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The intensity of its physical expression. Snatching words from memory the split second before they swing and hang in the room in front of you. The release of something so deeply personal with the raw tools of one’s being.
My first spoken word performance itched with pre-show anxiety and all its peculiar manifestations. We all deal with unwieldy nerves in different ways; some puke before a show, some need solitude. I learnt that on that day, and at every performance since, I need:
- An unusual amount of water
- To make several visits to the urinal (especially just before going on)
- To have conversation as a babbling soundscape but not to be expected to contribute, therein coming across as a rude bastard to strangers
Since then I’ve performed at festivals in Denmark, with jazz musicians in Southern Africa, with vocal ensembles in mainland Europe, run workshops with inspiring young voices from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Scandinavia, and collaborated with artists from all over the world. The spoken word has always had a possessive element to it for me. I know of no other avenue through which the word can be delivered that ties me so tightly to someone’s thoughts and struggles in the space of a few minutes.
As a teenager, the mathematical dismembering of written poetry in thickset anthologies killed the enigma and subjective nourishment that makes the word so special. Getting lost in words is difficult when you’re encouraged to look for the ‘right’ path or answer in something so vast and fluid. Spoken word and hip-hop felt like wide open spaces in comparison.
If you want to sit by someone’s side for a while and hear the grinding that pushes and pulls them, then here’s my (savagely refined) list of favourites online:
1. Buddy Wakefield — “Convenience Stores”
Why not start at the top? I was into hip-hop before and during my introduction to spoken word. My housemate in my second year at university was one of those crazed hip-hop intellectuals who excavated careers and labels to give you the bones and backstories of all the artists you had and hadn’t heard of.
Sage Francis featured a guy called Buddy Wakefield on one of his albums, and my hip-hop fiend of a friend recommended I listen to the following poem. No piece of music, film, or any other form of artistic expression has had the same clawing effect on me as this:
2. Kate Tempest — “Line in the Sand”
I first met Kate Tempest at a show in a basement in a totalitarian vegan café in Brighton, UK. I joined other acts in the opening slots before her. I crossed her path once more a couple years ago when she was screening one of her pieces at an event in London and her name had already begun to sound on radio and television:
3. LKJ — “Inglan Is a Bitch”
Linton Kwesi Johnson, or LKJ as he’s commonly known, is the father of dub poetry. His poetry gyrates with a cadence born in the Caribbean, and his content is shaped by his experiences as a young man in the UK, highlighting police brutality, racism, and life on the concrete island. A timeless flow and message with or without the backing of a band:
4. Dizraeli — “Maria”
Poems on politicians, verses on bombing supermarket chains, and a deep human resonance and skill for storytelling make Dizraeli one of the illest emcees and spoken word artists around. The following piece, “Maria,” has been known to make the most unbreakable, emotionless zombies shed a tear:
5. TJ Dema — “Neon Poem”
Representing Botswana, TJ Dema has featured at events around the world and never failed to capture audience members and performers as she does so. She is a fellow member of the spoken word / jazz fusion group Sonic Slam Chorus and has a truly unique style and manner of describing her world in a way that calls on all your senses:
6. Toby T — “Tomorrow”
I only heard of this lyrical talent recently. Toby T’s face gives away the fact that he’s in the twilight of his adolescence. His content suggests he’s at the foothills of a promising career. With a staggered flow, Toby’s feelings stammer out against the backdrop of delicate musicianship. Check out other videos online that show his versatility as a poet and emcee, but start here:
7. Andrea Gibson and Katie Wirsing
The links that the online searches will suggest can lead you further on a journey into the word to find other talented practitioners. That’s partly how I came across Andrea Gibson and Katie Wirsing. I had seen them perform on a UK tour once and forgotten their names only to stumble on them online.
Below they perform a poem by Christian Drake, probably the most brutally beautiful and violently heartfelt, blood-stained love poem you will ever come across:
8. Shane Koyczan – “To This Day”
Canadian poet Shane Koyczan released an animated spoken word video earlier this year that has rocketed towards 9 million views on YouTube. A jolting piece on bullying and an anthem for the bullied. Arguably one of the best visual presentations in spoken word accompanies it: