Turning Up the Volume

By Andrew Halveron

As I settled into the front row seat of my first slam, I felt an active comfort throughout the crowd that was still funneling in. Many faces happy to see each other and many conversations about what was to come from the mic this evening already flowing. I had heard spoken word, but nothing amounted to taking a night out to step into a different scene.  It seemed like anything else in the arts today – live music, street art, dance – yet less accepted in the mainstream. That is changing, though. Spoken word and its counterpart, slam poetry, are worlds that are known of, heard of, but not necessarily experienced by many. It is the experience, the shivers and inspiration to speak out, that are becoming very present in the periphery of the artistically diverse communities in Boston, Cambridge, and beyond Massachusetts to other cities on the East Coast, West Coast, and worldwide.

That particular night in early July, the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge set the stage for the NorthBeast Slam Competition, with competitors in teams of four from the Lizard Lounge, the Cantab in Cambridge, MA, from Worcester, MA, and from Providence, RI. These were some of the best, most bold competitors in the area, and that wasn’t just based on what I was told. I would come to see familiar faces lurking around open mics in the future, other names were mentioned over and over, a clear establishment of who was making their voices heard, and why anyone would bother listening.

Jamele Adams, or Harlym 125 as he is known when performing, refrained in exclamation with “Ma’ Lizard!” throughout the night, either in support of his team or in general excitement for the substance being evoked. Having spent 16 years and counting on the scene and coming from a background of amateur rapping, he said the act of getting behind the mic had become a personal “place of solace and solitude.”

This made me pause, for slam, and even spoken word, had always seemed to be meant for “louder” subjects, those with pressing importance – identity issues, rape culture, racism, or even political disconnect. Yet, what Adams and a number of other poets continued to tell me was that the form of spoken word allows quiet issues to become loud. In spoken word, there is room for all sorts of styles, Adams told me, including “comedy, romance, sarcasm, erotica, thrills, chills…” In the end, the form was all about “being courageous,” whether that meant bringing your quietest, most potent thoughts to the foreground for the first time, or pulling them out for everything they were worth for a slam competition.

Another poet, Lissa Piercy emphasized that slam, with its three minute and ten second format, was an open opportunity where one could “potentially reach people on three different poems, or three different issues.” Nora, a poet from the Lizard Lounge team, noted the role of spoken word in relation to social justice and breaking down social barriers. One can go to a protest for or against a particular issue, she pointed out, but whoever is going is already there for a reason. If you are at an open mic, you can be exposed to issues you aren’t committed to. After all, I entered the Lizard Lounge, the Cantab, and other venues for slam nights with no preconceptions of what I would hear. Piercy recalled that in the early days of slam in the late 80s, “the big issues” hadn’t yet risen to the top. Some important topics such as racism have always been brought up over time, Piercy said, but back then, poets also talked about the color yellow or bubble gum and did it in a creative way. Many poets admitted that pieces about political and personal issues like homophobia or feminism can easily gain popularity, but maintained that the creativity required to be courageous and examine the issue at a new angle was what got the most claps.

Every shoulder was nearly rubbing up against the next in a dimly lit, low-ceiling room with all types snapping, clapping, laughing, and biting their lips heartily. Sometimes you could see when someone in the crowd really related and was spoken to. Other times, connection came not from personally relating to a struggle, but from seeing the speaker’s liberation from that struggle through verse. This was that free, high feeling that all the poets I spoke with returned to. In a way, poets said it was unnerving to speak about such personal thoughts in front of strangers, but it would have been harder not to speak about them. And, most said, why not give those thoughts the most justice while doing it.

I saw a couple poets speak out about asking for change on the streets and coming from homelessness. It was powerful to see someone come into a spotlight from out of the shadows, even if only in a small, dark hall made less awkward by the golden liquids sitting on ice in everyone’s cups. I spoke with Jhanea Williams, or Jha D, about her flash mob spoken word piece “Spare Change” [previously featured in SPARE CHANGE NEWS]. Williams said that the flash mob aspect of the poem does not necessarily change the dynamic of the piece when performed solo, since it is still spoken word in the end. However, when performed as a flash mob, the audience does not pay a cover to enter an agreed upon atmosphere; the affect of the poem, therefore, is all based on social reaction. “The intended impact of the piece is to bring consciousness and awareness to homelessness, displacement and panhandling in this, and other, cities. The purpose of the piece itself is to put stories behind the faces we willingly pass, ignore, or judge on the streets and subway platforms,” she said. “Additionally, we want to spread the power of the spoken word art form and exhibit the power of our collective voices.” Jha D said that she doesn’t perform alone anymore for this exact reason: a group voice could potentially have more effect than a singular one.


Editor: Sarah Betancourt

Editor 2: Stephannie Furtak