Speaking truth to power through spoken word poetry

For a decade, students have been advocating for and defending human rights through our video and songwriting contests. This year, we are expanding our arts-focused programs to include a spoken word contest, providing an additional avenue for middle and high school students to engage in defending human rights and our democracy, and to become positive agents of change through the arts.  

The spoken word contest honors the long tradition of using storytelling to celebrate, mourn, and protest. Spoken word occupies a crucial position in African American culture and history. As a vehicle for remembrance, oral tradition carried African stories to a new continent. As a political catalyst, speech illuminated the struggle for freedom and moved ordinary people to extraordinary acts of courage. Its power endures, and draws on the rich African American musical heritage, including elements of rap, hip-hop, jazz, and blues. 

We developed our contests to encourage students to tap into the power of art as it transcends language, religion, class, and sex. Art reminds us that no matter where we come from, we have deep commonalities—we seek love, freedom, and to be seen and appreciated for who we truly are. We’re able to empathize with, appreciate, and respect the experiences of others as we contemplate our collective humanity. Our new spoken word arts program offers students a chance to reflect on how they would like to respond to and be in the world we inhabit together through the written and spoken word. Using spoken word in the classroom lets students tell their truth, says Regie Cabico, a Washington, D.C.-based spoken word artist and partner of STTP’s spoken word summer program. Cabico sees spoken word as “solo political theater” and believes that this art form “is like jazz, where you are fusing theater and literature and celebrating life,” offering students the opportunity “to listen to each other, which nurtures empathy in a classroom.”

In the fall of 2020, we piloted a virtual spoken word poetry workshop. Over the course of two sessions, middle and high school students and educators learned about elements of slam poetry and explored the meaning of identity. Participants wrote about how they face adversity, and they reflected on the small moments in life that have brought joy during this period of quarantine and reckoning with racial inequity. Students used their voices and shared their stories, even with their cameras off, while the chat and a jam board allowed for collective poetry. The workshop culminated with an open mic event, where students performed their pieces for each other. “I have seen students who usually don’t speak, speak, during virtual poetry sessions,” said Cabico. “Students feel that they are able to take risks, which can be a very cathartic experience.” Ultimately, Cabico said, “building a nation of poets is to nurture compassionate citizens.” 

Spoken word sessions were hosted by Washington, D.C.-based spoken word pioneer Regie Cabico, winner of the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam as well as top prizes in three National Poetry Slams. He has appeared on TEDx, HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and NPR’s Snap Judgment and is the producer of Capturing Fire: A Queer Spoken Word Slam, and he co-edited Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for best anthology. Cabico is also the lead spoken word poetry teaching artist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and will be on the panel of judges for RKF Human Rights’ inaugural 2021 Write Your Truth spoken word contest. Details about the contest will be available at the end of the month, and the entry portal will open on March 1. Please email Jenny Girardi at Girardi@rfkhumanrights.org with questions.