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Spoken Word Poetry, a Powerful Wellness Tool to Express Suffering

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Spoken word poetry is a way to lament over suffering and injustice. It has special significance as a contemporary development in the tradition of spirituals, jazz and hip hop originating in Black communities.


The best poem of the night was definitely Rudy Francisco’s Adrenaline Rush. He began with a description of the extreme sport of volcano surfing (which is exactly as crazy as it sounds). Then he paused, circling the audience with his eyes. “It must be nice,” he said deliberately, “to feel so safe you have to invent new ways to put yourself in danger.”

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Francisco is an acclaimed Spoken Word poet. This poem was about what he calls the extreme sport of being Black in America, especially when you’re behind the wheel. One line sums it up: “Being black in America is realizing there’s a thin line between a traffic stop and a cemetery.”

You should listen to the poem yourself. It’s amazing. I heard it the San Diego Poetry Slam, where some of the finest, most moving poems were read by people of color. More than that, all the best poems, whether performed by people of color or not, were poems that lamented suffering. Whether about abuse, trauma, prejudice or illness, these poems skillfully addressed and grieved injustice.

Suffering can shatter you, but sharing it draws you into community with others who will applaud your courage and help you heal.

If you’re unfamiliar with spoken word poetry, it’s a form of performance poetry where the emphasis is on vocal aesthetics; intonation, inflection and cadence. It has become very popular in recent decades—chances are that there is a spoken word open mic night near you. As a form of creative expression, there is an argument to be made that spoken word is one contemporary platform for lament, particularly for Black people, in the tradition of spirituals and blues music.

A tradition of oral lament developed among Black communities in the United States, beginning with spirituals among enslaved African Americans. These spirituals expressed religious values, maintaining an emphasis on God’s solidarity with the oppressed and His promise of eventual freedom and justice.

Spoken Word Poetry, a Powerful Wellness Tool to Express Suffering

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Next came jazz and blues, both of which originated in African American communities in the late 1800s. These genres, too, are a creative exploration of suffering. Barbara Holmes, author of Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, writes that jazz and blues artists, “forthrightly engaged the issues in life that the church would not discuss—such as sexuality, theodicy and the unabated despair of the people.” Amiri Baraka, founder of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) calls Rhythm and Blues “part of ‘the national genius,’ of the Black man, of the Black nation. It is the direct, no monkey business expression of urban and rural (in its various stylistic variations) Black America.” In other words, these genres bravely explored themes everyday life and conversation could not.

Much more recently, hip hop arose in the 11970sfrom the Bronx in New York, emphasizing an authentic portrayal of what it’s like to have a disadvantaged background and experience oppression. According to American rapper KRS-One, “Hip hop is the only place where you see Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech in real life.”

Which brings us to spoken word, which, when wielded by those who have experienced injustice, becomes a powerful tool for naming and expressing pain. It was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, where speeches like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream, Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? and Booker T. Washington’s Cast Down Your Buckets included oratory qualities that influenced the spoken word movement.

Spoken word, when wielded by those who have experienced injustice, becomes a powerful tool for naming and expressing pain.

Remember the way Martin Luther King drew people into his message with his masterful public speaking skills? That’s what listening to spoken word is like. It’s called “performance poetry” for a reason, since the speaker doesn’t just read words from a page. They stand in front of the audience, and everything from their body language to their cadence pulls you into their story. It’s raw, it’s real and it’s humbling.

Professor and music writer Robert Cataliotti notes that African American oral traditions provide “a way of remembering, a way of enduring, a way of mourning, a way of celebrating, a way of protesting and subverting and, ultimately, a way of triumphing.” From spirituals to hip-hop, the tradition of lament and attention to suffering has been a thread of solidarity crucial to Black culture.

And you can feel the solidarity when you listen to spoken word. When Rudy Francisco pierces you with the words, “I don’t need to go volcano surfing, I have an adrenaline rush every time a police officer drives past without pulling me over,” the room vibrating with applause and empathy, you realize his suffering is one sliver of the story shared by every Black person in America.

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Francisco’s lament also drew everyone in that room together for a moment. I am not Black, but I thought about how I feel as a woman whenever I’m alone at night and I see a man nearby. My heart starts beating and I clutch my keys as I fast-walk to my car, where I lock the door behind me. Only then do I feel safe.

This world is full of suffering, and there is plenty of pain to go around. The beautiful thing about the creative expression of lament, whether blues or spoken word, is that it draws pain out from each individual chest and forges it into human bonds. Suffering can shatter you, but sharing it draws you into community with others who will applaud your courage and help you heal.