Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
2 January 2014

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.

By ruby Lott-Lavigna

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping

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.