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Is There More to Spoken Word Than All Those Terrible Adverts?

You know the ones: "We got here through takeaways and cinema dates, now we’re looking at mortgages with reasonable rates."

(Top image: Screenshot, via)

You know the drill by now. A soft focus settles on an early-20-something. They're in a kitchen, or at the side of a football pitch, or in the passenger-seat of a hatchback, or in a corner-shop, or in a greasy spoon idly stirring a cup of sugary tea. The clatter of their surroundings dims out, and they begin to speak directly into the camera in a deliberately regional accent, pausing for thought between each sentence.

I was 16 once. 

I remember chasing girls and going out and drinking cider in parks, til dusk turned dark, mum told me to study, had to think of my marks.

Aged 17, I got my first car, four rusty wheels never got me too far.

You were the girl I met aged 18, under the light of a smartphone screen.

We got here through takeaways and cinema dates, now we're looking at mortgages with reasonable rates.

For you are the smell of the chip-fat fryer, the rest of my life, and my first desire.

Recognise it? Of course you do, because over the past five years this form of faux-humble spoken word has been omnipresent, selling you everything from McDonalds to broadband . Most recently its been on display in a series of Nationwide adverts, featuring poets commissioned by the building society to tell ordinary stories about ordinary things happening to ordinary people. Like this one:

It's just so, authentic, isn't it? Can you not feel the realness oozing out of it like leek and potato soup? Can't you picture his matted dog larking about on rain-dappled cobbles? Can't you just hear his mum's voice squawking upstairs that his fish fingers and beans are ready? Can't you imagine the sinking faces of his mates when they realise the "pub trip" they've all turned up to was another elaborate ploy to trick them into coming to a slam-poetry night?

Spoken word's cutesy proliferation in recent years is enough to make you write it off as the preserve of self-satisfied polemicists, supermarket adverts and vegan open-mic nights. Yet doing so would neglect a varied and radical tradition. Spoken word has historically been a powerful tool of activism and subversion; from the Beats to anti-war protests, poetry has helped craft messages of resistance. However, after decades struggling for relevancy in the shadow of other demonstrably political art forms, from hip-hop to the Banksy-led graffiti revolution, it is enjoying a rebirth.

In recent years spoken word has been experiencing a boom in popularity as a new generation of poets jostle to be the voice of their generation. Obvious breakthroughs like Kate Tempest spring to mind, but with major artists from Blood Orange to Beyonce employing poets on their albums, it appears to be penetrating the mainstream consciousness in a way it hasn't for decades. Outside of pop culture it's increasingly being used as an educational, pastoral tool, employed widely in schools to help process and discuss issues surrounding mental health

Take James Massiah, whose work manages to straddle the worlds of performance poetry and pirate radio, and whose collaborators range from the Tate Modern to Massive Attack. He acknowledged that there were cliche-traps "spoken word" had fallen into. "I guess what frustrates me about 'spoken word' is the worthiness," he explained when I met with him to discuss his work. "Leftist political ideology, talking about the day-to-day – it's written from a solipsistic standpoint, about 'my existence'. It's self-referential." Despite being a performance poet, Massiah prefers to distance himself from the title of spoken word artist, in part down to the connotations it has. "It's very... right on," he laughs.

Lisa Mead, the artistic director of Apples and Snakes – the most substantial spoken word organisation in the country – was also wary of certain trends dominating mainstream impressions of performance poetry, something she attributes to a more recent American influence. "I went to the States recently, and they have this youth slam competition there called Brave New Voices," she told me over the phone. "There is a particular style that is very prevalent – it's like trauma poetry. I heard about ten poems about teenage rape; by the end I was like, 'I can't hear any more.'" In this light, spoken word appears more like art as catharsis – more about the act of providing a voice in the first place, rather than creating something unique or challenging with that voice. In turn, it becomes very difficult to value critically. "How do you judge the worth of someone's personal story?" Lisa added.

Sam Berkson is a veteran of London's spoken word scene and has been coordinating hugely successful Hammer and Tongue events in Hackney since 2005. He has also spotted a shift towards the individual. "It speaks that message of neoliberalism," he suggests, over the phone. "It focuses on changing ourselves rather than making societal change. You do see that a lot in poetry – people talk about their problems, using their hurt to sway crowds emotions." Sam has also written on his own blog about how best to avoid slam poetry cliches.

Both Sam and Lisa stress that this honest, raw release is an important part of performance poetry, but both personally feel it has perhaps neglected spoken word's history. A brief dip into its recent lineage will tell you quickly that contemporary performance poetry has its roots in protest, specifically the civil rights movement. "It's a radical punk tradition," Sam asserts. His experiences include reading poetry at Occupy London, as well as performing non-stop during 2015's protests against legal aid cuts. "Poetry can push against the bad points in our culture and disrupt the discourse," argued Sam.

So what does the contemporary underground sound like? Theresa Lola is a celebrated spoken word artist, having recently won Hammer and Tongue's National Slam Final. She has been interested in writing since childhood, but became interested in performance poetry after a friend entered her into an open mic night while studying at university. Her poems convey raw, personal experience with fiercely inventive language that elevates them above less delicate demonstrations of trauma. Her work is proof that honesty and progressive ideas don't have to come at the price of artistic ingenuity. "These are everyday words we all use; it's language," she tells me over the phone. "But the way the poet arranges it and performs can bring it to life in a totally different way."

This taps into the basic contradiction at the core of spoken word. As Sam Berkson confirms, at its core the objective is to "create a radical democratic space" within which all voices are given the opportunity to be heard. Inclusivity, however, doesn't equate to artistic value. Authenticity and honesty don't necessarily make something good. As such, the spoken word scene is in the difficult position of trying to critique and improve, while remaining open and encouraging. Everyone I interviewed from the spoken word world recognised this conflict: it can be incredibly hard to discern what's good and what's mawkish when participation is encouraged above all else.

Perhaps spoken word is suffering the same fate as many forms of 20th century protest. Over time it's been commodified by brands, educational bodies and charities, who in an effort to spread simple messages over an internet of impossibly small attention spans have softened the edges and removed the nuance, leaving a safe, metropolitan iteration in their wake. The most recent trend of spoken word – adverts about how coffee "enlightens the senses, brightens the mind" – represents the cosy realisation of this. An art of power and protest turned into an easily-shareable, pre-packaged Instagram filter that manages to avoid critique through being "honest," or "real". 

Yet, the scene, the underground, the tradition that's existed for decades – or since the dawn of human civilisation, depending on how broadly you want to cast the net – is something different. It is a form that if weaponised effectively can be be truly transgressive. "Imperfect List" by Big Hard Excellent Fish; KLF's "Build a Fire"; everything Gil Scott Heron ever did. The revolution of young female poets over the last five years, like Kate Tempest, Theresa Lola, Warsan Shire and Olivia Gatwood. Fuck it – who's to say Spaceape isn't one of the greatest spoken word artists of the last 50 years? 

The tradition itself is far from redundant, but in times such as ours it's up to artists and their audiences to demand more, or endure dickheads like me writing them off as smug or complacent. We need dissent, not oven chips.

@a_n_g_u_s

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