In a 1989 episode of The Simpsons, Homer stated:
‘The problem in the world today is communication … too much communication!‘
Now, almost thirty years since Homer pondered the dangers of mass communication, we have reached an entirely new level of it through social media channels and the internet at large. And while the internet can be a frightening place dominated by the mainstream media, wackadoodle conspiracy theorists and Gerald Broflovski-types, it has also become an exciting platform for raising awareness and bringing people together to fight for joined causes. The internet is home to some of our generation’s most talented and prolific writers, musicians and artists and in these times of political and social unrest, many of us turn to art in all its forms as a remedy for our troubled souls.
Whether you’re stomping out your frustrations to the latest techno beat, crying over an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with a tub of ice-cream or vigorously nodding in agreement as you’re reading a confronting piece on racism in post-Brexit UK, art has a way of bringing us the cathartic release we often don’t even realize we needed. On top of that, it has a way of communicating things we may not otherwise understand; topics we may not otherwise relate to were it not for the accompanying musical notes, stunning cinematography or prose that cradle heavy statements for full impact.
One surprising art form that has become particularly impactful in terms of raising awareness and opening our eyes to the experiences of others, is that of poetry. Add to it a delicious pinch of humour, a sprinkle of attitude and a voice that can hold an entire room captive, and you’ll be filling yourself up on a three-course meal of heart, emotion and laughter. The performance poets on Button Poetry, a platform and distribution network dedicated to showcasing their work, offer insight into their lives and their most intimate thoughts through words as powerful as their gestures and voices; often leaving us as breathless as they are when they exit the stage. Experiencing a spoken word performance will be the closest you’ll ever get to ‘walking in another man’s shoes’ — it is simply impossible not to empathise with their stories on a most profound level.
When American Slam Poet, Neil Hilborn, takes to the stage and walks you through what it means to date when you’re battling mental illnesses such as OCD and bipolar disorder, you will learn more on the subject than you would through any articles or textbook explanations. His striking balance between humour and harsh reality, his incredible honesty and ability to set a scene you feel you are a part of, draw you into his world and the many challenges he faces. He does not shy away from highlighting the ticks that are every bit as part of him as his passion for Slam Poetry and uses their familiar repetitions to drive home the intensity of his personal experiences. His most popular poem, OCD, will make you laugh until it makes you cry, but you will come out of it having gained new respect and understanding for those who are affected by mental health issues. By painting a verbal picture of his disorders, Hilborn is contributing to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and is opening a loving channel of communication surrounding the topic.
Melissa Lozada-Oliva, another Button Poet, who has a strong focus on Latina identity, body image and feminism, will give you a whole new outlook on the meaning of the word ‘bitch’. With her poem, Bitches, she sassily explores its negative implications before subtly turning it into a word of empowerment; one that recognizes many of these so-called ‘bitchy’ traits for what they are — acts of love, kindness, independence and self-defence, many of which speak of her Latina heritage. Lasting just a little over one minute, this performance may be short but it packs a punch so powerful, you too will be able to translate others’ derogatory purpose of the word into a compliment.
‘Every poem is political. In poems not obviously political, the writer is trying to avoid something’, Slam Poet Danez Smith told the Guardian in a recent interview. Danez, although capable of poetic subtlety, has developed a confrontational style of performing, one that begs for long moments of reflections between the likes of Dear White America and This Strange Dowry, but a style, that involves equal amounts of surrealism and magic. In Dinosaurs in the Hood, they speak of one of the most common forms of racial stereotyping, namely that present in most movies told from a white gaze. Danez imagines a movie that is not about race, one that is not ‘a metaphor for black boys toy with their lives’, one that won’t see a black boy get shot on the front porch of his own house in a drive-by, but instead, sees his grandma taking out raptors and ‘children of slaves and immigrants and addicts and exiles saving their town from real-ass dinosaurs’. With this heartwarming poem, our eyes are opened to so many movies focusing on black pain and ‘a long history of hurt’ and upon hearing it, you won’t long for a moment of reflection as much as you will for this awareness to go global and enforce change.
Spoken-word poetry is an art form as much as it is an influential communication tool that allows poets such as Neil Hilborn, Danez Smith and Melissa Lozada-Oliva to infect us with their rage, their hurt and struggles, until we have no choice but to drive their message forward in an attempt to change the world one verse at a time.