In honour of World Poetry Day, here are five budding spoken word artists speaking out for today's generation
From the post-war beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg to musicians like Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron, the last 100 years have seen young people expressing their politics through poetry. All of these poets were products of turbulent political times, and today’s are no different. We’re living through a period of extreme political and societal change, and with issues of sexuality, gender, race, and class all in flux, we’re once again seeing a flowering of young voices using poetry to speak out.
Poets have always found different ways of expressing themselves, and while some poems are undoubtedly best absorbed in solitude and silence, the electrifying atmosphere that comes from live performance is incomparable. Recently we’ve seen a far more dynamic, artistic and often musical style of performance poetry, or spoken word, emerging. James Massiah and GREEdS float in the space between traditional music and poetry, while the success of artists like Kate Tempest and King Krule has brought a new critical and commercial legitimacy to spoken word. It’s exciting to see how these artists have paved the way for people across the world to use poetry to talk publicly about issues that need to be addressed.
“Because we live in times that are so mental, we can’t tell a story without it feeling political. Obviously, everything is fucking crazy”, Tempest told the Guardian in 2014. People from every walk of life are stepping forwards and making their voices heard. The personal has now become political, and spoken word is the place where internal and external collide. In honour of World Poetry Day today, we’ve put together a guide to some of the brilliant up-and-coming spoken word poets you need to know.
Hackney-born Solomon O.B won this year’s Hammer and Tongue, a UK-wide national poetry slam. His performance style is a blend of hip hop and poetry, combining a gentleness and easygoing character with sudden switches of tempo and attitude. O.B’s words stay smart and tackle difficult problems, with issues of race, cultural appropriation, mental health struggles and growing up in foster care are all addressed in his performances. But while the topics of his poems are pretty dark and serious, he still manages to laugh at himself and bring a lightness to his verses.
Originally from Bangalore and now living and studying in Pennsylvania, Sanam Sheriff stands out even in the diverse world of spoken word. Winner of the Philadelphia All Def Poetry Slam (whose YouTube channel is a trove of amazing spoken word videos), Sheriff gives voice to issues not always put centre stage in spoken word. With her soft, lilting accent, Sheriff addresses issues of body image, womanhood, and race; it’s a very therapeutic type of poetry, and comes from a need to deal with everyday struggles through externalising them. With lines like “How could you believe less of you / Somehow meant more?”, Sheriff’s work resonates with a generation of young people constantly bombarded with unrealistic body images.
Minnesota-born Danez Smith is another poet who has gained some acclaim already and is carving a career out in the world of both written and performance poetry. Smith is blunt and to the point but his poems are interspersed with humour and sassy outbursts. As a gay black man living in America, Smith’s performances address difficult issues pertaining to the politics of the body, with queer rights and racism in America being two topics that he speaks on eloquently in his work. Unlike a lot of US performance poetry, Smith steps away from the hip hop influences that sometimes characterises spoken word, with verses that are more reminiscent, if anything, of gospel.
Jay Hulme was one of the SLAMBassadors UK winners in 2015. Hailing from Leicestershire, Hulme talks about a range of topics, from life in the Midlands to his first week experiences at university. Hulme’s poem I am a man is a personal address as a transgender man to the problems that transgender people come up against every day. Ranging from pronoun mix-ups to death threats, Hulme’s frank spoken word performance, which is both touching and educational, is refreshing. Hulme shows just how important spoken word is to the new generation of people using the genre to address personal issues and share them with a wider audience.
Emtithal Mahmoud is 2015’s Individual World Poetry Slam Championship reigning champion. Born in the Darfur region of the Sudan, Mahmoud’s poems take on a sombre quality. She mixes a slow, measured pace with an overspill of words that seemingly can’t be held back. Her stage presence is magnificent, too: there’s a certain stillness to her that sees her stand apart from more frenetic spoken word performers. Lines like “Flesh was never meant to dance with silver bullets” (referring to the ongoing conflict in Darfur) sear themselves onto your brain. Like all of these spoken word artists, Mahmoud’s poems have a therapeutic character to them. Her experiences are ones that are difficult to talk about, and those experiences of war and loss have seen Mahmoud produce poetry with a depth of feeling and emotion.