Politics and Poetry: Slam Poetry

slam poetry

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.

For those of us that grew up as part of the MTV generation, we were taught that Slam Poetry is this:

If you couldn’t make it all the way through that ‘poem,’ don’t worry, I couldn’t either. That’s Joe Hernandez-Kolski performing “COOL” on Def Poetry back in 2007.

Poetry is also supposed to be about ‘feelings,’ so comedians like Nick Offerman have also put out their own idea of what slam poetry is. This video is from 2012:

Slam poetry is, actually, a competitive form of poetry in which artists perform original pieces of poetry and can be judged by a panel of up to five judges (which are usually random audience members selected from the audience before the performances begin) or winners can be selected from the audience’s response. The origins of Slam Poetry are credited to Marc Smith, a poet who performed in the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984, but scholars say that the history of Slam goes back much further to African oral traditions imported to America through slavery. And here’s four examples of what Slam poetry actually is.

First we’ll start with a slam poem by Amal Kassir from 2012, a native Syrian, who now resides in the United States in Denver:

Comparing what the perception of Slam Poetry is to an actual Slam Poem done in 2012 is, I feel, a great way to dispel the myths surrounding this art form.

Next we’ll look at Javon Johnson and his slam poem titled “Cuz he’s black” from 2013:

This poem, titled “Rape Joke,” was written by Belissa Escolodeo, age 16, and Rhiannon McGavin, age 17, at the time of this video in 2014. Some of you may have heard this poem before – it went viral after it was posted with over two million views on YouTube.

If the title doesn’t give indication of the subject matter, this poem is about rape (trigger warning).

To follow up, these two girls received, after the spread of their poems, multiple death and rape threats which is why the commentary on their video has been turned off.

In 2015, Hawaii Slam, a poetry group consisting of Jenna Robinson, Will Giles, Travis T, Simply T, and Sam Skeist, performed this slam titled “Spit me a Poem” at the National Poetry Slam Semi-Finals:

And, finally, to end our exploration of Slam Poetry as a form of political poetry, we’ll end with a slam from 1016 by the Baltimore Poetry Slam group consisting of Grim, Mecca, Krae, and Deniero. I can’t find much beyond some of their poems, so forgive me for not having more information. This is part of the Brave New Voices series, a slam poetry series that gives youth a chance to speak and explore slam poetry – so all of these speakers are 18 or younger:

Slam Poetry is, in essence, a stage in which those marginalized by society can stand up and have a voice. War, sexual violence, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, Black Lives Matter, imperialism, capitalism, and police violence are all addressed in various slam poems. While all of those aren’t featured here (after all, this is just one blog post), the form itself is filled with people sharing heavily political subject matter.

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