Spoken word culture fosters freedom of expression


Spoken word, in the simplest sense, is an oral performance of poetry: an art of wordplay that can also take the form of hip-hop, comedy bits or monologs. Spoken word has transitioned from “reciting” to performing in an act of self-articulation that created a culture of its own. The root of its beat, rhythm, slam and its lyrical intonation has made spoken word more popular now than ever.

Poetry slams, or spoken word competitions, began in Chicago in the 80s and transformed into a world of competition and sharing. The community of poets and artists that stand center stage and expose themselves in front of blurry crowds, not only expanded from clubs and lounges but has impacted youth and university culture around the globe.

The initial goal of the first poetry slam was to move recitation from academia to a more popular and personal audience. Slam competitions and judging scales became part of the process, and eventually, teams and individuals entered competitions for grand slam titles — but with the ultimate goal to share their works with an audience. Though poets write poetry for themselves, spoken word loses the power of its authentic form without an audience.

It is the listeners who absorb the voices of performers, who carry the words with them and who act as added support for the reader. The listener is a liaison between the performer and the world. After all, if no one was there to hear it, were the words ever really spoken?

With that, the audience helps create the culture that poetry adds color to, spreading it and uniting as a community to build the world in which spoken word exists and thrives. Most intimate open mic spaces — with snapping, cheering and support — feels like being a room of close friends. Spoken word creates an environment that is the smallest form of giving time, and yet large step toward the practice of respectfully listening to people and their ideas about heavy and relevant topics.

After being asked about the importance of spoken word in culture and on campus, Marwa Adina — co-creator of nonprofit literary magazine Re-literate and freelance writer for Muslim Girl — said she agreed that spoken word poetry “allows for the practice of listening to one another rather than speaking over or for one another. Yes, we can rally and protest, but what are you changing if you aren’t willing to give someone their time to share a story or poem?”

At the basis of its form, spoken word already creates a culture worth being in, one where people can speak and be listened to — where speaking is art.

Writers use spoken word to expose and address important and relevant topics, such as issues in media, which allows slam poetry and spoken word settings to exist with a valid role in today’s culture and the culture within Rutgers’ campus. 

The culture of performing is uncensored and nothing is off limits. And as Adina said, Spoken word culture exists as a platform for individuals to speak as freely as possible. 

Topics about trauma, politics, ethnicity and background, rape, sexism, music, love and mental illness, all have a chance to be heard when it comes to open mic and competitive spaces. 

The platform of spoken word events is “not like one of those programs you attend where they 'speak for the voiceless,'" Adina, also a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said. "Really, us oppressed people have voices. Spoken word events (like Verbal Mayhem) simply give us the platform and mic to have our voice heard." 

It is the lack of censorship that keeps the art form thriving. And for some people, this kind of platform isn’t offered anywhere else. The ability to express and be listened to not only helps people but also puts topics into discussion. On a college campus, this openness is especially vital because people are struggling with similar issues that no one is talking about. Having the platform to create a community with peers and youth raises braver, more vocal generations, but also young communities of people respecting and supporting each other.

The rawness and endless possibilities within transferring poetry into an oral art form presents spoken word as a new art form in its own category. It's rhythm, process of pronunciation and pausing and long onomatopoeias collectively make writing slam poetry different from writing a paper. It acts most importantly as a form of expression and a way of release for writers and students. For some, it is the only form of communication and the most comforting way of self-expression.

Spoken word communities are safe spaces for readers to feel heard and understood, which is why their role on university campuses build students up by letting them breathe out in word form. Rutgers' spoken word communities are thriving, from Hidden Grounds open mics and The Huntington Poetry Club to the famous Verbal Mayhem. Spoken word has a culture of its own that the culture of the world around it should act to emulate, through listening, sharing, bridging, releasing, finding the beauty in ugly topics and the ugly in beautiful conceptions, spoken word is raw and honest truth ready to expose and unify. 

It is a culture worth embracing, and as Adina said, “all ideas start on paper."


Chelsea Lebron

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