Why Spoken Word is the Art Form of Denver’s Activists

Upon attending one of the city’s many poetry open mic nights, two things become immediately apparent. First, Denver has a vibrant spoken word art scene. It’s raw, blissfully un-systematized and radiates an intensity from both content and sound. The air seems to crackle from energy in the room — and no, it’s not the microphone feedback.

Secondly, there’s an observable relationship between performative poetry and social justice. Over the course of a single slam competition or open mic night, you’re likely to hear verses that tackle topics such as racial inequality, sexual assault and rape culture, body positivity and gender expression — just to name a few. Often the performers themselves have a stake in the activist messages they impart — many are people of color and/or are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

So, why does Denver have a flourishing spoken word scene that attracts marginalized voices? And why does the medium lend itself well to themes of social justice? Some of the city’s seminal spoken word poets — who are also activists — have some theories as to why.

It’s a Longstanding Cultural Tradition

In a previous interview with 303 Magazine, Colorado’s Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre — the first Chicano and first person of color to hold this position — reflected, “I think poetry — before it was relegated to books — existed as an oral art form. It was a way of communicating stories and ideas and histories. Only recently we trapped it onto the page.”

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Indeed, Colorado is home to several communities whose involvement with spoken word goes back thousands of years. Tanaya Winder — a local spoken word artist and educator from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations — explained, “Oral tradition and storytelling have always been a part of our culture and how history is passed down.”

Winder also linked her historical ties to spoken word with her current work with Sacred Voices. Previously titled Café Cultura, Sacred Voices is a Denver-based organization that holds open mic nights and poetry/spoken word workshops centered around empowering indigenous youth. “I’ve heard multiple times that the shortest distance between two people is a story, and that’s so true. You get to know so much about a person from storytelling, and I think that’s what our ancestors had in mind — just passing down that knowledge.”

The city’s spoken word scene also paralleled national trends in that it gained popularity with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, as descendants of the African diaspora drew on a rich heritage of performative art. Denver’s Five Points neighborhood — sometimes known as the Harlem of the West — is the birthplace of the nationally recognized performance poetry organization, Slam Nuba, and its parent organization, Café Nuba. Ashara Ekundayo, Ken Arkind, and Panama Soweto launched Slam Nuba as a Pan African Arts Society program in 2006, and in 2011, its team won the National Poetry Slam. LeFebre recalls some of his first exposures to slam poetry at Café Nuba.

The performative aspect of poetry aside, Denver has also been home to several Chicano changemakers who were also poets over the years, such as Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales — both of whom LeFebre cites as mentors. Their messages and traditions are still carried out by Su Teatro, a performing arts center and Chicano/Latino activist space.

Overall, Denver’s literary history is interlaced with activism, and the recent popularity of performance poetry is in many ways the newest progression of this relationship.

It’s an Accessible Art Form

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Photo courtesy of MO SPKX

Still, there’s significance in the fact that spoken word prioritizes the sound of a poem and cares little (if at all) about its appearance on a page or screen. Irrelevant are concerns of grammar, or whether or not it’s published. Gone are barriers such as these, which enshroud written poetry in elitism and fuel the myth that it’s exclusively for ivory tower academes. No credentials are required to be a spoken word artist — no equipment needed other than your imagination and your voice box — which makes it one of the most accessible art forms.

“The storyteller doesn’t need capital. We don’t need instruments. We don’t need external power. We are the capital, the instrument, the power, the vessel. So, you can see how it is that people who come from what is perceived of as less recognize that we can do more with something as simple and powerful as our words,” explained MO SPKX.

MO SPKX articulated his theory as to why performance poetry attracts marginalized voices thusly. He’s a Chicano and mestizo artist — and the founder of Youth On Record’s Fellowship program. Based in Denver, MO SPKX has invested in many different types of creative media, including hip-hop, film and writing for the page. Yet he’s continually drawn to spoken word art because of its immediacy and candor. Of the medium, he expressed, “I can create and share an artistic experience anywhere, out of thin air, without technology, gear, or expensive equipment. I am the technology.”

It Fosters Community Spaces

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Photo of Bobby LeFebre by Amanda Piela

The creation and consumption of written poetry is ultimately a solitary pursuit, entailing an individual’s interaction with a page. Spoken word art, on the other hand, is intended for live performance and requires both a venue and an audience.

The inescapably social aspect of performative poetry is why LeFebre believes it functions as a community-building art form for minority cultures. By putting on an open mic night or a poetry slam, these communities carve out a physical and ideological space for themselves to express and share their experiences — a space that the dominant power structure fails to provide them.

Suzi Q. Smith is a Denver-based poet, spoken word artist, educator, and activist who communicated a similar sentiment about why performative poetry attracts those pushed to the margins of society. Of these spoken word artists, she advocated, “Their stories and experiences are urgent, the need to connect to community is imperative, and open mics and slams offer a place for people to gather, to see themselves, to hear and be heard, to create and explore ideas without having to ask permission to apologize for their identities.”

Smith has influenced Denver’s slam poetry scene from multiple standpoints. As a competitor, she was a finalist in the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2011 and 2013, as well as the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2011. She’s also coached and organized Slam Nuba’s national teams, and even served as the Executive Director of Poetry Slam, Inc. — the organization that ran the various national poetry slams — from 2014 to 2018.

Shortly after Smith left her position, Poetry Slam, Inc. dissolved. Though another large-scale organization has yet to materialize in its wake, Colorado’s spoken word artists still have several platforms to circulate their message. Slam Nuba and the Mercury Café continue to put on poetry slam competitions, and Sacred Voices, Bookbar Denver, InnisFree Poetry & Café and Blush & Blu all host regular poetry open mic nights.

Poetry as a Radical Act

Factors like the identity of the poet and their chosen subject matter go a long way in determining whether or not a poem qualifies as a form of social activism. For example, Andrea Gibson — a nationally recognized poet, spoken word artist, musician, and LGBTQ+ activist who lives in Boulder — observes that much of their creative work is inescapably deemed ‘political’ nowadays just because they’re a genderqueer person writing about loving a woman.

303 Magazine, 303 Lifestyle & Culture, Spoken Word, Poetry, Andrea Gibson

Photo courtesy of Andrea Gibson

Yet perhaps poetry is political in and of itself, regardless of its authorship or subject matter. Taking time to craft a poem in a world that values rationality over emotion — a world that largely perceives artistic pursuits as worthless and unproductive — is arguably a radical act. Gibson, who won the first-ever Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2008, pushed this idea further by proposing that the appreciation and expression of beauty has become a political pursuit. “Creating is political simply because it is the opposite of a destructive and toxic culture,” they summarized.

Winder suggested that writing and performing a poem is a radical act because it necessitates being vulnerable with others, and perhaps most importantly, with yourself. “Writing a poem is a radical act because you’re taking your perspective — what you want to share — and you’re putting it out there,” she said. “You’re creating something you can share, whether it’s just with yourself, or with your friends, or with a larger audience. I think that in and of itself is a form of self-care.”

Her implicit connection to activism and self-care recalls a statement made by the late Audre Lorde, a self-defined black and lesbian poet: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

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Our conversations with some of Denver’s pioneering poet-activists brought out the interrelation of language and identity. Because poetry — even in its written form — privileges conceptual and stylistic abstraction, visionaries often turn to this genre to experiment with their own language of self-expression. Moreover, the dominant rhetoric of our culture doesn’t always provide the vocabulary for minorities to articulate their lived experience, but by writing poetry, they can invent their own terms to do so.

Reading these poems aloud is a physiological process through which artists bring these internal convictions out into the external world. In this way, spoken word art bridges the gap between what’s imagined and what’s real. It’s, therefore, no wonder that activists use this platform to speak their lives and/or revolutionary ideas into being.

In order to build a better world, we must first imagine it, and Denver’s spoken word artists are keen to do both.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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