Spoken Word: A Platform for the Oppressed


Spoken Word: A Platform for the Oppressed

Three individuals stood at the bar bouncing ideas off one another before the poetry slam began. Race. Sexuality. Religion. Love. Loss. Among them was the emcee for the night— a tall, young black man, over six feet tall, with a long, full beard and a yellow sweater. He talked jokingly with one of the poets—also a young man, though much shorter, with glasses, and a black, velvet yarmulke. And next to them stood another performer—a young female, Chauvet Bishop, with thick, curly hair, who later identified herself as a multi-racial lesbian.


Chauvet Bishop (center) and Jive Poetic (right)

Just like any other night at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village, on this particular open-mic night in late April, difference was apparent; but all judgments, all reservations were left at the door. The night’s emcee, Jive Poetic, took the stage and introduced the evening’s poets.

Just an hour before that, the café also hosted All Out Arts’ Fresh Fruits Festival—New York’s Celebration of the LGBTQ Arts & Culture. Slam poetry, or spoken word, is a type of poetry through which a poet can express a personal story or struggle. The poems are emotional, powerful and moving; they incorporate not just voice, but movement as well.

With emotion at its core, slam poetry has become a platform for those who feel otherwise voiceless. “Art is for the oppressed,” Bishop said. “We have so much that we feel we can’t say, that we can’t get out; and the more oppressed you are, the more artistic you are. Because it’s either you make art, you laugh, you love or you die…that’s it. So this is just the way that we live, this is the only way that we can live happily; how many places can we be free, can we be ourselves, can we be applauded for being that?”

In 1987, the first slam poetry venue sprouted in Chicago; the Green Mill Tavern was founded by Marc Smith. Prior to the Tavern, Smith had started an open-mic night at the Get Me High lounge in Chicago in 1984. Dubbed founding father of the slam poetry movement, Smith’s nickname is “Slam Papi.” In an article from The Huffington Post from Dec. 2013, slam poetry is “considered an outlet for the socially and economically ‘oppressed’ – people of color, poor people, youth, etc. – spoken word poetry is a mixture of performance and activism and poets bring to light the socio-determinants that often affect the health of a people.” The origination of slam poetry, or spoken word, was greatly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, blues music, and The Last Poets—a groups of poets and musicians who arose during the civil rights’ movement in the late 1960’s.

Today, spoken word continues to grow, connect people from all over the world, and shed light on many controversial topics, including race and sexuality; matters surrounding the LGBTQ community are especially prevalent in slam poetry. Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, said that within the last five years, the café, and slam poetry in general, has seen an increase in the number of LGBTQ poets.

“Poetry slam at the café has always been a forum, a stage, and an arena that celebrates diversity of opinion, of lifestyle, of ethnicity, of interest,” he said. “I think we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of poets who feel comfortable, and in some cases feel driven to, bring to the stage work that addresses LGBTQ themes and LGBTQ subject matter. And audiences always, here at the café at least, seem responsive to that material.”

Bishop, who said she moved from North Carolina to New York City to escape the oppression of being a multi-racial, gay woman in the South, performed on stage first. She performed a powerful poem about her struggle with eating disorders.

“I’m a rape survivor; I’m somebody who dealt with an eating disorder; I’m somebody who deals with body issues; I’m somebody who’s oppressed as a woman, who’s oppressed as a lesbian, and so just me speaking, is people hearing my voice,” she said in an interview.

Oscar Melendez, 19, from Brooklyn, came to the Nuyorican Poets Café to watch and listen with his friend. Melendez, who is gay, said he has always loved poetry, and that spoken word is just another way of expressing ones true self.

“I like this type of scenery because in here it’s not judgmental, it’s just about the spoken word; it’s not about who is here, how you dress or anything like that,” he said. “There’s no judgment…. Here there are no boundaries, outside there are boundaries.”

All Out Arts’ Fresh Fruits Festival’s Artistic Director, Liz Thaler, said that visibility is the key to fighting homophobia. “The arts is one of the best ways to show people other experiences…your life would be so much less rich,” she said. “And because LGBT people are themselves so diverse, we have so much to learn from each other. So showing these stories, giving people a platform, where there’s no fear, that’s a really important step to bringing acceptance and actual harmony to the arts and beyond.”

Shira Erlichman, an Israeli born songwriter, producer, visual artist, and poet, who now lives in Brooklyn and identifies as queer, said that the LGBTQ community is helping society to become more compassionate and honest. “It is a human need to connect and be seen; slam provides an immediate platform for personal narrative and political opinion,” she said. “If slam is truly reflective of the people, it would have to show the hearts and minds of the LGBTQ community. Slam, at its best, is a space where people can brave themselves open, share their ‘truthiest’ truths, and invent wildernesses for us to walk through.”

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The Power of Nursing: Diana’s Story

For an audio project in one of my journalism classes, I created a podcast. It had to go along with the theme of “power.” Listen below.


Diana Siegel (Photo credit: Diana Siegel)

Diana Siegel, a 2014 graduate of Binghamton University, began her career as a nurse just eight months ago. Diana works the night shift, 7 p.m to 7 a.m., at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. The difficulties that nurses face everyday, and the strengths that they possess to care for the sickest of the sick, are overwhelmingly under acknowledged and under appreciated. Diana shares her story as a new nurse in one of the most difficult rooms of a hospital, the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

The Glory of Selma

In 1965, when 600 marchers crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to fight for uncontested voting rights for black individuals, they were met by the fists and whips of white men; many black marchers were left on the bridge to die.

In 2015, just 50 years later, in the comfort of their theatre seats, moviegoers got to witness what happened on that bridge in the Oscar-nominated film for best picture, Selma.

Directed by black filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, moviegoers saw the fight, heard the cries, and felt the pain black people had to endure for their equality and freedom.

In one of the most powerful films to date, Selma shows the struggle that tormented black people in the south.

Beginning with the racially-motivated murder of four young girls at church, the stage is set for Martin Luther King Jr. (Mr. David Oyelowo) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight peacefully against white oppressors in the south.

Alongside King is his smart and beautiful wife, Coretta, played by actress Carmen Ejogo, who, only very briefly, yields in her support of her husband.

DuVernay’s decision not to omit King’s infidelity suspicions is distinct: King, like anyone else, is human.

Throughout the movie, the number of those walking alongside King grows, including those of different races and religions.

At one point, we even see the very vicious murder of a white priest from Boston, who had traveled to Selma in support of King and the SCLC. And we see the heartless killing of one young black boy, Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Though shot by local officers, at Jimmie Lee’s funeral, King addresses the community by admitting that every bystander’s finger was on that trigger, too—black or white, rich or poor.

Throughout Selma, each word King utters is powerful in its genuineness; and at some points, DuVernay interjects real footage from Selma in 1965—a chilling effect.

Like any good film, Selma has raised some eyebrows about the accuracy of its story line, particularly surrounding the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Many point out that the movie portrays the relationship between LBJ and MLK to be overly contentious; when in reality, LBJ was a key proponent during the Civil Rights movement, who never wavered in his support of King.

The film has been criticized for that reason.

And many critics say that that’s the justification for why The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) failed to nominate both Ms. DuVernay, for best director, and Mr. David Oyelowo, who played MLK, for best male actor.

A film about the brilliancy of one of America’s greatest leaders is allowed to blur the lines of some historical accuracy.

The film is about Martin Luther King Jr., about his goals, his losses and his triumphs; it’s not about the 36th president of the United States.

Had the Academy not snubbed Ms. DuVernay, she would have been the first black woman to be nominated for best director in the Academy’s 87 years.

And no black director has ever won the Oscar in its 87 years.

Though it may not have been deliberate, the Academy’s failure to nominate both Ms. DuVernay and Mr. Oyelowo for Selma brings up a much larger issue: the lacking number of awards for people of color.

With an overwhelming majority of the Academy’s voters being elder white men, it’s no surprise that Mr. Oyelowo was snubbed as well.

Embodying King in mind and body, spirit, and passion, Mr. Oyelowo deserved that nomination.

Coming out during a time when the equality of black lives in our country is being tested, Selma reminds us that a leader, like King, is needed more than ever.

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Jones’ switch to Genius is not

Sasha Frere-Jones’ move from The New Yorker to Genius is actually quite the opposite. That is, not genius, but nonsensical.

Last week, Jones publicly announced his decision to leave the well-respected, highly acclaimed, and beloved American magazine to become the executive editor of a company that will rewrite hip-hop lyrics in colloquial terms.

The company, Genius, was founded in 2009 by three Yale graduates with the collective idea of explaining hip-hop, or rap lyrics to the common person.

Astonishingly, Genius, originally known as Rap Genius, was able to fund $56.8 million in its first five years of business.

Its founders, and other executive team members, say that they’re confident the company will still be profitable in the next five years, unlike print and conventional journalism, which is apparently dying.

According to The Times, in the article that broke the news, Genius will expand to commenting on restaurant menus as well. And Shakespeare.

Genius founders told The Times, “The site will continue to hire people with expertise in particular subject areas, aiming to bring in more users from online communities obsessed with particular topics.”

On its website, Genius says, “have you ever been confused by a song’s lyrics? Had trouble understanding a line from Shakespeare or the Bible? Struggled to finish a boring article that seems important? With genius you never have to worry about this- or anything else- ever again.”

Think Sparknotes, but for music, and menus, and the Bible.

In an interview with The Times, Jones said that his work for Genius will involve the lyrics side of things, as well as working to evolve the company’s team.

Though the site is monitored by editors, anyone can comment; Genius prides itself on that.

It says on its website, “There is no single genius who writes all the annotations—anyone can contribute. Genius is powered by the community, and that’s what makes it special.”

Job security or not, Genius is not the platform for veteran critic, Sasha Frere-Jones.

Jones’ 11-year career as a staff writer for The New Yorker is ending all too soon; some of his past work includes reviews on Neil Diamond, Mariah Carey, Bon Iver and Prince, as well as Lil Wayne and Wu-Tang Clan.

In 2007, Jones published a piece in The New Yorker,A Paler Shade of White,” which pushed mainstream journalism’s comfort zone for racial discourse; it discussed the transforming role of race in contemporary music, like indie rock and hip-hop over the last twenty years.

Jones’ fearlessness, and his love and appreciation for music, which was revealed through his brilliant prose, will be sorely missed in The New Yorker.

His work for Genius just won’t do his talent justice.

Unpacking Gardasil’s Controversy

In my final piece for my health and science writing course, I discuss the controversy over the HPV vaccine. 

Unpacking Gardasil’s Controversy 

By Julianne Cuba

In a commercial that first aired over eight years ago, young women proudly stated that they were “one less.” By getting vaccinated, they said, you could be one less, too. Those notorious commercials seem to have run their course; but the idea those young women were advocating– Gardasil– is still prevalent, and no less controversial, today.

But not all women were entranced and coerced by the commercials to go out and get vaccinated; many, like 22-year-old Kaitlyn Eng, were turned off by the vaccine’s heavy commercialization.

“My pediatrician recommended it before I started having sex,” Eng said. “I was about 14 years old, and seeing the commercials kind of pushed me away from it. I questioned whether it was really for health reasons, or just a money maker.”

Over the past few years, controversy over the vaccine, Gardasil, has flourished: Is it safe? Will it lead to Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis, other severe adverse reactions, or even death?

Despite consensus from the scientific community that Gardasil is safe and effective, women’s health advocates and consumers still question its necessity.

Gardasil, a drug created by Merck Co., is a vaccine to protect against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and nearly one in two people, both men and women, will get at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime. The CDC says that by age 50, nearly 80 percent of women will have had an HPV infection.

It is estimated that there are 14 million new cases of HPV in the United States each year, and currently, approximately 79 million people are living with an HPV infection in the United States.

HPV has over 100 different strains of infection; but there are four, which are known to be the most dangerous. Two of the strains—16 and 18— lead to about 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases, and the other two—6 and 11—lead to about 90 percent of all cases of genital warts in males and females.

The likelihood of cervical cancer, however, is far less common— .7 percent of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime, and .2 percent of those cases will result in death. But, it is impossible to detect which strain of HPV one has.

Because of the confirmed association between HPV and cervical cancer, and the increasingly high numbers of HPV, nearly eight years ago, in 2006, the CDC recommended Gardasil for girls age nine to 26.

Less than five months after the FDA approved Merck’s Gardasil, in early June 2006, television programs began airing those “one less” commercials, with the hopes of getting girls vaccinated.

In the most recent study from 2013 from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, only 38 percent of girls will complete the three recommended doses of Gardasil, while only 14 percent of boys will—who also began getting vaccinated in 2011. For a vaccine—and right now, the only vaccine—that was created to prevent cancer, the statistics of those getting vaccinated do little to show its communal acceptance. From where does the dichotomy between doctors and patients originate?

Unlike Eng, 23-year-old Ashley Herrera’s then-pediatrician, urged her, as a child, not to get the vaccine because of its new status. But just two years ago, Herrera made the decision, with the help of her gynecologist, to get Gardasil after a routine Pap smear came back with abnormal test results.

“My doctor recommended that I get it to protect myself,” Herrera said. “You can’t identify which strain an individual has, and you can be infected by more than one strain.”

Though stated on the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ website that the Gardasil shot causes no more pain than any other shot, Herrera said her experience was a painful one.

“First it felt like a truck went over my arm,” Herrera said. “I could actually feel the vaccine going into my body. I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

As a Master’s of Public Health candidate at Stony Brook University, Herrera says she sees things from two different perspectives—that of a public health advocate, and as a patient.

“The reason that people are hesitant to get it is because it’s something that involves sexual activity,” Herrera said. “Parents may think that their child doesn’t need it because they’re not sexually active, but you need to be protected before you become sexually active.”

As a public health student, Herrera said that she sees the benefits in requiring vaccination, but as a patient, she said, she still believes in the freedom of choice.

In the argument over whether or not to require the Gardasil vaccine, the state of Virginia has already decided. In Virginia, Gardasil is required for all girls entering the sixth grade. The notion supporting required vaccinations is to make Gardasil a “herd vaccine,” meaning the infection could become completely eliminated if every person were to get vaccinated. Back in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, herd vaccination was used for smallpox, until it was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980.

Dr. Mark Einstein, Gynecologic Oncologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine said, “with any sort of vaccine program, something as communicable as HPV, like small pox, if you are able to achieve herd vaccination, like small pox, you can potentially eradicate HPV.”

But smallpox is certainly not like HPV—one is a highly transmittable airborne infection; and the other, is a sexually transmitted infection that can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse. Unlike with smallpox, one’s presence—with an HPV infection—in a room, does not put others at risk.

Nonetheless, herd vaccinations were started in Australia—where Gardasil was first made—and U.S. doctors and scientists are now analyzing their results, contemplating herd vaccination here.

“We’ve seen glimpse of herd vaccination in Australia, where they had a very active vaccine program early on,” Dr. Einstein said. “And we’ve seen a 93% sharp decline in new genital warts in Australian women. We’ve hit a coalmine; warts have a much shorter timeline. In a very well vaccinated population, we’re already seeing results.”

The problem with Australia’s results, and with Dr. Einstein’s confidence in Gardasil’s protection against cervical cancer, is that because genital warts have a much shorter timeline, responses to the vaccine for warts, and warts alone, are clear—but not for cervical cancer. From just the results seen in Australia, it’s not certain that Gardasil will offer the same protection against the two cancer-causing strains of HPV.

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