spoken word for black history month: The NeoSoul/Slam Poetry Movement

For my last installment highlighting poetry movements in Black History, I wanted to share tidbits about the most modern development of Slam Poetry and the phenomenon of Def Poetry Jam, a television series on HBO that popularized the neo soul/poetry experience in the 1990s.

During the time of it’s inception, I was a student at Kent State University during the 90s and was very involved in the poetry scene, participating in readings, slams, and “The New Black Arts Movement” of the time.  It was a time of evolution for not only poetry but Hip Hop culture, clothing (i.e., Cross Colors, Karl Kanei, Used, etc.), attention so social justice issues (i.e., Rodney King, The end of Apartheid in South Africa, etc.), as well as the onset of Neo-Soul music  and cinema (i.e., Love Jones, Poetic Justice, Slam, etc.).  The movement introduced us to some of it’s most well known poets as well including two of my favorites, Saul Williams and Jessica Care Moore (I have seen her perform several times, check out her most recent book, God Is Not An American).  And two of my new favorites are Talaam Acey (check his page on ReverbNation) and Bomani Armah (of the “Read A Book” video fame – check him out on Facebook).  In all, the movement was a turning point for modern poetry and engaged young people on a level never seen before.

My only criticism of “performance poetry” is the fear that poets write only for the stage and for the performance experience versus writing for the sake of being a poet. My feeling is that if you are a true poet, you should not only know and understand the many forms of poetry and experience them for yourselfe, but also that any poem that you write should be able to be interpreted by someone both on paper as well as on the stage.  And for the record, I don’t memorize poetry (and I have still won slams reading from paper – so don’t let anyone tell you that you have to memorize! LOL)


Excerpt from www.poets.org:One of the most vital and energetic movements in poetry during the 1990s, slam has revitalized interest in poetry in performance. Poetry began as part of an oral tradition, and movements like the Beats and the poets of Negritude were devoted to the spoken and performed aspects of their poems. This interest was reborn through the rise of poetry slams across America; while many poets in academia found fault with the movement, slam was well received among young poets and poets of diverse backgrounds as a democratizing force. This generation of spoken word poetry is often highly politicized, drawing upon racial, economic, and gender injustices as well as current events for subject manner.

A slam itself is simply a poetry competition in which poets perform original work alone or in teams before an audience, which serves as judge. The work is judged as much on the manner and enthusiasm of its performance as its content or style, and many slam poems are not intended to be read silently from the page. The structure of the traditional slam was started by construction worker and poet Marc Smith in 1986 at a reading series in a Chicago jazz club.


From Wikipedia.com: Def Poetry, also known as Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry or Def Poetry Jam, which was co-founded by Bruce George, Danny Simmons and Deborah Pointer, is an HBO television series produced by hip-hop music entrepreneur Russell Simmons. The series presents performances by established spoken word poets, as well as up-and-coming ones. Well-known actors and musicians will often surprise the audience by showing up to recite their own original poems. The show is hosted by Mos Def. Def Poetry is a spin-off of Def Comedy Jam. As he did on Def Comedy, Simmons appears at the end of every episode to thank the audience.

Though technically not a poetry slam, Def Poetry has become heavily associated with the poetry slam movement, and utilizes many of poetry slam‘s best known poets, including National Poetry Slam champions such as Beau Sia, Taylor Mali, Big Poppa E, Mayda del Valle, Mike Mcgee, Alix Olson and Rives, among others. Even poets who are critical of the poetry slam, such as John S. Hall, have acknowledged slam’s influence on the show.

SAUL WILLIAMS www.saulwilliams.com

Saul Williams



TALAAM ACEY www.taalamacey.com

Talaam Acey Birth of Spoken Soul

JESSICA CARE MOORE http://www.jessicacaremoore.net/

Jessica Care Moore

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