Spoken word and slam poetry: you might not know much about it now, but what if I told you that thanks to video sharing sites like YouTube, these are mediums of self expression that are cultivating progressive voices.
Groups like Button Poetry, Speak Easy NYC and Project V.O.I.C.E., to name just a few, are enabling young and old to lift their voices and create a chorus of strong, often progressive, voices who are making powerful statements on racial prejudice, feminism, gay rights, body image, on love, on empowering our youth and so much more.
Here is just a small list of powerful spoken verse performances from the last few years. This is by no means a definitive list of poetry performances: there’s so much more to explore and so many more voices to hear, but these — in no particular order — are ones that spoke to me personally with messages I sincerely felt needed sharing. Please be advised there is strong language in the following videos, in every sense of the word.
On Sexual Orientation
1. Denise Frohman – “Dear Straight People”
This video is poised to go viral, and for good reason. It tells in a licorice whip of a voice the complex relationship lesbians and bisexual women have with straight men and straight women. Articulating the experience of many, this poem is worth engaging with even if you don’t agree with everything it contains:
2. Janani – “Trans/National”
What it means to be a man of color is given new meaning here:
On Women’s Rights
3. Lauren Zuniga – “Personhood”
Zuniga, in a blowtorch of a voice, argues that legislating personhood is a very good idea. Here’s why:
4. Kait Rokowski – “How to Cure a Feminist”
A sheer switchblade of a poem that detonates down the spine with successive hits, Kait Rokowski manages to touch on a very particular strain of anti-feminist behavior and articulate it with a disarming candor:
5. Sarah Kay – “The Type”
Mention spoken verse poetry and sooner or later you are likely to hear the name Sarah Kay, and for good reason. While all of her poems are wonderful, this particular piece has a message for young girls that cuts through empowering slogans and delivers a call to self-worth and self-value that deserves to be heard:
On Body Acceptance
6. Rachel Wiley – “10 Honest Thoughts on Being Loved by a Skinny Boy”
There are some poems that explode and some poems that call you in as they whisper. This beautiful piece does both and then soars as it explores the effects of fat shaming, of beauty and what love really means:
7. Mike Rosen – “When God Happens”
Rosen’s controlled storm of delivery makes every poem he performs not just powerful but a few minutes out of time. The following poem about 9/11 and the subsequent wars is particularly relevant as we approach the anniversary of that day:
On Race and Racism
8. Nicole Homer – “Things Only a Black Mother Can Prepare You For”
We often hear the message that we live in a post-racial society. This is absolute nonsense, a violent lie, and Nicole Homer explains it so very well here:
9. T. Miller – “Us – Black Women”
T. Miller’s poetry is not punchy but pounding, and this poem bangs on the door of comments made in recent years surrounding the Rihanna/Chris Brown assault case and how some in the media and on the street were all too willing to victim blame:
10. Franny Choi – “POP!goesKOREA!”
Franny Choi is a particular favorite of mine, her poetry often like spinning, shimmering plates that she brings to crash with deafening effect. This poem in particular speaks to our wider cultural practice of fashioning entertainment stars and treating them as disposable playthings:
11. Hieu Minh Nguyen – “Buffet Etiquette”
A poem of power about slowly being stripped of your heritage, your history and your voice under the pressure of assimilation:
12. Rachel Rostad – “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang”
You may have seen this poem already as it made headlines earlier in the year, but this piece is as challenging as it is well performed and deserves to be repeated:
13. Jared Singer – “A Letter to Sarah”
Youth suicide has been a topic of particular urgency over the past few years. Jared Singer tells us what it is like to be the one who is left behind:
14. Taylor Mali – “What Teachers Make”
I could not create this list without recognizing that spoken verse poetry started decades ago, and that slam and performance poetry is not by any means a new thing. As such, I encourage you to to look back at the records on YouTube of so many poets (especially those of color) who deliver poems of both historical worth and of timeless value.
However, when thinking of one poem I could choose from past generations I opted for the following albeit relatively recent performance for its masterful deconstructing of the infuriatingly asinine quip “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” because, with political attacks on teachers seemingly in fashion, this still strongly resonates:
15. Sam Cook – “God in Code”
On the poets Rumi, Tupac, the religious figure Jesus Christ and the subject of whitewashing, this final performance in our list really needs no other introduction:
I am certain this list leaves out a great many who should have their work recognized, who deserve to have their videos watched and their messages heard, so please contribute your own favorites in the comments below, and I sincerely hope you enjoyed these performances as much as I have.
Image credit: Thinkstock.