The spoken word art form is one that draws people from many walks of life and yet in my travels I’ve found that in many cities around the country you can almost always find someone who sounds like another poet from your home town. I attribute much of this phenomenon to the airing of HBO Def Poetry and the rise of the internet. Both entities are a gift & a curse; the gift being that they both increase the awareness of the art form and have helped spark an interest in viewers who perhaps were not even aware of the community and the curse being that the level of individuality and originality of the performers in the community has seemed to decline a great deal.
Every artist, no matter what art form, often mimics the style of those artists whose work we are inspired by when we first start out however, the challenge we face (and perhaps our duty) as artist is to find our own voice in the art. Poetry, at it’s core, is a form of self expression however ironically we find more and more that poets market themselves more as ‘cover poets’ than they do as unique individuals. There is an ongoing debate in the New York poetry community regarding who should hold poets accountable. Is it the responsibility of the elders in the community to mold the younger generation of poets, is it the responsibility of the individual poet or is the responsibility of the community? How much would the industry change if the fans didn’t support or clap for a poet who sounded like someone else? How would we know which of the two was the original person with the style? If no two people can ever have the same exact experience, is it ever truly possible for any two artists to sincerely sound or write exactly alike?
I believe the true answer to these questions goes back to the individual. In my opinion, it is up to the individual to respect the craft and to love the craft enough that he or she doesn’t just want to take from it, but rather would like to add to it by striving to be a pioneer within the craft. For example, the entire Hip Hop industry is based on sampling but artist like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth or A Tribe Called Quest didn’t just sample Jazz beats and classics but they went further to show us a new creative way of putting the music together thusly giving listeners a whole new appreciation of the music itself. This is the same approach we should all take when composing and performing our spoken word pieces. I can only hope that we as artist, are willing to step up to the challenge.
–Sabrina Gilbert is a poet, MC and actor based in New York.