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Spoken word

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Title: Spoken word  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: List of Canadian poets, Kip Fulbeck, Malik Yusef, Caravan of Dreams, Sage Francis
Collection: African-American Culture, Genres of Poetry, History of Poetry, Poetry Movements, Spoken Word
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Spoken word

Spoken word involves performance-based poetry that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and story-telling, that originated from the poetry of African Americans in Harlem. It often includes collaboration and experimentation with other art forms such as music, theater, and dance. There is no mandatory manner in which to perform spoken word, however, certain aspects of the artistry indicate that it is, indeed, spoken word. Spoken word usually tends to focus on the performance of the words themselves, the dynamics of tone, gestures, facial expressions, and more. Performers can weave in poetic components - such as rhyme, repetition, slang, improvisation, and many more elements of poetry - to create an atmosphere for the audience to experience.

In entertainment, spoken-word performances generally consist of storytelling or poetry, as exemplified by artists like Hedwig Gorski, Gil Scott-Heron and Léo Ferré, and by the lengthy monologues of Spalding Gray.


  • History 1
  • In media 2
  • Motivation 3
  • Feminist and LGBT movements 4
  • Competitions 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7


The art of spoken word has existed for many millennia. The tradition of the spoken word is particular to cultures around the world when oral traditions were the means to pass on the genealogical, historical, cultural knowledge and traditions of different geographical sects of indigenous peoples and civilizations; it was particularly steeped in the African traditions that also included drumming and dancing as a means to reinforce cultural mores, spiritual incantations, social practices and world views. This can also be evidenced in Native American and Aboriginal cultures. The Ancient Greeks included Greek lyric which is similar to spoken-word poetry in their Olympic Games.[1][2] Similar exercises were encouraged in political and social discourse in what was then an ancient and thriving form of democracy.

Modern North American spoken-word poetry originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance[3] and blues music as well as the 1960s beatniks.[4]

Modern-day spoken-word poetry became popular in the underground Black community in the 1960s with The Last Poets. The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group that was born out of the African-American Civil Rights movement.[5]

Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" and Booker T. Washington's "Cast Down Your Buckets" have changed and also shaped the course of history.[6]

The artistic utilization of the spoken-word genre in black culture today draws on and reflects a rich literary and musical heritage, and the interaction among these genres, as in the past, has produced some of America's best-known art pieces. Like Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by the feelings of the blues and the black spiritual, contemporary hip-hop and slam poetry artists were inspired by poets such as Hughes in their use of word stylings. Similarly, the experimental and often radical statements of the Black Arts Movement developed a great energy with cutting-edge jazz and funk music that would expand the boundaries of black cultural persona, and thereby provide space for increasingly alternative political ideologies to be raised, discussed, and acknowledged.[6]

Spoken-word poetry came more towards the mainstream in popularity a short time later when Gil Scott-Heron released his spoken-word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.[7]

In the meantime, artists from the rest of the world who came from a culture with a strong poetry tradition such as French singer-songwriters Léo Ferré or Serge Gainsbourg, made a personal use of spoken word over rock or symphonic music from the very beginning of the 1970s, in such albums as Amour Anarchie (1970), Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) or Il n'y a plus rien (1973), and contributed to popularize this performing style in their cultural area without being related to the African American community or being influenced by its culture.

In the late 1970s Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman brought modern spoken-word poetry into written form with the release of her poetry collection Mad Dog, Black Lady in 1979 on Black Sparrow Press.[8]

Many artists and poets have not published any of their works in book forms. Some use video and audio recording, the means used exclusively by Hedwig Gorski, who rejected what she called the "dull-drums" of book publishing in the 1980s.[9] Spalding Gray's film Swimming to Cambodia is a well-known example of spoken word, with Gray sitting at a desk, talking about his experiences during the filming of The Killing Fields.

The Nuyorican Poets Café on New York's Lower Eastside was founded in 1973 and is one of the oldest American venues for presenting spoken-word poetry. The Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989 held the first documented poetry slam.[10]

On the West Coast Da Poetry Lounge and The World Stage are two of the oldest venues for spoken-word poetry, The World Stage presenting the more literary side of the spoken-word tradition and Da Poetry Lounge embracing the more performance side of it.[11]

The Nuyorican Poets Café and Da Poetry Lounge have a close association with the poetry slam movement that was popularized by Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Lounge with both main hosts Bob Holman[12] and Shihan[13] appearing several times on the show.

MTV Unplugged creator Robert Small featured Spoke Word artist on episodes of MTV Unplugged prior to Def Poetry Jam. Bob Holman hosted with artist such as Danny Hoch, Gil-Scott Heron and Maggie Estep and many others. The show was considered ground breaking.

In media

Before the poetic catalyst of Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam in 2002, musical artists such as The Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, The Watts Prophets, and many more, were responsible for infiltrating spoken word into the media. Beginning as early as the 1960s, spoken word became an outlet to promote political frustrations and ambitions, such as civil rights.

Towards the late 1990s, movies and documentaries such as Slam (1998), and SlamNation (1998) were responsible for highlighting the evolution and implementation of spoken word in America's society. Both films' mentioned above feature artists such as Saul Williams, muMs da Schemer, Beau Sia, and Jessica Care Moore, who were fluent participants in the New York poetry slam scene, as well as members of the 1996 Nuyorican Poetry Slam Team.

Def Poetry catalyzed Spoken Word's presence in media along with the help of Brave New Voices (2008), a series focusing on the representation of America's youth in spoken word. The show was brought about after Def Poetry ceased to exist in 2007, in which HBO picked the series up with the help of Youth Speaks Inc., an organization internationally known for its involvement in inspiring and motivating young poet around the world. Directed by James Kass, the show highlighted the annual poetry slam competition at the Brave New Voices Festival, held by Youth Speaks Inc,. The docu-series didn't survive long; hence it was more of a feature program.

The yielding death of spoken word's presence on television, media's relationship with the genre of poetry has henceforth moved to the web. Poets such as Jefferson Bethke, Kai Davis, Sarah Kay, and others, are using outlets such as YouTube and Vimeo to display to the world their poetic and theatric talents.


Since its inception, the spoken word has been an outlet for people to release their views outside the academic and institutional domains of the university and academic or small press. The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.

Other alternative venues created for the dissemination of these works included The Virtual Free University and multimedia periodicals like Media Free Times[14] that were the de-design precursors of web-pages and E-zines.

Spoken word does elicit one's academic or particular viewpoints, but it is an art not solely meant to express those viewpoints. Rather, it can be an expression of viewpoints through the author's experiences in life through an unconventional manner of word use, allowing the viewer or listener to here such cases or views, comparatively, to the conventional means of average speech.

Feminist and LGBT movements

Spoken word events and publications are increasingly associated with feminist and LGBT movements.[15] The project of spoken word poetry requires an interfacing between poet and audience that mirrors the experience of an individual confronting the public. The poet is given space to re-imagine and claim ownership of their subject position in the performance of their work. Thus, spoken word is a genre that supports confessional writing and experimental restructuring of power relationships. Because of this, it is an attractive medium for demographics that are systematically marginalized and subordinated in existing power structures, like women, LGBTQ identified people, and persons of color. In the 21st century, radical feminist, black feminist, and islamic feminist movements have used spoken word poetry to re-conceptualize feminist politics typically associated with the 1970s second-wave feminist politics.[16]


Spoken-word poetry is often performed in a competitive setting. Also known as slam poetry, these competitions began in 1986 when Marc Smith started a poetry slam in Chicago.[2]

In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco, California.[2] It is now held each year in different cities across the United States. It is the largest poetry slam competition event in the world.[17]

Other more popular poetry reading competitions include the Sunken Garden Readings in Connecticut[18] and the Dodge Festival in New Jersey which brings in over 10,000 people from around the country and globe.[18]

See also


  1. ^ "GREEK LYRIC" Retrieved 16-08-2014
  2. ^ a b c Glazner, Gary Mex. Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. San Francisco: Manic D, 2000.
  3. ^ Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe (2007), Words in Your Face: a guided tour through twenty years of the New York City poetry slam. New York: Soft Skull Press. 400 pp. ISBN 1-933368-82-9
  4. ^ Neal, Mark Anthony (2003). The Songs in the Key of Black Life. A Rhythm and Blues Nation. New York: Routledge. 214 pp. ISBN 0-415-96571-3
  5. ^ "last poet fragments".
  6. ^ a b Folkways, Smithsonian. "Say It Loud". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  7. ^ Ben Sisario, "Gil Scott-Heron, Voice of Black Protest Culture, Dies at 62", New York Times, May 28, 2011.
  8. ^ Wanda Coleman biography, Poetry Foundation.
  9. ^ Hedwig Gorski website.
  10. ^ "The History of Nuyorican Poetry Slam", Verbs on Asphalt.
  11. ^ Amy Jo Nelson, "Spoken word poet Shihan inspires an awakening", Sonoma State Star, September 26, 2011.
  12. ^
  13. ^ The Poetry Lounge (2004).
  14. ^ Media Free Times
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Poetry Slam, Inc. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
  18. ^ a b Smith, Marc Kelly, and Mark Eleveld. The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-hop & the Poetry of a New Generation. Naperville, IL: Source MediaFusion, 2003.
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