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Spoken Word: Defying Definition

By Alyssa Mulligan

Drawing inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance, blues and hip-hop music, spoken word cannot be simply defined: which suits this performance art and its fellow artists just fine, thank you.This lack of formal rules enables spoken word artists to experiment with structure, words and rhythm to provide social commentary on current events. 

Spoken wGil Scott Heronord became popular in the 1960s with The Last Poets, an underground African-American community that sprung from the Civil Rights Movement.In 1970, Gil Scott Heron brought the art form to the mainstream’s attention with his piece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, released on his album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.In 1989, the Nuyorican Poets Café held one of the first documented poetry slams, a popular offshoot of spoken word where poets recite original work for a panel of judges selected from the audience. 

Over the years, spoken word continued to create a Def Poetryfollowing, especially in the form of social activists and younger populations.  MTV featured a very successful Spoken Word special in the 1990s, which featured established poets and musicians.The poetry slam movement continued to be popularized by Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry, an HBO television series that premiered in 2002.(Watch Universes, the company behind the upcoming production of Ameriville at ArtsEmerson, perform on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry here.)

amerivilleSpoken word is visceral.Unstructured, rhythmic and socially charged, this surprising and dynamic art form refuses to be easily defined—you just have to experience it for yourself. 

Watch a clip showcasing spoken word from the upcoming performance of Ameriville.

Witness this art form for yourself as Ameriville’s Universes fuse spoken word with storytelling, jazz, gospel and hip hop.  Ameriville is at ArtsEmerson for one week only!  MARCH 13-18 on the Paramount Center Mainstage. 

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