Poetry as a Cultural Weapon: Black Poets and the Power of Spoken Word

Picture of Linton Kwesi Johnson, by Peter Verwimp.

by Ona Ojo.

‘I began to write verse, not only because I liked it, but because it was a way of expressing the anger, the passion of the youth of my generation.’ – Linton Kwesi Johnson

You’ve stumbled across spoken word before. You may have watched a few viral performances, from HBO’s Def Poetry or on the Button Poetry and Youth Speaks channels on Youtube. Or you listened to Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ in school when studying Black Power movements. Or maybe, the only spoken word you’ve seen or enjoyed is Jonah Hill’s touching tribute ‘Cynthia is Dead’ from 22 Jump Street. Spoken word, specifically slam poetry, is often criticized as simplistic or lacking merit, but for decades, it has been a powerful tool of expression and activism in the Black community.

Spoken word is a broad term for poetry made to be performed aloud. The literature is often characterized by its repetition and wordplay with a focus on phonaesthetics, and its performance experiments with other art forms, like music or dance. Developed in the early 20th century, modern spoken word has remained a popular medium for conveying the personal and the political in an often brief but stirring way.

Though many cultures have oral literature traditions, modern spoken word and performance poetry can be traced back to the early to mid-1900s, originating from the Harlem Renaissance and the Beat Movement in America. The Beat Movement, the group founded by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Boroughs in the 1950s, was a counterculture literary movement in the US centred on liberation, free speech and spiritualism. The Beat poets, known for their non-conformity to previous literary norms and disregard for grammar, often held poetry readings, mixing lyrical prose with musical rhythms. The Harlem Renaissance remains a major influence in Black art today, in spoken word, other poetry and hip-hop and rap music. In the 1920s, Harlem became a hub for poetry, jazz and blues music spotlighting African-American culture, from which great poets and authors like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston emerged. The Black Arts Movement, described as the ‘spiritual sister of Black Power’ and successor to the Harlem Renaissance, also popularized spoken word. These poets were known across Harlem for their Black-centred poetry performances accompanied by musicians. And as spoken word’s popularity grew, different subsections began to emerge across the world.

Slam poetry, arguably the most well-known subsection of spoken word, developed in the 1980s. The poetry slam was launched by Chicago poet Marc Smith, who still hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam today. Opposed to the rigidity of poetry scenes around him, Smith challenged the poets in his slams to focus on the performance, as opposed to recitation. The idea caught fire and spread through art scenes across the world. For example, Milk Poetry in Bristol holds a slam monthly (or more often) and offers a development programme to nurture new poets.

Another subsection, dub poetry, originated in Jamaica in the 1970s and spread quickly to the UK and other countries with large Caribbean populations. Dub poetry was made popular by Jamaican poets Linton Kwesi Johnson (or LKJ), who coined the term and helped it catch on in London, and Oku Onuora, who is known as the ‘father of dub poetry.’ Dub, known for its musicality and use of Jamaican patois, is often backed by reggae rhythms written specifically for the poem’s performance. Through dub, West Indian poets were able to both comment on the Black experience and connect with other Black cultures across the Diaspora. LKJ’s ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’ explores racial oppression and the struggle to integrate into British life, a too common experience among the Windrush generation. Onuora fought against post-colonial oppression beginning in his youth, engaging in violent demonstrations and eventually receiving a prison sentence. His poetry, a continuation of his protests, actually began in prison and was almost banned for its perceived subversiveness. Despite this, his poetry book was published and widely praised, the positive response inspiring his name change. Born Orlando Wong, Oku Onuora chose his name from the Igbo Nigerian language, Oku meaning ‘everlasting fire’ and Onuora meaning ‘voice of the people.’

These Black spoken word movements have lasting influences on reggae, rap and hip-hop music today. Many artists blur the line between spoken word and music, sampling or riffing off of famous poetry performances on their tracks (see: Anderson .Paak’s ‘6 Summers,’ in which ‘the revolution will not be televised. But it will be streamed live’). Part of what makes spoken word so enduring as a form of literature is this flexibility- always shifting between prose, poetry, and music, spoken word remains as relevant and impactful today as in the Harlem Renaissance.

In a recent Guardian interview, LKJ recalls that when he began writing, poetry was a cultural weapon in the Black liberation struggle. And since then, Black poets have continued to use spoken word as a form of activism, to express the most personal facets of their lives- both pains and triumphs- and more importantly, to connect with other Black people. At its core, spoken word is written to speak directly to you, whether you’re an activist, an artist, an ally, or on your way to becoming any of the three. This Black History Month, and every day frankly, I remember that the Black liberation struggle continues, but thankfully, so does the word.

Some more spoken word to check out:

‘Heirloom’ by Vanessa Kisuule.

‘Check the Label’ by Eno Mfon.

‘Hide Your Shea Butter’ by Crystal Valentine and Aaliyah Jihad.

Dark Noise Collective. @teamdarknoise on Instagram.

Apples and Snakes.