The Art of Spoken Word

When we think of “Spoken word performance”, we often think of dusty brew houses, beret-adorned hipsters reciting their supposedly “Avant-Garde” poetry. On the surface, it can seem like an art form long dead.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, spoken word performance is thriving. Though it might be hard to recognize it as such: Spoken word lives on in perhaps one of the most popular genres to date: Rap music. Now, i’m not really a fan of Rap/Hip-Hop myself, but I have composed and studied various forms of poetry, rhyme, etc for years. Before I get too far ahead of myself, it’s a decent idea to ask: What is spoken word performance defined as, anyhow? It’s essentially any work of poetry that is specifically made to be recited aloud or performed as opposed to read. The line between typical “Musical style” performance and spoken word lies in the fact that traditional music vocals tend to center themselves around creating a melody, a sound pleasant to the ear. It is a performance that puts your needs first. Spoken Word, quite frankly, doesn’t give a damn.

Bonus points if you get the reference

Spoken word oftentimes had no accompanying music, and if it did, the music was centered around the words, not the other way around. And most Rap music tracks are written like that. In fact, “Freestyling” typically involves no accompanying music, possibly excepting a percussion beat to help keep the Emcee in rhythm.

I have, thus far spoken about Rap as a nebulous concept that relates to spoken word. It is worth noting that some things you might consider “Rap” wouldn’t fall under this category, as again, they’re centered around creating a melody pleasing to the ear, not on rhyme, wordplay, and meter. The vast majority of rap music, especially older stuff, is firmly in the spoken word category.

To understand the relationship between Rap and Spoken word, we would need to go back to the 1920’s. Specifically, back to Harlem. Around this time, the African-American community experienced a revival of Art, Music, Philosophy, and all manner of things that helped shape the creative identity of African American culture, the effects even rippling to this day. Spoken word poetry, of course, being a popular form of expression at the time. These Black Poets would rhyme about all manner of things, but frustration and struggle were recurring themes for many of them. Specifically, the struggles they faced as an oppressed racial minority mostly consigned to poverty. Around this sense of shared struggle, in fact, is where much of the cultural cohesion of the Harlem Renaissance took place. However, this was still “Conventional” oral poetry in practice. The beginnings of what we know as “Rap” wouldn’t emerge until the seventies. The rest, is history.

A video of the most famous Creative to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, reading one of his most iconic poems.

Obviously, some rappers utilize spoken word more than others, but perhaps one of the most subtly poetic MCs is also one of the most vulgar.

Stefan Burnett, better known as MC Ride, is the lyrical front-man of the experimental Rap trio Death Grips, and perhaps one of the most influential spoken word artists of our generation. It could be argued some of his tracks are so post-modernist as to defy the medium of spoken word altogether, but I would disagree. His vocals are the obvious center of the performance, oftentimes being discordant with the actual music. I could talk at length about his style, and how it really is spoken form in almost pure form, but perhaps showing you would do better:

Keep in mind, the first minute or so is an audio clip taken from an interview with Charles Manson.

What’s the point of this blog post? To, hopefully, convince you that spoken word performance is far from an aging, irrelevant, “Hipster” medium, but is alive and well. Even if it’s far from those dusty brew houses and their accursed poetry slams.

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