Slam poetry: A growing art in the U.S.

Editor's note: The following story about slam poetry was submitted to Global Young Voices by a journalism master's candidate at Georgetown University, Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako. Photos alongside the text were taken and submitted by Adwoa as well.
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Two-Deep finds her way through the packed crowd, checks the microphone and begins.

Eliamani Ismail going on the stage to deliver her poem on Feb. 19, 2016. The D.C. native has been slamming for a year. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Eliamani Ismail going on the stage to deliver her poem on Feb. 19, 2016. The D.C. native has been slamming for a year. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

“I wanna know whether the Chinese still speak Chinese. Or the Latino speak to the tongues of their ancestors and why Italians got the Mafia to build a wall around their heritage, but in order for me to graduate from an American school I must learn every foreign language except for the ones that I will need to speak to my own ancestors.”

Members of the audience shout out in agreement as applause fills the small auditorium.

This is slam poetry.

Slam Poetry events like this one at Busboys and Poets are popping up around the nation. Since it began to take hold in the 1980s, slam poetry has become part of popular culture, seen in movies, cartoons and television shows, says Adriana Ramirez, a creative writing lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh.

“When they are making jokes about slam on Parks and Recreation on NBC, and it’s like a pretty common thing, for most people I will say at least understand what it is,” Ramirez said.

Slam spread from Chicago to small clubs in New York City, Washington D.C. and San Francisco. In the 2000’s, HBO aired Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry” and “Brave New Voices.”

Eliamani Ismail on stage reciting her poem on Feb. 19, 2016. Her poem addresses controversy over a Hunger Games movie casting a black woman for character Rue. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Eliamani Ismail on stage reciting her poem on Feb. 19, 2016. Her poem addresses controversy over a Hunger Games movie casting a black woman for character Rue. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

So what is slam poetry? Pages Matam, a poet and director of events at Busboys and Poets, explains.

“So slam poetry for one is not a form; a lot of people think that slam is a form. No, it’s not a type of poetry. Slam is just a name for a poetry competition,” he said.

Performance is one of its biggest element. Its rhythmic nature takes a lesson from hip-hop. Some performers perform to the sound of jazz and hip-hop.

“The dynamic of slam is very different because, it’s more so about the space that you are in versus you as a reader. Right, so you have to have of course amazing words, of course you have to have great writing, but you can have great writing but if you have a poor performance it cannot resonate as well,” Matam said.

Not all performances are the same; the style depends on the artist.

“Some people are quiet performers. Quieter performer, but they can still know how to be intense and how to hold an audience right, and different poems call for different things as well,” Matam explained.

For some slammers, slam is a safe haven of sorts. This poet shares a horrific experience with the audience.

“Breathe, it’s what I tell myself to do as he holds a gun to my head. Don’t scream it’s what I tell myself to do as I feel the purity dripping out of my body from the only place I thought was private. When this is over who will I tell? Who can I tell, because I probably can’t get any justice from this anyway?”

Judges write down their scores after each contestant on Feb. 19, 2016. Scores range from 1-10, judges drop the highest and lowest scores. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Judges write down their scores after each contestant on Feb. 19, 2016. Scores range from 1-10, judges drop the highest and lowest scores. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Slam poetry is highly personal, the concept dates back to earlier civilizations. David Gewanter, a literature professor at Georgetown University said.

“This actually is a rather old idea. It goes, it’s seen in Greek Culture where performance was done in competition and prizes were given.”

Slam poetry continues to grow out of a niche audience into the mainstream.

“I think people in the early 90s maybe thought that slam poetry was a trend but obviously it’s stayed. And it’s really taken off and galvanized in particularly with youth and particularly with people of color,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez says slam has become a platform for people who might not otherwise be heard.

“At like political rallies, you see slam poets being invited to the White House now. You see slam poets going in front of the U.N. You see slam poets in commercial on TV. You see slam poets performing with Macklemore on Colbert,” she said.

All that exposure has enabled slammers to become activists. Two-Deep slammed before Maryland legislatures, asking for tougher laws on domestic violence. Most of the viral videos of slam advocate for causes ranging from poverty to mental health issues.

Kosi Dunn announces the poets who have made it to the finals on Feb. 19, 2016. Finalists will compete against other youths from around the country. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Kosi Dunn announces the poets who have made it to the finals on Feb. 19, 2016. Finalists will compete against other youths from around the country. Credit: Nana Adwoa Antwi-Boasiako

Two-Deep continues her show at Busboys and Poets. She pumps up the crowd with jokes about 80s kids versus 90s babies. Afterward, she calls out Malachi Byrd to the stage. Wearing a black hoodie and camouflage pants, he, looks into the audience for confirmation and begins his poem.

“How come the streets burn down and the MLK riots are now the ones that are most gentrified? How come the D.C. snaps chats story looks like an advertisement for Clorox? How come the government gave us bricks, but took our houses? How come they uproot our family trees then blame us for gasping?”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Byrd has seen his city change. For him, slam is a way to start a conversation about issues facing the District.

“If feel like, gentrification in particularly is just this, this silent evil in our city that not too many people talk about,” Byrd said.

Byrd explains how he decides the subjects for his slam poetry.

“So for me in particularly as an artist, I’ve said five, six times I write about black things, right. But I keep saying because it’s not one thing. You know there are so many layers, and so many issues and so many complexities. So it is my job as an artist to keep researching, to keep developing my perspective. To keep listening so that I can always present new ways to things.”

Social media and the internet are playing a vital role in the growth of slam poetry. Organizations like Button Poetry and Poetry Slam Inc. use YouTube to attract more audience. Slam is also growing through schools and local poetry organizations.

Now a student at Princeton University, Malachi Byrd got into slam through his high school.

“A teacher, her name was Claire Newbegin, she had this idea. I think she was reached out by Split This Rock, which is the like the big non-profit in the city which kind of helps with youth poetry slam,” he said.

He was part of the first slam poetry team at Cesar Chavez High School. The D.C. Arts Commission participates now, as more schools in the area start slam teams. David Markey, the arts education coordinator for the commission says they try to help.

“We have 11 or 12 high schools that are participating in that, and we provide teaching artists to the schools,” Markey said.

The commission works with Split This Rock. Together with local high schools they prepare youths for regional and national competitions. Teaching the arts in schools has always played second to math and science. Most slam teams are part of after-school programs.

Georgetown professor and poet David Gewanter says slam can be difficult to teach.

“The written composition is kind of, off stage. I mean what if the person doesn’t speak clearly, what if they don’t wear the right hat. Uh, what if you don’t like their accents or things like that. That’s a little bit outside of how creative writing classes are usually set up but it’s not outside of how speech classes are set up,” Gewanter said.

Some of the slammers performing at Busboys and Poets have taught workshops. This night, they have three minutes to perform their original pieces. The host shouts out scores from judges, whom she selected from the audience.

“We had a 8.1, we had a 9.5, a 10 and a 10.1,” said Two-Deep.

Judges score the poems on a scale of one through ten. Two-Deep looks at her phone, humming to tease the crowd as she receives the scores by text.

Malachi Byrd won the slam. He smiles broadly and slightly bows his head while raising his hand to thank the crowd.

Two-Deep gives Byrd his prize, a cool 50 bucks for his troubles. Slam might be a hobby for some, but full time slammers earn a living by competing in national and regional competitions, selling poetry books and teaching workshops.

For Byrd, slam is a way of life. And he’s not alone. Slam poets in D.C. and around the nation are using their art to find themselves, and learn from others with the hope of changing the world, one poem at a time.

Cover credit: Truthdig