My love-hate relationship with Spoken Word

Spoken Word is a frustrating art form. Its historical roots run deep, but in its present form it fluctuates between being vibrant, engaging and socially active - to pretentious and dull.

When Gill Scott-Heron wrote "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about a revolution in spoken word. What he was talking about was a civil, social and financial revolution, a revolution where "Women will not care if Dick finally got down with Jane...because Black people will be in the streets looking for a brighter day". Scott-Heron used spoken word to simultaneously critique capitalism, endorse change, and create a wonderful hymn of political and social disenfranchisement.

Spoken word grew out of a desire to comment on the status quo, using an unconventional free verse style to evoke unconventional thoughts. From ol’ Gil, to Allen Ginsberg, and, arguably, all the way back to Walt Whitman, it was a form that fundamentally didn’t conform in either style or content. An anthem for those who didn’t agree with the norms in their society. An aural/oral middle finger to those in charge.

It makes sense, then, that spoken word resonates with a young contemporary audiences. The internet has done wonders for the form, allowing the angry, intimate words of the speaker to reverberate out of your laptop as you nod your head emphatically. "Yes!" you say (in your head) "we *should* liberate [insert oppressed group] and not stand any longer for [insert outrageous act]." Often you will share it on your [insert social media forum] and feel just a little bit better about yourself.

It is usually personal and evocative. Sometimes it’s quite cool. Scroobius Pip, an Essex born hip-hop spoken word artist, seems to have become a necessary part of gaining middle-class hipster accreditation. Scroobius Pip became famous after his collaboration with Dan le Sac on the track "Thou Shalt Always Kill", which is, ironically, a kind of perceptive, cynical deconstruction of what would soon become hipster identity. "Thou shalt not stop liking a band just because they’ve become popular" he articulates, in his low-budget video, "Thou shalt not attend an open mic and leave before it’s done just because you’ve finished your shitty little poem or song you self-righteous prick."

I deeply wish spoken word culture had listened to Scroobius and Dan. I have attended too many circle-jerk university spoken word nights; winced as my contemporaries ruin their poetry using over-chewed rhetorical flourishes. Pauses. For effect. Clichés, that cause your heart burn with the fire of injustice. A false culture of imagined oppression - a self-obsessed anthem of inflated victimhood.

Spoken word is an art form that walks a fine line between being compelling and contrived, and more often than not, people don’t fall on the right side. However, no matter how cynical one may become, there are artists that use spoken word to introduce young people to poetry, or promote feminism. The ones who use themselves as a subject only to critique and inspire, not to self-aggrandise. Poems such as Mark Grist’s "I Like a Girl Who Reads" or Kait Rokowski’s "How to Cure a Feminist" are perfect examples of spoken word which doesn’t make me want to bash my head against something heavy. They are funny, genuine and intelligent.

It’s only those writers who manage to steer away from pointless rhetoric, who don’t hide the flaws of their writing with saccharine phrases, that manage to successfully convey their message. Poetry is an art form on the wane, but the culture of spoken word has reinvigorated it - which is anything but bad. Even if it does mean putting up with a few wankers along the way.

The spoken word artist Scroobius Pip. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder