If you asked me what a slam poet was three years ago, I would have given you a rather romanticized answer.
I would probably start by describing a crowded coffee shop on the campus of Washington University, where I attended my first slam as a high school junior. I would tell you that slam poets are wordsmiths; they come from every imaginable walk of life, but they share an ability to tell their stories with rhythmic poignancy. They use words the way a skilled archer fires her arrows—with accuracy and precision. They are artists of a different breed.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me, however, to tell you that slam poets are lobbyists.
In fact, I used to have a fairly strong aversion to the term “lobbying.” As it still does for many Americans, the word conjured images of politicians accepting payments from corporations in clandestine, Abramoff-esque agreements. If anything, I believed slam poets were the exact opposite. Many use their craft to expose the cultural and political systems that keep marginalized groups in a constant state of oppression.
By creating a platform that brings seldom-heard voices out of obscurity, spoken word performers can influence public opinion and put pressure on institutions to address their concerns. And if any of that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because lobbyists have been doing it for years.
Much like advocacy groups, slam poets aim to address the failings of the American political system. These performers have cultivated a space that allows them to speak out on issues ranging from gerrymandering to gender-based violence. Around the world, and especially in the Triangle area, spoken word artists serve as advocates for political action—action that will bring about positive change to existing systems.
Of course, the average person’s exposure to slam poetry might be a YouTube link that a friend tweeted or shared on Facebook. But the performers behind these videos are also educators, activists, and scholars who have learned how to lobby; they have developed an ability to analyze complex sociopolitical issues and present them in a persuasive, accessible manner.
The structure of spoken word poetry gives it the potential to be a powerful tool for political advocacy. Lobbyists on Capitol Hill often develop “elevator pitches” on issues they care about. In the event that they find themselves with a mere two minutes to garner the support of a legislator, they must have a concise yet effective message to relay. Similarly, poets who compete in slam competitions write and memorize poems that are typically under four minutes long.
In local slam competitions, five judges are randomly selected from the audience, and they are asked to judge poets on a scale of 1-10. Since they do not know in advance who will be evaluating their performances, slam poets learn to craft messages that can appeal to a broad audience, rather than ones that are only accessible to an esoteric few.
My closest friends like to tease me for speaking in metaphors all the time. It’s something that slam poets learn to do often, but there’s a good reason why. Likening a complex societal issue to something concrete lowers the cognitive cost of processing information, while simultaneously underscoring its importance in everyday life.
For example, in the poem “Asking For It,” Julia McKeown compares victim-blaming in sexual assault cases to criticizing someone for getting shot in a dark alley. McKeown’s poem challenges the audience to put male privilege into perspective, examining how power and consent interact in events of trauma. In only three minutes, McKeown makes a powerful statement about the forms of violence that society does and does not deem acceptable.
And the activism of the slam poet can (and should) extend far beyond the stage. The Research Triangle Area is home to a vibrant spoken word community that is heavily involved in local schools, governmental bodies, and nonprofit organizations. For many poets, spoken word is more than an art form—it is advocacy.
Take for instance, the Sacrificial Poets, a nonprofit based in Chapel Hill that uses an innovative arts curriculum to give youth the tools they need to empower themselves emotionally and intellectually. Members of the organization have also lobbied the North Carolina General Assembly on issues like affordable housing, and they have performed before the Chapel Hill Town Council. The organization’s collegiate branch, the UNC Wordsmiths, also serves the Chapel Hill Community through its events, performances, and workshops.
, Duke’s spoken word collective, has raised thousands of dollars for social justice initiatives through its own poetry events. Last fall, the campus group collaborated with Zeta Phi Beta, Inc. to organize Blue Muse, an event featuring poets from the renowned performance collective, Strivers Row. The event functioned as a fundraiser—proceeds went to the March of Dimes and to the Liberty and Justice for Carlos Riley, Jr Coalition
. Members of Spoken Verb have also attended court hearings on police brutality and have met with Duke administrators to discuss injustices that occur on campus, such as racial profiling by the university’s police department.
Durham offers several opportunities for individuals to learn more about the growing spoken word scene. Spoken Verb organizes showcases, guest performances, and open mic events on Duke’s campus that are open to the Durham community. In addition, the Bull City Slam Team
regularly holds slams at the Hayti Heritage Center on Old Fayetteville Street.
The next time you’re in town, consider going to one of these events, and you will see firsthand how poets are using their art to change the world. I’ve always thought of poetry as a window to someone else’s perception of reality. By listening to diverse perspectives, we can better understand how the policies, societal norms, and cultural barriers that we often overlook affect others.
Perhaps the late Amiri Baraka said it best: “The attempt to divide art and politics…is an extraordinary absurdity. Poetry reflects the world’s concerns and the classes within the world…Your art shows what you think is good and what you think is negative. It shows what you celebrate and what you put down.”
And whether or not you consider yourself a poet, I encourage you to let your passion transcend the pages. While it is true that we raise awareness when we use our voices, we create social change when we use our hands. You have a handful of poems inside of you that are too beautiful for words; rather, they must be lived out in the open.
Make an effort to understand the institutions that are at work in your community and think about how you might improve them. If you are dedicated to fighting sexual assault, for example, it would be worth your time to research a website like Congress.gov to find out about sexual assault legislation. Email or call your representatives and senators to ask about their views on those particular laws.
Activism lies at the intersection of meaningful ideas and deliberate action. Find those poems inside of you that need to be seen—not just heard—and bring them into the light.