Spoken Word is the art of performing poetry aloud. Poets, storytellers, and lyricists, have performed spoken word for centuries. Within the last 50 years, the art form has been "reformed" by poets such as Allen Ginsburg, Jewel, Saul Williams, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Shihan, Jill Scott, Common, Rudy Francisco, plus many others. You can find hundreds of poetry venues across the world on any given night. The audience can range from a few locals gathering together at a favorite coffee shop to a university event with over 300 people in attendance. There are even places that our military poets can go to and perform poetry while serving in overseas duty stations and in combat zones. Spoken Word is worldwide and very popular however, it has yet to make its' way into nationally syndicated television and radio stations.
Spoken word artists are reputable artists with a huge Indie following. An example would be "Shihan", an HBO Def Jam poet. He has sold over 14,000 CDs nationwide while touring and performing his poetry. As popular as the art form is, it has yet to earn its' place on a nationally recognized awards show or radio chart due to the lack of attention that it is given in the media. Yet, Soulja Boy and Waka Flaka are hyped up on radio stations across the country. When I listen to what mainstream considers good entertainment, my reaction is "Waka Flaka!!!" (censored).
Spoken Word can be found everywhere. You see and hear spoken word on television commercials and shows, Internet radio, viral videos, radio jingles, movies, and even in music. However, radio and television refuse to promote the genre, its' artists, or recognize it as a very influential and positive part of our American society. As a result, spoken word artists, even though they are more talented than most of the artists that pollute our airwaves, have to work ten times harder to make any profit from their craft. The profit being made by spoken word artists does not come from any form of mainstream media promotions. Artist sell their work by booking themselves on tours across the country, promoting their CDs, books and DVDs on their own websites, on-line stores, social networking sites for artists, and by performing at colleges and universities. Many times, the artists that go on these tours, pay for travel and other expenses, out of pocket. The money that they make will be just enough to cover their travel expenses.
Despite the lack of attention the major media moguls give spoken word, there is still a huge demand for it. This is evident in the quantity and quality of the crowds that venues pull during spoken word events. However, most radio stations refuse to play spoken word CDs because it is a niche genre and it doesn't appeal to the majority of their audiences. As a result, poets have to go "underground" to sell their work. The success of the artists selling his or her product is based primarily on his or her performance during the show. Once the artist leaves the show, there may be a buzz going around the community for a few days through word of mouth, but without constant airplay or visibility, the artist will have to wait until he or she makes another appearance to that city, before they can expect to make any more sales.
HBO Def Poetry Jam was the first weekly major spoken word program aired on cable television. Millions tuned in to watch each episode (a total of 6 seasons) and it was extremely successful. It sold DVDs of all of its' seasons and although the show no longer airs, the DVDs are still being sold. Many of the poets are still performing spoken word in addition to hosting spoken word events in their neighborhoods while others have moved on to other forms of entertainment but they are still deeply rooted in poetry. Poets give the HBO Def Poetry Jam credit for bringing this form of entertainment into the homes of an entirely new audience.
Up until HBO Def Poetry Jam came on the air, many people didn't have any idea what spoken word was about. Just like Russell Simmons took a chance and created a phenomenon, Russ Parr, Steve Harvey, or one of the other nationally renowned radio disc jockeys can do the same on radio. Millions of listeners turn on the radio throughout the day. The radio is played at work, home, school, in the car, on mobile phones, and even on cable stations. You can not escape radio. Rap and hip hop (both are rooted in poetry) were made popular because of radio however radio disk jockeys refuse to give any attention to spoken word.
Another question that should be raised is about the lack of attention given to Spoken Word at music award shows, ie the Grammys. Seriously, maybe half-witted entertainment without substance should be saluted and shown favor over things like values, morals, and education, nowadays. Maybe if spoken word was give more attention, our children would aspire to be something more than bling wearing, Ciroc drinking, thug wanna be's with video vixen girlfriends. Maybe our children would know that if most of these mainstream artists had even half of the "brain" that they claim to have, that they would know that spending more time in jail than in your community giving back doesn't doesn't make you cool, it makes you unemployable...and stupid!
With all of the "hype" about how music has taken a drastic turn for the worse over the last 20 years, bringing indie spoken word artists to mainstream media could possibly help reshape our mainstream form of entertainment and give us that breath of fresh air that we hope to sigh when we turn on our favorite radio station. If we as a nation are going "green" to help preserve our atmosphere, maybe we can include the way we choose to entertain ourselves as another way to protect the air...waves!
by EMichele Paul
Please do check out her blog at http://emichelepaul.blogspot.com/