Over the past few years, timelines have been flooded with a new genre of poetry. With YouTube, spoken word poetry - also called 'slam poetry' in reference to the events in which it is often performed - has moved out of the black hip hop culture where it originated, into a new ubiquity, built on the different, dissident voices that were not often highlighted in traditional poetry. The performative blend of poetry, theatre, and hip hop has lent the genre a renewed quality and audience in the digital age.
spoken word becomes this incredibly powerful tool for self-expression, especially for people that are marginalised, for people that are told that they don’t have a voice and are encouraged not to use it.
Historically, for a poet to gain popularity, it had to happen through the infrastructure of publishing houses and traditional media. As a result, the literary canon is full to the brim with poets on the side of power: an endless carousel of old, dead white men writing repetitive verses of some lost love or other. The poets on the biggest platforms today, in contrast, are mostly speaking from the margins. Queerness, gender, race, mental illness, poverty, and immigrant experiences feature most prominently. Specifically, there is a growing transnational community of Arab, female poets writing in the West, who illuminate certain avenues of resistance that have been previously overshadowed.
Sabrina Benaim's poem, an intimate portrayal of her anxiety and depression, has over 75 million views on Facebook.
Though it’s important to note that spoken word poetry sprouted from black communities in the US, in tandem with the birth of hip hop, there is also a strong Arab lineage to the form. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the poet held a position that bears more than a passing resemblance to today’s hip hop artists. At once artists, keepers of oral history, and propagandists, poets would congregate huge crowds around them in markets, in what could justifiably be likened to rap battles.
It’s a racial slur we’re reclaiming.
“They’d come together in a circle and battle each other out,” explains Mona Moon, Berlin-based Jordanian-German spoken word artist and educator. “And that kind of cypher is also something that’s part of hip hop culture - a space where, as a circle, knowledge can circulate and everybody can add and learn from it, but the knowledge is always in movement. And knowing that I come from a line of people with that history makes me feel closer to spoken word.” Moon’s own poetry straddles this line between spoken word and hip hop, and much of her poetry speaks to issues of displacement, diaspora, and community solidarity.
Like living here has taught me
Integration just means we
Like living here has taught me
Age-old hatred still runs deep
But like Hajar in the wild I will seek
So I'm asking you to teach me
What real freedom might be
I ask you in Dhikr every Surah that I speak
- Excerpt from 'Ya Hoo' by Mona Moon.
Samira Saleh, a spoken word artist of Moroccan and Egyptian descent, born in Holland, based in Belgium, also highlights how the difference with which she is fundamentally defined - as a plus-sized woman of colour who’s visibly Muslim and wears a headscarf - was central to her entrance to the genre. “There was always something different about me,” she says. “I had never experienced anything like safe spaces that encouraged me to speak…So spoken word becomes this incredibly powerful tool for self-expression, especially for people that are marginalised, for people that are told that they don’t have a voice and are encouraged not to use it.”
Rafeef Ziadah's poem 'We teach life, sir' helped popularise the genre to Arab audiences in 2011.
The potentiality of this particular kind of poetry for resistance - unlikely as it may seem - rests on the marginality of its poets, and the spaces they create. Though much of the poetry online seems of an essentially personal nature, they’re often personal expressions of large political concepts. The largest causes - anti-occupation, racism, feminism, queer activism - are fundamentally affective; they occur physically and emotionally, in homes and social spaces, not in parliament, lobbying groups, or the sanitised spaces of international organisations. What second wave feminism cemented - that 'the personal is political' - is the foundation for the power of this genre today. When Rafeef Ziadah speaks against Israeli occupation, for example, it is powerful because she is speaking from her own experience as a Palestinian woman.
There is, however, an important qualification to how this works in the genre. It is at its best when, in contrast to direct lobbying efforts for example which work within existing hierarchies, poets are not speaking to power. There is often an intellectual labour that minorities are tasked with, to educate those in power on their experiences. What is different, then, when poets such as Moon and Saleh choose, instead of explaining their struggles, to simply express it, often in contrast to what is expected of them?
My body will hold down two meals of Italian pasta,
Thai chicken curry, nutella crepes, and a slice of pizza,
But not your shit.
I stopped taking revenge on my own body,
Stopped blaming it for every bad thing that happened to me.
- Excerpt from 'Can We Please Stop Telling Girls They Can't Eat?' by Samira Saleh.
“As soon as I start expressing myself, it becomes political,” says Saleh. “I’m not seen as neutral...I definitely talked about the racism and discrimination that I felt. But I also talked about how I felt oppressed to look and dress a certain way, to fit into a certain size. And that was definitely unexpected by the people in the audience. Because if you see me get up on stage, you have a certain expectation of me, and it’s not my job to dismantle that.”
In contrast, Moon had spent the beginning of her journey writing for a white German community, trying to get them to understand her people’s experiences. Her shift came after, in reaction to one poem she had performed in German about the experience of an Arab person in Western Europe hearing the then-omnipresent rhetoric of the global ‘war on terror’, a man angrily approached her feeling personally attacked.
Because if you see me get up on stage, you have a certain expectation of me, and it’s not my job to dismantle that.
“At the beginning, I felt like I had to write for them. But I just got to a point where I couldn’t do that anymore. Because the knowledge is out there, and I learned from experience that if white people are demanding it from me - and stop doing any work if I decide not to give it to them - they weren’t serious about getting engaged in the first place.”
In the above poem, Moon addresses her own community of ‘Kanaks’ - a racist insult against people of Arabic, Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani, or Afghani descent. “Because people in Germany don’t know the difference, everyone’s just Turkish, you know? It’s a racial slur we’re reclaiming. When we talk amongst ourselves - people who would be called Kanken by white folks - we use the word and refer to ourselves as Kanakens as well, but from a positioning of resistance, as something filled with pride.”
I learned from experience that if white people are demanding it from me - and stop doing any work if I decide not to give it to them - they weren’t serious about getting engaged in the first place.
By doing this - similar to how black hip hop artists reclaimed the N-word, Western LGBT+ communities have reclaimed queer, and Arab communities are beginning to reclaim ‘shaz’ - a marginalised community is taking the power of definition away from the oppressive systems that originated them. “All these labels [of race, gender, nationality] are labels for positions in a made-up construct that by an imbalance of power, you get assigned,” Moon says. “But no matter how made-up these labels are, they create a very material reality. So if we have to use them, I need them to mean something different than what they mean to power. And that can be a kind of resistance.”
Similarly, more and more poets, such as Sudanese-American Safia Elhillo and Moon herself, are increasingly leaving Arabic phrases in their poetry untranslated, or cultural references unexplained. The reasoning behind this is that translating and explaining is an effort to make palatable to white, Western audiences, which both aesthetically and affectively changes the poem from its original purpose.
It would be easy to assume - since these poets are choosing to speak for and to their own communities, often including their own languages and cultural references as is - that they are only speaking to their own communities, in Moon and Saleh’s case only Arab-European women in diaspora. But there’s an important element of solidarity across different minorities and struggles that is also made possible by spoken word poetry.
This is for my Pott-Kanaks
My shush lak shu? Kanaks
My laber nich Kopf zu! Kanaks
My job and steady life Kanaks
My hustle to get by Kanaks
My Trans and Queer and Gay Kanaks
My Salat five times a day Kanaks
My Kanaks at the unis
My Kanaks rocking Sunnis
My Kanaks love their Umis
Assalamu Aleikum w Rahmatullah w Barakatu
Wrote you this love piece
Bismillah ir-Rahmani ir-Raheem
Felt like I had to
The all-too common
And dominant mix-tape of hate
That we so painfully used to
But none of us can move to
- Excerpt from 'To My Kanaks' by Mona Moon.
“For me, the most basic understanding of community is people who have shared experiences of oppression,” explains Moon. “And by that, I don’t just mean the types of oppression that I face because of the identity that I was dealt, but also other types of oppression that are not mine, but are oppression nonetheless and are therefore a concern to me.”
Saleh similarly explains how her way into spoken word was through the Youtube videos of poets in America, particularly pointing to a poem by Dominican-American poet Elizabeth Acevedo, where she unpacks the seemingly trivial situation of being pressured to straighten her hair into dynamics of European beauty standards and the historical legacies of slavery. Saleh and Acevedo share practically nothing in common, but their positionalities are both oppressed by patriarchal, white supremacist systems of power.
The idea that minority struggles are separate - that a queer man in an Arab country, a Muslim woman in Europe, and a Dominican immigrant in the US, for example, share nothing in common - only mystifies the reality of how our struggles not only intersect, but in fact originate from the same central violences of our world. What spoken word has the power to do - whether in increasingly common open mics in Cairo and Beirut, local events in Berlin and Brussels, in national competitions in the US, or the omniscient digital space of social media - is bring these connections to light, bringing the mic to the historically voiceless, and giving the power of politics back to those most affected by it.
Main images from Converging Territories and Bullets Revisited by Lella Essaydi.