I remember the first time I transformed one of my poems into a spoken word piece. It was an evolutionary moment in my life. It was the summer of 2016 and one of my friends, and fellow activist, convinced me to get on stage at an open mic and perform one of my pieces of poetry. The poem was called “T.H.U.G.” and it became my first piece of spoken word artistry. T.H.U.G. was an acronym for tremendously, heavenly, uplifting giant. The poem played with notions of Black masculinity and ideas about Blackness.
The purpose of the poem was to function as a performative counter narrative about processes of racialization, where Black people are labeled “thugs” or “dangerous,” often for simply existing and being in nonviolent movement proximity to White people, as well as in proximity to Whiteness. It problematizes the ways in which Black people are rendered inferior. The poem was one of the first political pieces that I had written that year and one of the features of my book Voices: Poems of Identity and Liberation (2017).
Like the poem, one section of the book was devoted to sociopolitical issues and activism. One objective of the book was to problematize racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, and ableism as they surface in everyday occurrences. One of the major points of contestation was the concept of Whiteness itself. In fact, the project that followed was The Day My Vision Left Me (2018), which was my second book and a collection of poems and spoken word pieces about oppression and mental health. These projects were a reflection of artvism that sought to create a discourse of liberation.
Spoken word possesses the power of marking the unmarked. For example, Whiteness can be and has been something that I have challenged in my own work. Whiteness exists as an operative descriptor of racialized privilege and power, which arguably exists as an unmarked, naturalized status. In its naturalization, it renders other identities and people as negatively extraordinary. My work contends with the oppressive power of Whiteness and white supremacy. However, again, my work and the work of other artists is not limited to challenging just racialized oppression, but other forms of inequality as well.
Given processes of othering, spoken word has worked as a method of deconstructing and resisting processes of oppression. In fact, the influence for my spoken word performance was partially peer pressure and the other a desire to release the frustration, annoyance, and anger of stereotyping and other racializing processes. I remember the sense of catharsis I felt when I performed it for the first time. The energy from the crowd encapsulated me, and I felt empowered.
Many spoken word artists have expressed the power of spoken word and poetry in providing a sense of self expression, as well as the voicing of sociopolitical and socioeconomic disparities. However, it is also a medium of public discourse that allows artists, performers, and audiences to negotiate relations of power. As a performative art in public space, it uses accessible language and rhythmic constructions to share ideologies and belief systems. It is a process of public thought. Given its performative nature, spoken word invites its audience and the artist to engage with one another. It invites the artist to open themselves to the critique and reflections of their audience and observers. Given the state of technology, these performances often become recorded renderings of public discourse, where even observers who are not in attendance have the ability to engage the piece. In this regard, the piece is no longer the property of the artist. It becomes a shared piece of public commentary, expressed through artistic performance in the public space of the internet and social media, in addition to the original location of artistry.
In the period of my early engagement in the spoken word and slam poetry scene, I collaborated and workshopped with artists, many of whom were from D.C. and New York City. During this time, the number of deaths from incidents of police brutality were at a high. The deaths of Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and other Black people were still fresh in the media. Black Lives Matter protests were increasing in major cities across the U.S. During the Fall of 2017, I was living in Albany, New York. During that season, artists began to create a Black Lives Matter artistic discourse in the Capital Region to raise awareness to issues of systemic inequality and to solidify empowering voices in a trying period.
In the winter of 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing an artivist and close friend, Mariah, as a part of my dissertation. As my project was an ethnography devoted to activism and concepts of liberation, it was natural that I talked to Mariah, as she had spent half her life devoted to art and activism. She was a slam poet, spoken word artist, and fellow published author. Her book Of Mics & Pens & Gods & Other College Courses (2017) actually inspired me to write my first book.
Mariah began writing poetry when she was a child. Recalling her family’s encouragement of her writing at the tender age of six, she said, “They would always have me making stories or writing short books even, making ‘touch-and-feel’ books.” Mariah would sell these books for fifty cents to anyone who would buy them. Hearing her tell the story of her entrepreneurial fervor at a young age reminded me of my own youthful creations. I had always made books, using only markers, staples, and construction paper.
Before this interview, I recalled my love for poetry starting in adolescence, but it had actually started at a much younger age. I would display my mini creations on the fridge or anywhere that my grandmother would allow me to hang them. I always wanted an audience to read my pieces, connect with them, and take something valuable from them. The same was true for Mariah; however, I admit that she has always been more entrepreneurial, innovative, and fearless than I could ever say I have been. However, what remains true is that, whether written or spoken, poetry has always been our medium of public art and one of our modes of enacting social justice initiatives.
Mariah argues that art and spoken word emphasizes and embodies what the late great bell hooks argued, “the personal is always political.” In fact, Mariah eloquently stated:
If your art is not reflective of the times, it’s just….For me, I have tried to write about just cute/I just want to write a flowery poem about just flowers. It’s hard to do that without these flowers being a metaphor for like White Supremacy/whatever it might be.
For Mariah, no matter how apolitical your initial thoughts are, the poetry and spoken word always becomes political. It becomes a reflection of your experience. In fact, her experiences as a young Black, queer woman growing up in the Bible Belt of the southern United States factors heavily into her work. She contributes much of her activism to her upbringing and argues that it is through her art that she feels invigorated and refreshed. Describing the performative aspects of her work, she says, “just having adrenaline pumping and being in a space where you can be free” was an essential function of performance. It became a meaningful and powerful shared moment for the audience and performer in ways that established an alliance.
Like Mariah, other spoken word artists utilized the medium as a platform for social change. In fact, some of them started non-profit organizations and collectives dedicated to artistic liberation and organizing. I had the pleasure of being a member and observer in these spaces. It was lively and empowering, providing a sense of collective support and agency. Some of these organizations also intersected with other initiatives. For example, some artivists were involved with the creation of a label that challenged misogynoir, the intersection of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia, in music. These projects and artistic platforms have created a sense of spoken word and poetry as public art and the seeds and roots of social justice movements. In fact, some pieces of spoken word are intended for engagement and discourse, such as a piece I once wrote called “Confessions of a Backwater Bastard.” The piece goes:
I’m a creatively maladjusted back water bastard child of liberation
With a tool chest that would put shame to all metal and welded weapons in your arsenal.
My destiny is written on the walls in script that couldn’t be scripted.
It is the voices of my ancestors;
The lost family forged in sacrifice from hands that tilled soil,
Telling stories of pastoral accomplishments
Embodied in the emerald quality of these calcium-filled bones
And muscles that moved beyond time.
These spirits sacrificed so I can stand before you as a warrior ready to do his duty.
A vessel called to action by his sisters who stood taller than their brothers
Setting pride aside and calling for the revolution
With skill so precise and actions so swift that they put shame to all that rested idly by.
I’m afraid I’ve failed them,
For I sometimes hesitate before springing to duty;
Doing very miniscule tasks for pieces of affirmation
As I find it hard to let go of masculine indoctrination.
But no more…
We were never meant to survive;
Going one on one with genocide
Generating lambs for the slaughter
Without the proper paperwork and praxis to change our situation;
So sadly I remained defeated in the soil
Malnourished and forced to feast on my own flesh and blood.
No more cannibalism…
I no longer have the time to feel sorry for myself.
Change is charted in sorcery
For it takes a special type of magic to transform nothing into something spectacular.
Winter is coming and with it war
Waged on a battlefield with no temporal limitations.
For King’s declarations of 1967 ring loud
As the rage of the Negroes of 2017
Has put the fear of God into the conservative composers of disaster
Following fifty years of marination on the backs of two hundred years of ancestral bloodlust
Formed from turning checks to long.
I am filled with rage and sometimes violence.
Sometimes so depressed that I dig into my chest with my fingernails in attempts to rip out my heart;
So I cannot feel the impact of fallen warriors hitting pavement, breathless;
Or hear the cracks of skulls hitting the hoods of patrol cars;
Or taste salty tears as women of action are called into court to be massacred for being brave enough to tell their truths.
The whole world is a bus.
A bust for which it is questionable to waste time
When it is evident that justice is never served;
Just moments to justify the injustice of not bringing the hammer down on the corruption of a system that tells lies under the name of justice.
We are tired of being swatted and spanked like disobedient children
When obedience is adjustment and comfort in a set of structures,
Built under the direction of tyrants,
That control the switches to detonate the end of everything.
I confess that there are many of us that play our part in the game.
But it’s time to own up and do something strange.
For all those clenching onto corrupt power,
I hope you had your fun.
For the game-masters have decided….
I wrote this poem as a reflection on the state of Black activism and liberation in the age of Trump and the ending of the Obama administration. The poem critiques some of the hypocrisy and issues with the country and activism. The piece was intended as a piece of public art that allowed us to critique and discuss the state of the country and activism and social change. It stands as a representation of voicing, speaking words to power, and allowing those words to be publicly engaged transformed, and rearticulated in order to change, impact, and engage public culture.
Barber, Mariah C. 2017. Of Mics & Pens & Gods & Other College Courses. CreateSpace Publishing
Lee, Ramon K. 2017. Voices: Poems of Identity and Liberation. CreateSpace Publishing, Inc.
Lee, Ramon K. 2018. The Day My Vision Left Me. CreateSpace Publishing, Inc.