The art of spoken word poetry is one of the most compelling and least understood of the contemporary verbal arts. It’s similar, in certain ways, to acting, public speaking, preaching, and even stand-up comedy. Like the beat poets of the 1960s and 1970s, and the slam poets of the 1990s, spoken word artists have evolved with the times. Their oratorical creations borrow and remix the dominant forms of the day, which is why the art form that spoken word most resembles and intermingles with is hip-hop music.
And yet, spoken word artistry is still quite distinct from hip-hop.
From the beginning, hip-hop has been about taking forceful poetic rhymes and amplifying them with energetic beats and street-authentic rhythms—the “yes, yes y’all” with the “boom boom bip.”
But in spoken word, the power is in the words themselves. As they are delivered with an intensity so potent, they can’t be locked into musical bars. Great spoken word artists use an internal sense of rhythm to arrange the literal and the literary into sentences as stanzas, using sharp timing, tonal contrast, and vivid imagery. And like great thespians, preachers, and emcees, spoken word artists transmit those words with the power of their voice to maximize meaning and audience comprehension.
Some even compare the techniques used in spoken word to those used in rap. In fact, many of the best spoken word artists have the same kind of swaggering dynamism common to great rappers.
And some artists switch between the two genres. Jason Perry, Jackie Hill Perry, and Ezekiel Azonwu are leading the charge in Christ-centered spoken word artistry, but they’re also gifted rappers. Rather than opposites, the two art forms complement each other.
Azonwu made it onto the national radar after several of his spoken word videos went viral on the Passion 4 Christ Movement YouTube channel. But his entry into the form started with rap. During high school, he participated in freestyle rap battles on the topic of guns and violence. After becoming a follower of Christ in college, he changed his subject matter, keeping the same aggressive approach.
But eventually, something changed.
“I stopped rapping with beats because I hated that people would bang out to the music and wouldn’t hear what I was saying,” he said in an interview with David Daniels of Rapzilla.com.
When a friend introduced him to the idea of sharing the Gospel through spoken word poetry, he tried it, and it left an impression.
“It was crazy,” Azonwu said. “It was just my testimony. I didn’t really need swag to do it. I didn’t need a beat to do it. And finally, for the first time in life, people were able to hear and relate to my words.”
The first verse in the book of John confirms an essential element of the biblical creation account: “In the beginning the Word already existed” (from John 1:1, NLT). The ultimate expression of creative declaration is the Triune God, speaking the very world into existence. And as human beings made in God’s image, we bear both the privilege and the responsibility to do something similar—to use words as a way of expressing our ideals.
Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly brought to life than in spoken word artistry.
It’s this emphasis on the word—and on the Word, the author of all truth—that makes spoken word a compelling alternative to hip-hop in the articulation of a Christian point of view. Thus, in the spirit of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17), here are several things to consider if you want to try your hand at spoken word poetry.
And who knows? These tips could also make you a better rapper, too.
Great spoken word artists use more literary tools than simple rhyming. Assonance and alliteration; similes and metaphors; repetition and parallel phrasing; personification; theme and variation; strategic contrast; even onomatopoeia. Get to know these literary devices, what they mean, and how they work. Once you do, find examples in popular spoken word pieces and recognize how they make the poems more effective. Or even better, find these literary and poetic devices in the Bible itself. For example, in the book of Proverbs when Solomon describes wisdom as a lady, that’s personification. When the Apostle Paul calls the church “the body of Christ,” that’s a metaphor.
Listen for a sense of spoken rhythm and cadence. Great preachers do it. So do great poets, great rappers, and great actors. Find the text of a well-known poem, song, or sermon and experiment with different ways of saying the same words, emphasizing different words, stretching out and shortening vowel sounds, sharpening or slurring your consonants.
Veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said this about dialogue, but it applies to spoken word as well.
“Remember that when you are doing this—what you’re writing is not meant to be read. It is meant to be performed. So anytime words are spoken out loud for the sake of performance, they have now all the same rules that apply to music. So it needs to sound like something.”
No one can tell your story like you. Your story may have elements in common with other stories, but there is no story exactly like yours. Don’t run from your story, but own it. Take time to dig into it. See a counselor, therapist or if those aren’t options, consult your pastor. If you can fully inhabit your own skin and take the time to tell your story with all of the authenticity, pathos, and technique that it deserves, you’ll be able to make a connection with an audience, and that’s what all spoken word artists try to do.
So take a chance. Try immersing yourself in the power of spoken word poetry—whether as a listener, viewer, or performer. It’s time to let the Word speak.