It’s fitting to highlight the various incarnations of soul music, for it is a category that can encompass so much—from R&B and neo-soul to acid jazz and hip-hop. The stepchild of soul music is spoken word. Spoken word found itself in the company of other soul music categories in the 1960s, when groups like The Last Poets and artists like Gil Scott-Heron added it to the mix of public consumption during a time heightened by cultural awareness, a building war and changing roles of Black people in America. Spoken word artists used music to accent their words as they shared their political views, built awareness about issues impacting the Black community specifically, and served as role models for those seeking an outlet for the oppression felt as the country moved into the 80s.
Spoken word, while called “rapping” early on, is very different from the genre we know now as hip-hop. While hip-hop is founded in the concept of a DJ and an MC, spoken word is poetry that is presented in a way to deliver an impact that resonates with the audience. It’s not about the beats. A DJ is not required. It is all about the message and the delivery. Popular rappers today—from Nas to Jay-Z–are held in high esteem for their elements of delivery that are at the core of what makes spoken word a genre of significance.
Today, spoken word artists vary in their message and approach; while their presence is rare in today’s music market, the more well-known spoken word artists are still in high demand. Here is a look at some of our more well-known spoken word artists over the decades.
Often called the “grandfathers of hip-hop”, the Last Poets arrived on the scene in the late 60s after the murders of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States was transitioning and racial turmoil was rampant. Born from a Harlem-based writing group called East Wind, the Last Poets released their self-titled first album in 1970 featuring members Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole, along with percussionist Nilaja Obabi. Dropping lyrics that always pertained to the state of the country as it pertains to African Americans, The Last Poets garnered world-wide acclaim with their first album, influencing the work of artists to follow them, including fellow spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron and rappers Common, Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West.
Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is most likely one of the best known pieces of spoken word ever to be delivered by an artist. After recording the piece for his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lennox, Scott-Heron was catapulted into celebrity and released later albums that reinforced his status as a cultural icon. Despite his personal struggles with drugs, imprisonment, and battles with HIV, Gil Scott-Heron enjoyed longevity as an artist, releasing his last album, I’m New Here, in 2010.
One of the most well-known spoken word artists of our generation, Saul Williams, continues to flip the script as he melds rock, funk and hip-hop together as backdrops to his powerful social commentary. The star of the acclaimed movie Slam which followed the life of a wandering spoken word artist, Williams continues to redefine the genre, teaming with artists such as Janelle Monae to illustration the glorious intersection of music and spoken word.
The breakup of the group Floetry didn’t deter the spoken word artist known simply as The Floacist from continuing along the career path of full-time spoken word artist. In 2010 she debuted her album The Floacist Presents: Floetic Soul and she continues to travel the world to perform her brand of spoken word that focuses on love relationships and inspirational themes.
LOVE the Poet
Michelle Antoinette Nelson, better known as LOVE the Poet, is a world-renowned poet most recently seen nationally as part of the popular traveling show “The Punany Poets,” and as one of the spokespersons for the official Jena 6 rally. Author of the book Black Marks on White Paper, LOVE the Poet is a guitarist, too, who uses music to accompany her ways in ways that punctuate her intensity. LOVE the Poet’s poems range in topic and theme, with a particular emphasis on self-determination and community building.
When Taalam Acey was invited as one of four spoken word artists to perform at the Essence Music Festival in 2001, those not hip to the already thunderous popularity he enjoyed in spoken world circles were dazzled. Invoking the energy of spoken word forefathers like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, Taalam Acey’s work holds a strong tone that revolves around cultural pride, self-determination, and fatherhood. His first spoken word video “When the Smoke Clearz” was nominated for an award in the Sundance Festival in 2002
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Follow Khadijah on Twitter @KhadijahOnline.