So often associated with dusty old libraries and the world of academia, it’s easy to assume that poetry is on its way out. For many of us, poetry is associated with childhood memories of forced class recitals, or the puzzling analysis of cryptic rhymes under the excruciating stress of an exam. However, as the tides have turned it seems it’s time to give poetry another chance in its modern, spoken form.
The spoken word poet – or slam poet – is typically the product of an urban environment and, in keeping with the time-honoured tradition of poetry, a slam poet is a keen observer of their environments’ goings-on. The form originated in the United States in the 1980s with the goal of making poetry accessible to all. It reworks poetry by associating it with spoken word performance, as well as everyday themes and language. By reappropriating poetry, marrying the stylised written form to stylistic rhythms of speech, slam poetry has breathed new life into the art form. Slam sits somewhere between written rhyme and rap: delivery and performance imbued with the stylings of hip hop become just as important as the words themselves.
The slam poet faces his or her audience alone – no props, no costumes, just a voice. Funny, angry, ecstatic or sad, slam poets present unique voices to convey their responses to their reality. Since the 1980s, the genre has spread around the world. Poets have begun writing slam as a gripping way of engaging with contemporary issues. Entertaining, while conveying loaded political statements, the talented slam poet captures the listener’s attention both emotionally and ideologically.
These poets can’t truly be assessed by best-selling volumes of their work; their voices are their currency. For that reason, the English language poets on this list have been ranked according to the number of YouTube views attributed to their most popular video poem. These viewings reflect the poets’ online and national popularity and their attendant influence on the genre. The poems in question highlight the originality of these poets’ ideologies and their philosophies, and typify their skills in translating these ideas to striking rhymes and spoken word.
10. Joshua Bennett ‘10 Things I Want To Say To A Black Woman’ – 585,000 + views
Joshua Bennett is a Phd Student at Princeton University and has been writing slam poetry since the age of 17. Bennett writes primarily about disability, race and gender; voicing these passionately through rhyme at universities and festivals. He has performed at the Sundance Film Festival and was invited to speak at Obama’s 2009 Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. Intent on spreading the art even further, he has participated in founding ‘The Strivers Row’, a performance collective that encourages social media as a way of sharing talent from all corners of the Earth.
9. Hollie McNish ‘Mathematics’ – 1.6 million + views
Hollie McNish is a UK slam poet who confronts a range of contemporary social issues from immigration and gender issues to the chemicalisation of our food. Although she started out writing for herself, eventually she took to the stage, winning first place at the UK Slam Poetry championships in 2009. Slam poetry is less practised in the UK than the US, and McNish has played a key role in promoting it in England. Recently she has been performing at a wide range of events and festivals world-wide. She participated in the Dove Self-Esteem Project, and runs a youth poetry slam for young people aged between 12 and 25 in Cambridgeshire.
8. Sy Stokes ‘The Black Bruins’ – 1.7 million + views
Sy Stokes is an African-American Studies Undergraduate at UCLA, and has a bone to pick with the institution. His 2013 video about the lack of multiculturalism at the university sparked heated debate. He combines slam with statistics, revealing the shockingly small proportion of black students enrolled at the university. Not only has he raised awareness of the issue, but UCLA has admitted to its lack of diversity and intends to address the problem.
7. Katie Makkai ‘Pretty’ – 2.3 million + views
Katie Makkai’s 2007 poem ‘Pretty’ is an attack on the societal pressures around female appearance. She slams about the tyranny of her mother in trying to make her ‘pretty’ by putting her through numerous medical treatments and plastic surgery. Makkai angrily traces the repercussions of this on her life from childhood to adulthood. As a result, she has helped to redefine how women see themselves. She founded the Denver poetry slam, and performs frequently in the US. She regularly competes in national poetry slams and writes humorous short stories about womanhood. She also taught poetry to the unexpected audience of juvenile criminal offenders between 2000 and 2004.
6. Sarah Kay ‘If I Should Have A Daughter’ – 2.5 million + views
Japanese-American New York poet Sarah Kay began writing and performing poetry since the age of 14 and has been slamming at events and festivals around the world ever since. Part of her Ted Talk of 2011, Kay’s poem ‘If I Should Have A Daughter’, was met with great appreciation worldwide. She’s the co-founder and co-director of Project VOICE with fellow poet Phil Kaye. Together they visit schools and universities, encouraging spoken word as a means of education and inspiration.
5. Kanye West ‘Self Conscious’ – 3 million + views
Chicago hip hop artist Kanye West has had a roaring career in the music industry; but it is a little known fact that he started out as a slam poet. Writing poetry since childhood, his technique soon developed to slam. Kanye performed ‘Self Conscious’ with Def Poetry in 2004 where he offers a humorous and powerful critique of consumer society. This slam was reworked to music in the ‘All Falls Down’ track off his debut album The College Dropout. For Kanye, hip hop is just another form of poetry.
4. Lily Myers ‘Shrinking Women’ – 3.7 million + views
20 year-old Seattle poet Lily Myers calls herself a proud feminist, and attempts to break down the social roles that women inherit. Studying away from home, it is on her trips back to visit her family that Myers starts to question the roles of women and men; the women silenced and ‘shrinking’ whilst the men ‘swell’ and are taught to be outspoken. Her moving poem reclaims the female voice. Currently a sociology student at Wesleyan University, Myers has a passion for writing about womanhood and intends to pursue it in the future.
3. Suli Breaks ‘Why I Hate School But Love Education’ – 4.6 million + views
British slam poet Suli Breaks is a university graduate, but profoundly disillusioned with the formal education system. This critique lies at the heart of his poetry. Since 2012, he quesitons the social pressures placed on youths to enter university, and whether a degree really is the key to success. He examines the barriers the system places on the mind: a logic of rote learning rather than creativity. Since his online success, Breaks has launched two EPs, featured in the Tedx House of Parliament, and is currently working on a ‘vlogumentary’ about the world of success and innovation.
2. Taylor Mali ‘What Teachers Make’ – 4, 9 + million views
New York poet Taylor Mali has given up his day job teaching to live solely off his rhymes. He has not, however, left teaching far behind: a profession often berated by society, Taylor stands up for the importance of teaching in laying the foundations of a child’s future success. His almost militant the respect for and defense of teachers is poignant and heated. Smart and witty, he points out the crucial differences that teachers make to a child’s life by instilling them with a critical spirit, respect and confidence.
1. Neil Hilborn ‘OCD’ – 5 million + views
Last August, Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’ went viral on the web. His three minute poem addresses the difficulty of building a romantic relationship when affected by obsessive compulsive disorder. His words are upfront and brutally honest, addressing his personal experience of the illness and his own unresolved battle with it. His performance is a heart-rending enactment of the disorder: he breaks down and challenges the shame and isolation felt by those affected by OCD by bringing it out into the open. Neil is a 2011 Creative Writing graduate from Macalester College, and a College National Poetry Slam champion. As his soaring YouTube view count reveals, his voice is crucial to the slam poetry scene, addressing mental health issues in a new and remarkably affecting way. He breaks the taboo of talking about mental disorders, taking a truly revolutionary step not just in the world of slam poetry, but in the arts generally.
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