to feel what you feel. That’s where the magic happens.
A society void of ego and greed is plausible when you catch the right poet with the right crowd, something that I’ve witnessed firsthand. So I implore you to attend a spoken word performance. Better yet, get involved! Write all those thoughts and worries down. You may even surprise yourself.
Find out more
You can also find out more on how to get started with your spoken word project.
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Feature by Tuala Kiernan