By Michelle Denise Jackson
Aug 18, 2015
Spoken word poetry has had varying levels of mainstream popularity over the past fifteen years. If you were like me, in the early 2000’s, you stayed up anxiously on Friday nights to watch Mos Def host a new episode of Def Poetry Jam on HBO. HBO’s showcase of performance poetry was so successful that it led to Def Poetry on Broadway and created legitimate stars of spoken word poets.
Since then, performance poetry has continued to be an important art form for people who have something to say, want to say it beautifully, and want to ensure others hear them. There are multiple national and international poetry slam competitions all around the world, consistently drawing in audiences and new writer-performers of all ages and backgrounds. And its visibility has once again picked up in recent year’s with TV One’s Verses and Flow YouTube channels like Button Poetry and All Def Digital.
With its popularity, I think it is easy for people to forget the historical roots of spoken word and its importance within Black communities and other communities of color. Whether or not a poem is specifically centered around social justice themes or political activism, the simple act of a person sharing their stories and lived experiences makes it empowering and powerful.
And as Black Women, we need to tell our own stories just as much as anyone. The following list represents just a few of the incredibly talented and brilliant Black Women spoken word poets creating honest, beautiful work that deserves to be seen and heard by everyone.
Patricia Smith has had the kind of impact and career most writers only dream of. She has toured all over the world, won multiple national slam championships, and authored a number of critically acclaimed books. Indeed, when talking about contemporary Black woman spoken word poets, it is impossible not to mention the incomparable Patricia Smith. She is the Godmother of spoken word poetry, and a pioneer who moved the craft forward into what it is today. Smith proves that performance poetry is both a formidable and impressive genre of literature. But her passion, urgency, and presence transform her words into something alive on stage. To read her books or see her words performed will surely leave a lasting, spine-tingling impression. When not writing or performing, she currently teaches poetry workshops and courses at a number of institutions.
For more information on Patricia Smith and her work, visit her website athttp://www.wordwoman.ws.
Sonya Renee Taylor
Sonya Renee is a performance poet and activist from the Bay Area. She has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and other TV shows, as well as toured internationally and been featured in numerous publications. Her work is full of honesty and vulnerability, while also exuding confidence and empowerment. When she performs, her words and her presence often explode off of the stage. As an activist, she has worked around HIV/AIDS awareness and incarceration. In 2011, founded of radical self-love movement, The Body is Not an Apology (TBINAA), which focuses on empowerment and social justice.
More info about Sonya Renee Taylor can be found on her personal website and TBINAA Facebook page.
Mahogany L. Browne
There are no words for the kind of artist, woman, and human being that Mahogany L. Browne is. The writer and performer is originally from Oakland, CA, but currently lives in Brooklyn. In addition to writing poetry, she is also a freelance journalist whose pieces have appeared in Source, XXL, and others. She owns her own independent press, Penmanship Books. She is also mentor to other poets, providing workshops and coaching youth, college, and adult slam teams at national competitions. Her poems are beautifully written, but raw. And her performances will literally suspend the room.
To be inspired by her regularly, check out her amazing Twitter feed.
I still remember the first time I saw Jennifer Falu perform. I am pretty sure my mouth remained wide open as she shared multiple poems. Yes, they were that amazing! Her work is filled with such grace, you will actually feel unworthy of being in her presence. But her poems will remind you that you are, and that her words are a gift to you. In addition to writing and performing poetry, she recently debuted a one-woman show,Love Above All Things.
For more information on Falu, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Jaha Zainabu is a lot of things: performance poet, photographer, artist… The list could go on and on. But more than anything, she is an incredibly sincere human being whose words and presence will uplift even the most downtrodden of us. Currently based in Los Angeles, Jaha’s work is often inspiring and comforting. I appreciate that her words are an invitation—when she performs, you feel as if you are in conversation with a spectacular woman.
You can follow Jaha on her blog: jahasworld.blogspot.com.
Dominique Christina is a writer, performer, educator, and activist. She holds four national titles in the three years she has been competing in slam, including the 2012 Women of the World Slam Champion and 2011 National Poetry Slam Champion. She is presently the only person to have held two national titles at one time and the only poet in history to win the Women of the World Poetry Championship TWICE. Her work is greatly influenced by her family's legacy in the Civil Rights Movement; her grandfather was a Hall of Famer in the Negro Leagues, while her aunt, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was one of the Little Rock Nine. Dominique has always known she was a colored girl. Her writing is a celebration of that. Dominique Christina has performed across the country, opening for Cornel West, and performing for the Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till families in Washington DC at the Shiloh Baptist Church.
Aja Monet is an internationally known poet, educator, and musician from Brooklyn, NY. And for many, she is performance poetry’s reigning “cool girl.” Everyone knows Aja Monet and everyone wants to be (just a little bit) Aja Monet. Her work is as eclectic and thoughtful as she is, and her voice is one you could listen to forever. She has performed her work across the U.S., the U.K., France, and many other countries. She is currently a teaching artist and mentor for the New York-based youth organization, Urban Word NYC. Her work has been published in my publications, including her first book, The Black Unicorn Sings (2010) and the anthology, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape (MTV Books, 2012).
For more of Aja Monet’s work, please visit her website: www.ajamonet.com.
Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Angel Nafis is an incredible poet. Her poems have been published in numerous publications and her first collection of poems, Black Girl Mansion, was published by Red Beard Press in 2012. She is a teaching artist and mentor for youth poets, as well as curator and host of the poetry reading series at Greenlight Bookstore. I love her work, as it plays with language and storytelling and humor, while still remaining heartfelt. And she is unapologetically a Black Girl living in Brooklyn.
Visit her website for more information on Nafis and her work.
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese poet from Khartoum, Sudan by way of Washington, D.C. Despite Arabic being her native tongue, her command over the English language makes me never want to speak or write again. Her poetry is honest, lyrical, and often hits you like a punch to the gut. And her performances are just as commanding, often leaving her audiences a little spellbound. She released her first collection of poems, The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles, with Well & Often Press in 2012. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the New School University in New York City.
For more of Safia’s work, please visit her website: www.safia-mafia.com.
Many of you have seen a young Alysia Harris on HBO’s Brave New Voices, when she performed “That Girl” as a member of Philly’s youth slam team. Since then, she has matured into an impressive young woman and masterful spoken word poet. Her poems will make you feel all of the feelings and wonder how someone in her twenties could have such a deep understanding of the world. And her performances are just as passionate and evocative as they were when she was featured on HBO. She is also ridiculously intelligent: she’s a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, has a PhD from Yale, and is currently working on an MFA at NYU. She is currently a member of the spoken word collective, The Strivers Row, a group of phenomenal young poets who tour the country.
For more information on Alysia Harris, please visit The Strivers Row website.
Tonya Ingram is a force to be reckoned with. As a writer, performer, and slam poet, she can do things with words that no one else can. Her work is honest and fearless and will restore your faith that human beings are good. The images in her poems are beautiful and she is a powerhouse on stage. She has been a member of multiple national slam teams at the youth, college, and adult levels. Although a native of the Bronx, she is currently an MFA student at Otis College of the Arts in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book of poems, Growl and Snare, was published by Penmanship Books in 2013.
You can find more information about her and her work at her website and on Facebook.
Aziza Barnes is a writer, dancer, and actress from Los Angeles, CA. She currently lives in New York as a recent alum of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her first collection of poetry, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun., was published in 2013 by Button Poetry. And her work has also been featured in various publications and journals. Barnes defies all stereotypes of basic spoken word poet, as her poems are equal parts literary and performative. I appreciate that she is not afraid to experiment with language, but always manages to tell a story that connects with readers.
Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr for more information on her work.
Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist living in Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has performed in New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more of her wit and work, visit her website (michelledenisejackson.com) or follow her on Twitter (@MichelleJigga).