Check out our pick of the fearless spoken-word artists demanding that their voices be heard
There’s a certain magic in reading a poem to yourself – in making the words come to life as they dance around your own head. But there’s something intangibly more powerful, sometimes, about hearing those poems read aloud in the voices of those who created them. Particularly when those voices are all-too-often unheard, diminished or ignored.
And no voice experiences these injustices as frequently as that of a young woman. Thankfully, artists such as Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Ashlee Haze and Arati Warrier are – quite literally – standing up and demanding their voices be heard. And with that, they shed light, compassion and insight into what it means, and how it feels, to be a young woman today.
MELISSA LOZADA-OLIVA – “LIKE TOTALLY WHATEVER”
“In case you hadn’t realised, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about.” Thus began 51-year-old Taylor Mali’s famous spoken-word diatribe against the younger generation’s manner of speaking. A diatribe that Melissa Lozada-Oliva completely and utterly tore apart in three minutes and three seconds last year. “In case you haven’t realised,” her poem begins, mirroring Mali’s own opening line, and adopting the uptalk he so mockingly feigned in his performance, “it has somehow become necessary for old white men to tell me how to speak.” Her poem beautifully skewers the policing of young women’s language in a world that tells them their words are less important. “Maybe I’m always speaking in questions,” she suggests, “because I’m so used to being cut off.”
ASHLEE HAZE – “FOR COLORED GIRLS (THE MISSY ELLIOTT POEM)”
So powerful that Blood Orange has sampled it on the opening track of his forthcoming album, Freetown Sound, Haze’s poem explains – by way of personal anecdote – why representation for young black women is so incredibly vital. She recalls her first, life-changing encounter with “the coolest thing I’d ever heard in eight years of living” – the music of Missy Elliott. “It was because of Melissa Elliott,” she explains, “that I believed that a fat, black girl from Chicago could dance until she felt pretty, could be sexy and cool, could be a woman playing a man’s game and not be apologetic about any of it.”
BLYTHE BAIRD – “WHEN THE FAT GIRL GETS SKINNY”
There’s a revolution blossoming around how society talks about fatness. A revolution that asks why we’d rather focus our critique on what should or shouldn’t be considered plus-sized, instead of asking why there’s so much shame about being plus-sized in the first place. In her unflinching piece, Blythe Baird cuts to the very heart of the shame and insecurity young women are programmed to embrace before they’re even teenagers. “By the time I was 16, I had already experienced being clinically overweight, underweight and obese,” she says. “As a child, fat was the first word people used to describe me – which didn’t offend me… until I found out it was supposed to.” In overcoming an eating disorder – one that, because she wasn’t thin to begin with, she was repeatedly, heartbreakingly congratulated on – she has finally “stopped seeking revenge on this body”.
ARATI WARRIER – “WITCH HUNT”
Tackling the difficulty that comes with negotiating queerness across generations and borders, Warrier’s poem delves into her own sexuality through the lens of British imperialism, homophobic laws in India overturned and then reinstated, and her own family’s wilful ignorance. “I am back in my parents’ house, the entire thing is a closet, I am a master of illusion,” she despairs, her voice shaky but defiant. “I can’t explain to my mother that her casual homophobia is ripping holes in all of my sweaters, and I am always shivering.”
FREEQUENCY – “THE PRINCESS POEM”
Coming in at just over one minute, FreeQuency’s poem quickly and ruthlessly unpicks the questionable messages shoved down young girl’s throats, with a spoonful of sugar, every time they watch a Disney film. Sleeping Beauty, for example, “was supposed to make me believe that I should be excited if a man sneaks into my room to kiss me while I’m asleep – like, that’s what I should consider romantic, or consenting, or future husband material.” Beauty & The Beast, meanwhile, “is about a 17-year-old being sexually harassed until she’s kidnapped and Stockholm Syndromed into bestiality.” And don’t even get her started on “that lame attempt at racial retribution they called The Princess and the Frog.” In fact, do, and hope she never stops.