Spoken word

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Spoken word is a style of entertainment involving performance-based poetry that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and story-telling. It often includes collaboration and experimentation with other art forms such as music, theater, and dance. Performers may weave in poetic components - such as rhyme, repetition, rhythm, improvisation, and other traditional elements of poetry.


The art of spoken word has existed for many millennia. The tradition of the spoken word is particular to cultures around the world when oral traditions were the means to pass on the genealogical, historical, cultural knowledge and traditions of different geographical sects of indigenous peoples and civilizations; it was particularly steeped in the African traditions that also included drumming and dancing as a means to reinforce cultural mores, spiritual incantations, social practices and world views. This can also be evidenced in Native American and Aboriginal cultures. The Ancient Greeks included Greek lyric which is similar to spoken-word poetry in their Olympic Games.[1]

Development within the United States

Modern American spoken-word poetry originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,[2] blues music, as well as the 1960s Beat Generation.[3]

Spoken word in African American culture drew on a rich literary and musical heritage. Like Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by the feelings of the blues and spirituals, hip-hop and slam poetry artists were inspired by poets such as Hughes in their word stylings.[4]

The African-American Civil Rights Movement had an impact on spoken word. Notable speeches such as Dr. 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" incorporated elements of oration that influenced the spoken word movement within the African American community.[4] The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group formed during the 1960s that was born out of the African-American Civil Rights movement, and helped increase the popularity of spoken word within African American culture.[5]

Spoken word poetry entered into wider American culture following the release of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken-word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.[6]

The Nuyorican Poets Café on New York's Lower Eastside was founded in 1973, and is one of the oldest American venues for presenting spoken-word poetry.[7]

During the 1980s, competitive spoken word competitions called poetry slams emerged. American poet Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam in November 1984, and in 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco.[8]

The poetry slam movement reached a wider audience following Russell Simmons' Def Poetry, which was aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007.

International Development

Outside of the United States, artists such as French singer-songwriters Léo Ferré or Serge Gainsbourg, made a personal use of spoken word over rock or symphonic music from the beginning of the 1970s, in such albums as Amour Anarchie (1970), Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) or Il n'y a plus rien (1973), and contributed to the popularization of spoken word within French culture.

In the UK, spoken word has been utilised by musicians such as Blur, The Streets and Kate Tempest.

In the Philippines, the art of spoken word has been popularized by the hit romantic comedy series On the Wings of Love (TV series), with one of the supporting characters, Rico (played by Juan Miguel Severo) being a spoken word poet.


Spoken-word poetry is often performed in a competitive setting. Also known as slam poetry, these competitions began in 1986 when Marc Smith started a poetry slam in Chicago.[1]

In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco, California.[1] It is now held each year in different cities across the United States. It is the largest poetry slam competition event in the world.[9]

The popularity of slam poetry has resulted in slam poetry competitions being held across the world.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Glazner, Gary Mex. Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. San Francisco: Manic D, 2000.
  2. Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe (2007), Words in Your Face: a guided tour through twenty years of the New York City poetry slam. New York: Soft Skull Press. 400 pp. ISBN 1-933368-82-9
  3. Neal, Mark Anthony (2003). The Songs in the Key of Black Life. A Rhythm and Blues Nation. New York: Routledge. 214 pp. ISBN 0-415-96571-3
  4. 4.0 4.1 Folkways, Smithsonian. "Say It Loud". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 15 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "last poet fragments".
  6. Ben Sisario, "Gil Scott-Heron, Voice of Black Protest Culture, Dies at 62", New York Times, May 28, 2011.
  7. "The History of Nuyorican Poetry Slam", Verbs on Asphalt.
  8. "PSI FAQ: National Poetry Slam".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Poetry Slam, Inc. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

See also