Mason Granger planned to be a scientist. He dreamt of exploring space, discovering new species, and saving the planet. To merely fulfill a college class requirement, he slinked into an open mic session. He took a seat in the back, expecting “old dude” poetry to put him to sleep. But when the slam started, everything changed for Granger. His eyes grew wide, in awe of the raw emotion and skill the performers conveyed. Then he knew. He had to try it for himself.
And so he did. Now, Granger is a member of New York City-based Mayhem Poets, and even though his plans have changed, the scientist in him remains. “When I started writing, I loved poems about science,” Granger says. Many of his poems articulate environmental issues and urge listeners to act.
It’s this call to action that differentiates spoken word from other forms of poetry—and why it’s garnered such a passionate following. Spoken word draws from a hip-hop background, its roots analogous with the rhythmic storytelling of a once underground genre. Mainstream pop culture is taking notice. Spoken word artists appear on TED Talks, perform with rappers like Kendrick Lamar, and glean millions of views on YouTube.
William Ney is the Founding Executive Director of the Multicultural Arts Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs the first collegiate hip-hop arts program in the country, First Wave. He says the work of his students extends far beyond performance poetry. It paves the way for the genre. “Students aren’t just developing art,” Ney says. “They’re contributing to the community and the world.”
Many poets focus on topical subjects, such as gun violence, women’s rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The exchange of ideas between poet and audience is critical in creating and sustaining a conversation about today’s problems. “Spoken word pieces are often fueled by greater issues,” Granger says.
Each poet offers a different lens through which to view a topic. Granger weaves his science background into poems, melodically expressing his frustration with the government’s inaction on climate change. Open mics and slams are the perfect space for artists to assert their style and stances.
When a poem resonates, people listen. Ney cites inclusion, intersectionality, and diversity as key tenets to telling a story worth hearing. Granger certainly follows that maxim. He writes pieces to make a connection. “It feels good to hear people talk about feelings that you thought only you had,” he says.
More than anything, the spoken word movement bonds the lonesome and reaches out to the disregarded. For Granger and many of Ney’s students, the stage is a place of healing—liberation through rhymes. “We have so many reasons to feel silenced in this world,” Granger says. “Anyone who wants to can get on stage and say whatever they want. How appealing is that to someone who’s been marginalized?”