Since the days of Bill Shakespeare, poetry has been a conveyance of passion.
Whether it was suicidally profuse amorousness or ragingly maniacal power-hunger, poetry was not only the food of love, but also the feast of fervour, the bounty of rebellion and the drive-thru un-Happy Meal of woe.
Through the ages, novelists have rambled on in a quagmire of hyperbole, painting vivid and multifaceted images with their words, while poets have cut to the core, conveying their messages concisely, perhaps not in such lurid and extraneous detail, but with succinct clarity.
The impassioned liberalism of Walt Whitman, the anti-establishment howls of protest of Allen Ginsberg, the demonic struggles of Sylvia Plath or the oppositions to social injustice of Henry Rollins – poets have always been the orators of rebellion; rebellion against authority, rebellion against discrimination and inequality, rebellion against ourselves.
There is something about the rhyme and meter of a poem that emotionally emboldens it. A passage from a book may induce a tear or a quicken pace of heart, but a poem can incite a riot. In its cadence lies the fire in us all, the harmony and unity of our pulses, the hypnotic rhythm awakening our quieted spirits.
Hip Hop brought poetry to the people from the cotton fields, the chain gangs and the streets, the verbal fight against oppression taking on new form for a new generation struggling to find their voice in the world.
Slam is the next chapter of this evolution, drawing from both the more scholarly roots of poetry and the vehemency and bravado of hip hop.
Spoken-word and Slam poetry has expanded over the last five years to international acclaim. Some have come from a hip hop or punk rock background, others have been more ‘cultured’ in their approach, but slam poems have found their voice, social media exponentially lubricating their reach into the world.
But these aren’t gushing odes to beautiful sunsets, wandering lonely as clouds or the love that slipped through fingers. Slams are edgy, they have grit and spit, they captivate a crowd, forcing listeners to ‘please adjust your sight’, to lay witness to the pain and anguish of a modern youth caught between the system and a hard place.
Slams don’t hold punches. They broach subjects often too confronting to approach in conversational tones; rape, addiction, racism, domestic violence – it is in the scars of life that slams find their fuel.
When Byron Bay spoken-word poet Luka Lesson first began to form his thoughts into metrical essays, hip hop was definitely an influence, but so too were the words of ancient Greek poet and Socratic contemporary, Herodotus. Perhaps it was his hereditary connection to the Greek islands that drew the latter inspiration, his cultural minority struggles the former, but his words lifted from the page and floated from his lips with the weight of centuries.
His wasn’t a subjective pain, peculiar to his soul alone, but the way in which it was conveyed enwrapped his audiences, from between the covers of his books or between the walls of his intimate venues. Each ode, somewhere between story and song, spoke of an individual’s struggles – with love, with culture, with identity – but reflected a myriad of pains in the hearts of his audiences.
Though no omission of Luka’s profound talents can be made, this too is the power of the spoken word.
Slam and spoken-word were still sub-culturally obscured when Luka first brought an idea to writer-director, Timothy Parish. Luka had met numerous poets from across Australia, heard their stories and their voices and understood, perhaps not their circumstance, but their emotion. His idea was to widen their stage, to swell their audience and bring their message to the masses. It wasn’t the message of each piece that was his inspiration, but the communal message that these voices had been raised to be heard and that spoken-word was as much a socio-political oration as verbose art form.
Parish brought Byron-based filmmaker, Darius Devas to the project and The Word was born.
The Word – Rise of the Slam Poets is a six-part exploration into the potential of the spoken word.
There can be an aggression, an arrogance, even a pretentiousness in slam poetry. It offers open a captive audience forced to succumb to the vivacious vocalisations of the poet. Audacity can overcome artistry, the word sullied in perfect contradiction by the ego. But when haughtiness speaks louder than the heart, the word cannot be heard.
For the six individuals documented in The Word – Rise of the Slam Poets the word has been their saviour, a lifeline, a means to speak out about their own injustices, find their strengths, fight for what they believe in and empower themselves in a life that, in one way or another and to vastly different levels, has deprived them.
Alice Eather lived a bipolar childhood between education and commercialism in Brisbane and her matriarchal indigenous homeland of Maningrida, Arnhem Land. With one hand white and one hand black, Alice was caught in a tug-of-war between the two vastly different cultures. But instead of choosing defeat, never feeling truly connected to either, always missing a piece of herself and her heritage wherever she called home, she chose something else – she chose to speak.
Her work is deeply inspired by reunification, not just of Australia’s diverse cultures and First People, but also of the aboriginal people, country and story. Perhaps less insidious than the stolen generations, indigenous culture is still being stolen by contemporary society, the alluring shiny lights, the big cities and the promises of wealth and glory. Alice calls for the need to uphold aboriginal culture, to unite it with the modern world, but never to forget it.
Omar Bin Musa found his voice in the drastically different surroundings of Queanbeyan, “Struggle-Town, New South Wales”. With a name like his, he was never going to get off lightly or go unnoticed amongst his predominantly extreme-white-right peers. He could have turned to violence and insurgence, fighting fire with fire, exacerbating racism and segregation through isolation and insurrection. But again, his voice was his calling – and his saviour.
It was a struggle for Omar to stand apart and speak out in a time and a place where silence or fists were the standard retorts. But through his poetry, Omar depicted the empowerment of oppression, seeing his differences as strengths and again, reflecting that, beyond the flesh and bone we are all different, yet beneath the skin, we are all the same. In a place where anger was so infectious, Omar found hope and reflected that hope to all who chose to lend an ear.
Abraham ‘Abe’ Nouk arrived in Australia in 2004 from Sudan as a ‘designated refugee’. Skirting the horrors of becoming a child soldier of Sudanese rebel forces, he arrived in Australia shell-shocked, illiterate and without knowing a word of English. He attributes much of his linguistic education to rapper Eminem, lip-syncing to his videos, but only later recognising the greater influence of hip-hop. He became a ravenous consumer of language, digesting its nuances in polemic and vocalising the injustices of his homeland and the struggle borne of his displacement.
Three of the six voices, Alice, Omar and Abe are joined by fellow slam poets, Ee’da Brahim, Hugo Farrant and Luka to complete the six-part documentary on slam poetry, The Word – Rise of the Slam Poets, airing on ABC iView.
Slam poetry is about the performance, often published in print, though never truly experienced without the impassioned lyricism of its creator. It is emotion drawn in ink from the pen like blood from the wounds, a prayer for catharsis and betterment.
There will always be those who corrupt the arts, use them for their own glamour and glory, imposing opinion and ego on others with arrogant self-satisfaction. But these are not they, and as this half-dozen artists conveys, the heart of slam is pure, each syllable a petition for justice, or at least, a little enlightenment.
You can watch The Word – Rise of the Slam Poets now streaming on ABC iView