Imagine an orchestra in which the musicians are your words. The sounds they play the intensity and emotions that form these words. Then there’s you, the conductor; your waving index finger creating lines of rhythm between this all. Bathing in your own sweat you put your soul and heart not into the words nor the emotions, these are after all musicians and their sounds, but into reliving the play you have once lived. Like a conductor you are always a note ahead of the orchestra and the public. The words and emotions are already in your head and in your past. Nevertheless you assemble a story with body and soul, you are speaking yet you are spoken. You are spoken word.
Spoken word, as a form of performance poetry, has known a very young but turbulent history beginning in the U.S. It started when early in the 1960s a group of men and women, heavily influenced by the Harlem renaissance movement and the late Blues, started to feel the urge to express themselves. The general experience was that the 60s might have had a wide liberating effect, yet most minorities still felt this liberation as a mere ‘white’ liberation. Against this tendency they started an underground African American community to be able to express their anxieties and frustrations with the prevailing world. Calling themselves the Last Poets they would become the originator of a movement that up to this day is bigger and widespread than ever before.
Tell me not that I’m a dreamer for the things I feel and see
or that nothing can be accomplished from the things I wish to be
Tell me not that I’m fanatic for the things I feel inside
they are flowers of oppression born of a pain I cannot hide
Hands off/Last Poets
Initially spoken word was a mixture of poetry and storytelling around specific themes such as slavery, the longing for the homeland, the minority position of the African Americans in the society. Themes predominant in the works of the last poets and in the monumental work of Gil Scott-Heron who’s “the revolution will not be televised’’ is up until now the archetype of spoken word.
One could say that the earliest developments of spoken word were not by music inspired works but rather political minded persons or groups that tried to integrate their words into music. According to Scott-Heron this is the main difference with the whole rap and late hip-hop scene. The moment you start from a beat and thereupon try to find words, it just means your personality is hidden and your music shallow.
With the genre being picked up by other groups and rapidly gaining popularity in gloomy bars and on small radio stations the subject and method of the performances inevitably became broader and more universal. Thanks to this development the African American spoken word discourse indirectly gave birth to its most important heir namely Poetry Slam. Initiated by Marc Smith (Slam Papi), slam poetry was the reaction against the indifferent stillness that had surrounded poetry and spoken word around that time. As a poet in the early 80’s Smith found the poetry scene pompous and lacking life. Establishment poetry lacked the force to inspire since it was arrogantly self-satisfied.
The very word ‘poetry’ repels people. Why is that?
Because of what schools have done to it. The slam gives it back to the people…. We need people to talk poetry to each other.
That’s how we communicate our values, our hearts, the things that we’ve learned that make us who we are
In order to get rid of that self-satisfying element and to go back to the essence of poetry Slam Papi would insist on the participation of the audience as proven in his famous imperative “please do not applaud for a mediocre poem!” The competitive element of prizes or battles between poets was added in order to bring poetry back into the domain of the humain- to force the poet to be humble and to make his audience really listen by affecting them.
The beginning of the millennium would bring another fundamental element to the history of spoken word. Inspired by the movement of Slam Papi, music-entrepeneur Russel Simmons started a commercialised live-stage television show, the infamous Def poetry Jam. A show where upcoming poetical talents and spoken words anchors would perform their pieces in order to heat up the audience, with artists like Erykah Badu, Jamie foxx, Lauryn Hill, or Taylor Mali, Shihan, Amir sulaiman.
This immense popular but still commercialised version of spoken word would last until 2008. After the show stopped airing Scott-Heron’s prophetic words ‘the revolution will not be televised’ would apply to the genre as well. At the end of 2008 the only way of surviving was through the internet. With the rise of social media spoken word and poetry slam revitalised themselves to the fullest extent. It is through this medium that the genre witnessed an implosion of itself. Not only were there tons of people that would finally dare to publish or post their works, the internet also proved to attract the most critical audience which forced the poets and spoken words artist to be creative as never before. Collaborations between artists from different sides of the world occurred by a simple mail. Cross-references and cross-influences from visual artists and sound builders added another dimension to the genre.
Maybe the most important feature of spoken word and poetry slam is that by being based in the infinite area of the internet, the genre occurred for the first time with no real subculture from which to emerge (as before its influences came from blues and hip-hop and the African American civil rights movement; whereas on the internet the influences were legion). Spoken word would be taken as a formal method that should only be filled with the personality of the artist. His honest concerns and thoughts were by their sincerity allowed to be the subject of the spoken word. It is here that we for the first time witness a strong integration of different subcultures and religious beliefs into the genre of spoken word.
In view of the performance of Boonaa Mohammed in Antwerp, Belgium this article will integrate an interview with Boonaa on his view of this young branch of Spoken word; namely the Islamic variant of spoken word or streetwise: iSLAM
The entanglement of spoken word as a form of expression and the Islamic belief can be traced back as far as to the Last Poets. Not only did the African American civil rights movement witness a partial transition into an Islamic inspired movement by taking up Malcom X as their muse, they also witnessed the conversion of some members, the most famous among them being Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Hassan.
The first thing that pops to mind when you think of combining poetry slam and religious belief is the almost dogmatic conviction that an artist should be totally free of dogma, doctrines and prejudices in order to be really and fully creative. On this modern vision many religious artists have begged to differ. Going from Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Amir Sulaiman and Boonaa Mohammed, to Narcycist Suhair Mohammed and many others..
For Boonaa this idea that his religious beliefs would interfere in his creativity is a kind of modern nonsense. He admits that one becomes more sensible to what one can say: ”Just saying something for the sake of it becomes futile when one realises the bigger subjects, the essences of living and breathing’ of course there is the changing audience –they become more and more followers of the same belief which makes it a courtesy not to say something which could be interpreted as conflicting with the values of Islam: “But in that sense this ‘limitation’ makes me more creative, allowing me to in a sincere way try to find a subtle and honest expression instead of cursing’’. The result of this courtesy can be a text that is very close to the religious doctrines, expressing them for the sake of reliving the sincere sentiment of the doctrines:
I state the obvious
Body in perfect condition
As I stand in front of my Lord trying to prove my dedication
Walking the thin line between hope and fear
Words coming out crystal clear
As though Judgement were hear
The humility combats the lives
I told them that I used to do
When I am closest to Truth
A vessel of submission
His recognition is my Quest
Hands folded at both palms
Gaze is lowered upon the spot at which my head would rise
When the warm wet water still covers my eyes
This form of exploration is predominant in the iSLAM of artists like Amar Poetry, Jaelan or Kashmir Marymam.
While other artists tend to explore the borders between the infinite freedom of spoken word and the limits of the religious beliefs in a more subtle way, think of Suhair Mohammed or Amir Sulaiman’s often attacked ‘love song’, which is regarded as controversial:
like im holding
like tiny stars
adorning her chest
my mouth counting the constellations across her torso
I am face first
beneath hajars skirt
my lips brushing her black stone
whispering my most secret sacred
my desire wont let my face lift
Amir Sulaiman/Love song
The tension between these two possibilities of exploring the borders reveals another important question. What are the characteristics that an muslim artist should have in order not to lose himself or his faith in creativity? When asked what he finds the most important aspect of an Islamic artist Boonaa Mohammed repeats the word sincerity twice. Afterwards he explains that “If you are sincere with yourself, questioning the things around you, your convictions and your ego you will develop your artistic essence in accordance to your religious beliefs. if you can do all that sincere and keep holding on to that your presence on the stage with the intimacy of your texts will be like a jihad against the ego. Yes, that is what performing on the stage is, a jihad against the ego.”
All taken in consideration the vastness of tensions that will occur between spoken word or poetry slam and the religious beliefs makes it certainly challenging to work and perfect a lyrical performance despite and thanks to the limitations. Yet the question still remains whether the Islamic belief and it’s imperative of da’wah, the active preaching of the message of Islam is reconcilable with art as such. It would seem that such an imperative conflicts with the nature of art, namely creating art solely for the sake of creating… In this sense, too, Boonaa sees no irresolvable tension. For him the real power of spoken word and storytelling lies in the inspiration it gives to or affects the audience with: “As I am living my days and nights as a Muslim, practising my faith I cannot find anything other then Islamic elements constituting my poetry, in this sense my faith, like love, runs over from my daily practises into my poetry and from there it can inspire people.”
For Boonaa this is certainly a kind of da’wah but in contrast to the general informative da’wah of Islam, the da’wah of iSLAM ‘invites by inspiring’. One could ponder if this is not the general imperative of any form of spoken word and poetry regardless of any religious belief. For what would poetry be if one couldn’t inspire people to change or do, to believe or cry, to review life with a revitalised sincere smile?
This post is also available in: Dutch