I wrote this piece in September 2016 for a course at York University called Griots to Emcees. It was the first of its kind, taught by the amazingly talented Wendy “Motion” Brathwaite. We explored the history and impact of Spoken Word in the Black community. If you haven’t already, go pick up Motion’s second anthology of poems titled 40 Dayz!
Spoken Word, performed poetry that emphasizes crafty wordplay, voice inflection, and body language in its delivery, is an art form that has a long, deeply embedded and significant history in the Black community. From the Griot of West Africa to the modern-day rap artist, storytelling via rhythm and poetry has been a strong part of the Black identity for generations, across diverse geographies. Spoken Word along with its various modern manifestations, such as rap and hip-hop music, have played a significant role in Black oral tradition, as a tool used to pass on critical messages of resilience, resistance, and survival. Spoken Word can be an outlet for poets and people to express frustrations found in society, as well as a way to name and communicate the depth of one’s values. When analyzing Spoken Word, the audience gains perspective into the world of the poet/performer. The poet is able to critique social phenomenons, and metaphors become a tool to deconstruct and deliver important information to community members.
I was able to experience this on a Sunday in early September when I attended an evening of Spoken Word performances at the Drake Hotel in Toronto with Toronto Poetry Slam (grab tickets to the finals Feb 11!). The first performer, Angel, delivered a moving piece unapologetically displaying her beautiful Black girl magic. Eddie Gomez digested the frailty of masculinity and dangers of rape culture while educating the audience on consent. Ifrah Hussein won the slam and the eighty dollar prize with a series of angry, hard-hitting words describing the injustices the Black community faces in particular with the corruption, anti-Black racism and Islamophobic discrimination woven into the very police and judicial systems meant to protect and serve. This slam and these poets are an example of the social value of a face-to-face forum to spark a discussion on important issues of today.
Song and poetry have a significant place not only in a modern context, but also within Black histories. During slavery in the Americas, the enslaved would use song as a tool to assist freedom runners (read Sylvia Hamilton) in their journey. Songs, such as “Wade in the Water” could be heard, the sounds carried across plantation to plantation, reaching the escaped slave, the lyrics sending the crucial message that the hounds are coming so you better get in the water to mask your scent.
Poetry, Spoken Word, and Rap have also been long documented as an effective tool used to heal various forms of trauma. Deeply rooted in the Black Canadian experience is trauma from the African Diaspora and slavery in the Americas. Even for Black Canadians such as myself whose family recently emigrated from Africa and are not known descendents of slaves, and therefore feel a different connection to slavery, the effects of this trauma prove to be so pervasive as to manifest in all Black lived experiences, through negative stereotyping, broad assumptions and subtle prejudices. A shadow has been cast over the image of a Black man and a Black woman in the Americas. Spoken Word addresses and challenges these destructive legacies, as well as helps build new constructive, productive, progressive legacies. Spoken Word can be a tool to reclaim erased Black Canadian histories by telling new stories of massive resistance, resilience, hope, and survival from Black Canadians living today.
Although Spoken Word and its many variations have proven to be a socially valuable tool for Black peoples, dub poets and rappers have experienced a(n) (un)fair share of backlash from the wider/whiter community, as well as barriers to exert the social value of their creative work. One such barrier stems from ignorance as to the history of oral vernacular. Vernacular, a core part of the Black identity and found throughout African, Caribbean, American and European histories, is defined by Wikipedia as “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region… as one’s mother tongue; not learned or imposed as a second language”. Because of lingering negative stereotypes from colonialism and slavery of a simple-minded, primitive Black person, the strategic and expressive use of urban vernacular by dub poets and rappers fails to be seen and heard as just-as-reputable-as more “traditional” (but whose tradition anyway?) white songwriters’ and poets’ hooks and verses. In his article titled “On Speaking VOICE: Vernacular, Orature, Imagery, Cadence, Emphasis” from Arc Poetry Magazine, George Elliott Clarke draws on Kamau Brathwaite to describe vernacular as “the articulation of a people yearning for self-respect and naming themselves as distinct societies through their non-standard, ‘eccentric’ utterance…” (Clarke 2). Clarke recalls the struggles of dub poets in the 80s and 90s to be acknowledged as credible, valuable contributors of literature because of their non-standard flavour (Clarke 4).
Fast forward to 2016 and we still see hip-hop, rap and trap artists fall victim to this literary snobbery based in Western Anglophone classist standards. The song “Bad and Boujee” by Migos is laced with examples of vernacular being used to tell a story of trap culture. It is essential to point out that the use of vernacular and one’s own language does not make the content less socially valuable when it comes to mapping lived Black experiences. Clarke describes vernacular as “the upsurge of the downpressed” (Clarke 2). We see language and vernacular in Rap music be mocked, especially from white comedians and in Youtube parodies. This mockery can also be analyzed as a result of the feelings of contradiction because the marginalized group is experiencing success (defined in current American culture as monetary wealth, fame and followers) to which the supposedly dominant group feels entitled. Here in the lyrics of Rap, we see Spoken Word manifested as a tool to showcase resistance and reclaim identity. “Other words: ‘Pressed people gonna talk opp’site to th’oppresser” (Clarke 3). A major problem the Black community faces when vernacular is policed or viewed as less than is the erasing of the validity of our own unique languages. These languages unite a people and carry forward our history, so their legitimacy as a form of communication within a deeply complex and colourful community, must be defended and maintained.
The personal, social, cultural and political all inform Spoken Word. An impactful Spoken Word piece infuses themes found in the poet’s environment and surroundings. Through delivery, content, as well as other factors the audience receives and participates in a current, and therefore socially valuable, reflection and analysis on topical issues. Through this exchange of knowledge, the art of Spoken Word proves to be a practical tool and vital platform for the Black community to unpack dense social issues affecting us, such as poverty, drug use, violence and crime, so that we can move towards finding and implementing sustainable solutions. Equally as important, Spoken Word can be a source of empowerment for the Black community, as it creates a spotlight on meaningful solutions. For example, Jordan Veira from the Spoken Heard wrote a piece about being a strong Black male role model for his nephew, reminding the community of a critical step in bettering young Black lives: the power of role models and teachers.
Spoken Word plays a magnificent role in the Black community. It can be a central hub where through opening dialogue, we can work towards the progression of the Black community as a whole. Spoken Word heals trauma, passes on a people’s history and core values, creates a place to collectively define and redefine Black culture and identity, to unpack Black social issues, to highlight solutions, empower individuals, build leaders, celebrate Black life, and better lives. Poetry through performance can do all of that, and it is quite stunning to experience.