At school, I would always dread the poetry modules in English, trying to decipher meaning from stale texts and reading out my pained interpretation to a class half-asleep. It was only when I found Tupac’s book The Rose That Grew From Concrete behind an ex-boyfriend’s decks and discovered the words of Gil Scott-Heron that I fell in love with poetry. Specifically, spoken word.
Put simply, spoken word is poetry that has been written with the intention of being performed, but it exists in a variety of styles and can involve other art forms such as music, theatre and dance. Introduced by the American Beat poets of the 1940s and '50s, a group of authors in New York who started using their work to explore and influence the culture of the time, the medium entered the wider American consciousness in 1971 with the release of Scott-Heron's spoken word poem, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". It arrived in the UK shortly after with punk poets like John Cooper Clarke and British-Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Spoken word is often used to talk publicly about societal issues. There has been a growing trend of music artists in the last few years using the words of poets to strengthen their voices and message – most notably young poet Warsan Shire on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, and Ashlee Haze’s "For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)". In the latter, Haze speaks about being inspired by Elliott’s fierce and uncompromising image, and finding solace in her strength of character and her dancing. The poem was beautifully sampled by Blood Orange on Freetown Sound and Missy herself even reached out to Haze after hearing it, paying her a surprise house visit in January last year.
Spoken word has become a powerful way for artists to depict an everyday kind of magic, reaffirming the role of culture in helping us imagine who we might become. Ahead are 10 poems about love, colour, education, class and society, by artists big and small. I hope you enjoy them!
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