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Spoken word is performance-based poetry that is focused on the aesthetics of word play and story-telling. It often includes collaboration and experimentation with other art forms such as music, theater, and dance. It is important to note that there is not a mandatory manner in which someone should perform, however, there are aspects of the artistry that indicate it is, indeed, spoken word. Spoken word usually tends to focus on the performance of the words themselves, the dynamics of tone, gestures, facial expressions, and more. Poetic components such as rhyme, repetition, slang, improvisation, and many more elements of poetry can be woven to create an atmosphere the audience can experience.
In entertainment, spoken-word performances generally consist of storytelling or poetry, exemplified by people like Hedwig Gorski, Gil Scott Heron, Léo Ferré and the lengthy monologues by Spalding Gray.
The art of spoken-word poetry has existed for many centuries. The Ancient Greeks included Greek lyric which is similar to spoken-word poetry in their Olympic Games. Similar exercises were encouraged in political and social discourse in what was then an ancient and thriving form of democracy.
Modern-day spoken-word poetry became popular in the underground Black community in the 1960s with The Last Poets. The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group that was born out of the African-American Civil Rights movement.
The artistic utilization of the spoken-word genre in black culture today draws on and reflects a rich literary and musical heritage, and the interaction among these genres, as in the past, has produced some of America's best-known art pieces. Like Langston Hughes and writers of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by the feelings of the blues and the black spiritual, contemporary hip-hop and slam poetry artists were inspired by poets such as Hughes in their use of word stylings. Similarly, the experimental and often radical statements of the Black Arts Movement developed a great energy with cutting-edge jazz and funk music that would expand the boundaries of black cultural persona, and thereby provide space for increasingly alternative political ideologies to be raised, discussed, and acknowledged.
Spoken-word poetry came more towards the mainstream in popularity a short time later when Gil Scott-Heron released his spoken-word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.
In the meantime, artists from the rest of the world who came from a culture with a strong poetry tradition such as French singer-songwriters Léo Ferré or Serge Gainsbourg, made a personal use of spoken word over rock or symphonic music from the very beginning of the 1970s, in such albums as Amour Anarchie (1970), Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) or Il n'y a plus rien (1973), and contributed to popularize this performing style in their cultural area without being related to the African American community or being influenced by its culture.
Spoken Word was adopted by college circles in the early 1980s to describe a new wave of performing arts that was birthed during the Postmodern Art Movement.
Many artists and poets have not published any of their works in book forms. Some use video and audio recording, the means used exclusively by Hedwig Gorski, who rejected what she called the "dull-drums" of book publishing in the 1980s. Spalding Gray's film Swimming to Cambodia is a well-known example of spoken word, with Gray sitting at a desk, talking about his experiences during the filming of The Killing Fields. Nevertheless, spoken word today is part of the oral culture movement spreading literary expression that includes all minorities and women, unlike the domination by the white male community as was case with the Beats in the 1960s.
The Nuyorican Poets Café on New York’s Lower Eastside was founded in 1973 and is one of the oldest American venues for presenting spoken-word poetry. The Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989 held the first documented poetry slam.
On the West Coast Da Poetry Lounge and The World Stage are two of the oldest venues for spoken-word poetry, The World Stage presenting the more literary side of the spoken-word tradition and Da Poetry Lounge embracing the more performance side of it.
The Nuyorican Poets Café and Da Poetry Lounge have a close association with the poetry slam movement that was popularized by Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Lounge with both main hosts Bob Holman and Shihan appearing several times on the show.
MTV Unplugged creator Robert Small featured Spoke Word artist on episodes of MTV Unplugged priopr to Def Poetry Jam. Bob Holman hosted with artist such as Danny Hoch, Gil-Scott Heron and Maggie Estep and many others. The show was considered ground breaking.
Before the poetic catalyst of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam in 2002, musical artists such as The Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, The Watts Prophets, and many more, were responsible for infiltrating spoken word into the media. Beginning as early as the 1960s, spoken word became an outlet to promote political frustrations and ambitions, such as civil rights.
Towards the late 1990s, movies and documentaries such as Slam (1998), and SlamNation (1998) were responsible for highlighting the evolution and implementation of spoken word in America’s society. Both films’ mentioned above feature artists such as Saul Williams, muMs da Schemer, Beau Sia, and Jessica Care Moore, who were fluent participants in the New York poetry slam scene, as well as members of the 1996 Nuyorican Poetry Slam Team.
Def Poetry catalyzed Spoken Word’s presence in media along with the help of Brave New Voices (2008), a series focusing on the representation of America’s youth in spoken word. The show was brought about after Def Poetry ceased to exist in 2007, in which HBO picked the series up with the help of Youth Speaks Inc., an organization internationally known for its involvement in inspiring and motivating young poet around the world. Directed by James Kass, the show highlighted the annual poetry slam competition at the Brave New Voices Festival, held by Youth Speaks Inc,. The docu-series didn’t survive long; hence it was more of a feature program.
The yielding death of spoken word’s presence on television, media’s relationship with the genre of poetry has henceforth moved to the web. Poets such as Jefferson Bethke, Kai Davis, Sarah Kay, and others, are using outlets such as YouTube and Vimeo to display to the world their poetic and theatric talents.
Since its inception, the spoken word has been an outlet for people to release their views outside the academic and institutional domains of the university and academic or small press. The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.
Other alternative venues created for the dissemination of these works included The Virtual Free University and multimedia periodicals like Media Free Times that were the de-design precursors of web-pages and E-zines.
Spoken word is used to inform or make an audience conscious of some human aspect pertaining to life.
In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco, California. It is now held each year in different cities across the United States. It is the largest poetry slam competition event in the world.
Other more popular poetry reading competitions include the Sunken Garden Readings in Connecticut and the Dodge Festival in New Jersey which brings in over 10,000 people from around the country and globe.
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