When we held our first event of Spoken Word London during the summer, one of the performers who really blew us away was named Amari. She was aged about nineteen, American and of mixed race heritage. Standing before the assembled faces down in Vogue Fabrics' basement, she said: 'I don't know how you guys use spoken word over here, but in the US it's used a lot for activism - to express yourself and your community.' She then started her poem, a delivery of winding lines and clever rhymes that gave us not only her righteous anger at the ignorance of racism, but also her concern for how she perceived black American culture conducting itself. 'Stop making yourself big men, calling yourself niggers,' she spoke, 'going around pulling triggers.'
Spoken word is often thought to be just about poetry, but I believe it to be a delivery of speech in a strong enough way to affect those who hear it. True, the short impact of stanza lines, use of imagery and intrinsic rhymes that poetry affords are inherently lending of themselves to the spoken word format, but the genre also incorporates rap, monologues, theatre, comedy, singing and other types of communicatory performance. It can even be something as simple as reading from a tourism guide to Syria, in the week that Assad's chemical attacks fill the papers.
Of course, spoken word performance does not have to be about activism. But the electricity of the live format, and the very freedom of speech intertwined into the delivery of the words, sufficiently creates a ready platform of political expression; a platform that holds the potential to grab people by their ears, and spur them into contemplating further the subject spoken upon. In the weeks we've been running our spoken word night, what works best up there upon the stage is a piece written with simple honesty which connects with the audience, as with Amari. And, as Amari showed, her honesty was centred around her culture: her thoughts and fears for her community where she grew up.
The LGBT community of London is in many ways a fantastic, vibrant and varied social group, as evidenced each Pride, and almost every weekend. Yet we are also a fledgling group, only officially accepted by the law since the late sixties and still finding our way alongside wider mainstream society. We have more than our fair share of problems, many of which are not our fault, stemming from ignorance, prejudice and hate. However, there are flaws woven right now into the fabric of our community that we could do something about and, at the very least, be speaking about.
Drugs are a problem that can no longer be dismissed as simply belonging to one club-heavy area of the city. This is not to stigmatise drugs for drugs' sake: it is the widespread appetite behind the drugs that is leading to a descent in gay men's living and mental health standards, and ever rising rates of new HIV infections. And are we as friendly, open and accepting, as one would imagine a community that has had to fight for its identity would be? Sometimes the archetype of the 'bitchy queen' can be seen to be taken to extremes, to the lamentable absence of true values, like friendship and trust. To begin talking about this, to question why we take the drugs, or why we aim for the low blow with our peers, is the start of fixing what may need repairing.
And isn't it wonderful that we are lucky enough, as a gay community, to have voices that are not suppressed? All of the recent furore over Russia has been sparked over a President trying to take away the voice of his people; denying their existence by disallowing their presence in language. Every gay man who has had to come out to his friends or family has had to search for the words, for tongues to give themselves some form. Gay poets like Dean Atta and Vince Laws are making their words heard to change hearts and minds that might still be closed outside of the gay community; free LGBT spoken word night Incite! runs monthly in Soho with featured readers and an open-mic, and we have our own spoken word night, Spoken Word London, up in Dalston where we're dedicated to hearing new voices.
Our predecessors fought for years for the right to be able to speak our names in public; let's use these voices.