By Valerie Chepp
In this essay, I reflect upon the role the creative arts can play in social change work. I explore this connection by drawing upon my ethnographic research of a community of young spoken word poets in Washington, D.C. In various ways, these young adults—primarily millennials (i.e., those born 1980-2000)—leverage the emotive power of the creative arts in pursuit of social justice activism. Below, I introduce you to some of these poets and their artistic activist approaches.¹
First, poets use spoken word’s short storytelling structure to make contentious claims; poem topics often challenge the status quo, critique unequal social structures, and advocate for justice. This contentious content can be understood as a particular type of claims-making (Tilly and Tarrow 2007). The narrative arc endemic to storytelling allows audiences to latch on and relate to the social justice messages being promoted. Neeta, one of the poets in my study, described the short narrative format as “a unique way to have a conversation” and, specifically referencing her poem about the Sri Lankan Civil War, she told me:
There have been so many times where I’ve done that Sri Lanka poem and someone will come up to me after and it’s like, they didn’t know anything about it and now they want to do something. They want to get involved or [ask], “Where can I get more information?” And to me, that’s so powerful…I didn’t know you could do that short of giving a thirty-minute talk with a PowerPoint presentation at a conference where the audience is already people who are there because on some level they care about something. You’ll walk into a room of people who are at a bar for entertainment on a Tuesday night, and do a three-minute poem, and get that same—not just the same reaction, but one that’s moved by more than just the facts, you know?
Contrasting a three-minute poem to a thirty-minute PowerPoint presentation, Neeta underscores the advantage of using performance poetry to convey her political message. The short storytelling format grabs and sustains an audience’s attention, with the potential to reach a broader public, beyond an already receptive group (e.g., conference goers). Moreover, spoken word is able to “move” people by using “more than just the facts;” here, Neeta highlights the art form’s ability to employ storytelling (Polletta 2009) and emotions (Eyerman 2006) in social change efforts.
The artistic storytelling feature of spoken word also helps poets humanize and make others care about social problems. Poets use the spoken word performance to “key” (Goffman 1974, cited in Bauman 1977) universal experiences via particular, and often their own, personal stories. Specifically, the “language of poetry,” as Josh described to me, is useful for cultivating a sense of collective identity across different individual experiences and identities. Referring specifically to the frequent use of metaphor in spoken word, Josh told me that “poetry is imagery, and imagery—it just connects something we never experienced to something that we have experienced…It’s humanizing, it’s—you know, you can’t ignore something if someone’s made you care about it…It’s an amazing awareness raising tool. Because you’re raising more than awareness. You’re raising pathos.”
In this way, art is humanizing in that it encourages people to see how seemingly abstract social problems and injustices relate to their own lives. While pathos—or, an appeal to the audience’s emotions—is used in political rhetoric all the time, as Josh and Neeta suggest, artistic modes of communication such as spoken word can be especially effective at evoking emotions in order to get people to care about a social justice issue.
Poets deploy other artistic performative tactics to evoke emotions and communicate social justice messages. In my interviews, poets talked about their strategic use of tempo, rhyme, cadence, volume, vibration, sound, silence, intonation, diction, eye contact, and playing with physical space as spoken word techniques that help them engage audiences and make claims.
“Love” and a closely related sentiment of “passion” are other emotions that carry much significance in the poets’ art and activism. Frequently, poets characterize their dual commitment to art and social justice as a “calling” or “obligation”; they outwardly express their love for each other and their work, advocate for self-love, and talk about “instilling a passion” for social justice in a younger generation of poets through mentoring.
Jennifer Nash (2013) offers a way to think about the political role of love in social justice projects. Highlighting second-wave Black feminism’s “love-politics,” she illustrates how love served as “a significant call for ordering the self and transcending the self,” as well as a foundation upon which to “produc[e] new forms of political communities” (3). Nash grounds Black feminism in a larger intellectual tradition of affect theory, which spotlights the importance of the “lived affective experience…problematizes the boundaries between private and public, and draws intimate connections between the subjective and the social, between the emotional and the political” (4). The young poets in my study practiced a similar form of love-politics, organizing their activism around loving the self and transcending love for the self to loving others, resulting in a type of beloved community well positioned for establishing political coalitions organized around emotions and affect rather than a homogenous identity or issue area.
However, the poets’ love-politics depart from Nash’s analysis, particularly what she refers to as Black feminism’s nonidentitarian strategy. Although poets use artistic devices to transcend subjective identities and universalize their particular lived experience in order to politically engage their community, their love-politics is not nonidentitarian. Rather, identity and their personal stories remain central to their politics and their art. Spoken word offers poets a means by which to acknowledge, retain, and embrace their complex and often socially marginal identities, without having their politics collapse into a reductionist or narrow understanding of identity politics.
Nash draws upon Black feminist creatives in order to delineate her theory of love-politics—namely authors/poets/activists Alice Walker, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde; however, she does not explore how the creative arts may have factored into these Black feminists’ political interpretations of love. As second-wave Chicana feminist and poet Gloria Anzaldúa (1990) argues, creative artistic acts, which necessarily reflect an artist’s identity, are forms of political activism:
A woman-of-color who writes poetry or paints or dances or makes movies knows there is no escape from race or gender when she is writing or painting. She can’t take off her color and sex and leave them at the door of her study or studio. Nor can she leave behind her history. Art is about identity, among other things, and her creativity is political…For many of us the acts of writing, painting, performing and filming are acts of deliberate and desperate determination to subvert the status quo. Creative acts are forms of political activism employing definite aesthetic strategies for resisting dominant cultural norms and are not merely aesthetic exercises. (xxiv)
Given this perspective, one question for scholars to consider is: How might artistic practices shape a political activist vision rooted in love? My research suggests that the artistic practices employed by the Black feminist creatives cited by Nash may have shaped and fostered these women’s ability to recognize the political power of empathy and love in their theories of social justice.
The case of spoken word raises interesting avenues of inquiry for new ways to define activism. My research illustrates some unique ways that young people are politically engaging in the public sphere in order to identify common concerns and advocate for solutions. Unlike Habermas’s (1989) vision, these political discussions are not rooted in rational-critical discourse. On the contrary, poets necessarily draw upon subjectivity, emotionality, and performativity—rather than rationality or “reason”—to assert political claims and judgments. The artistic practice of spoken word is central to this activist approach.
¹The Names of all people have been fictionalized.