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.
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.”