The late Amiri Baraka, a forbearer of the Black Arts movement, once poignantly stated, “…we need poems that kill.” in his aptly titled poem “Black Art”. The poem is a reflection of the Black Nationalist ideology that Baraka, and many others, held while navigating Black life after the assassination of Malcolm X, and still undergoing collective suffering after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Black Art” not only crystallizes the Black Power ethos of its time, but it was the precursor for today’s revolutionary spoken word that details the socioeconomic condition of the oppressed and strikes back at the establishment.
There are a variety of oratorical, philosophical, and poetic influences in contemporary Black Chicago’s spoken word scenes. Go to any open mic and you can see the influence that Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Hawkins (Brother Mike), Kanye West, Malik Yusef, Margaret Walker, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and many others worthy of mention have had on Black artists across the city.
This diversity can also be seen in Chicago’s geographic location. Places such as the Southside Community Arts Center in Bronzeville, the KLEO Center in Washington Park, the Quarry in South Shore, Chicago State University in Roseland, and now the TrapHouse in Gresham all display a wide spectrum of Blackness and represents the many communities committed toward the art. But Black people practicing spoken word is obviously a continuance of the art form, but not necessarily a subscription to the ideology of the Black Arts Movement.
“Is there a Black Arts Movement in contemporary Chicago? Absolutely,” says RJ Eldridge. Eldridge is a multidisciplinary artist and educator. He has contributed to Chicago’s “open mic” scene through his own awe-inspiring spoken word performances and instructing budding youth artists in various spaces including Young Chicago Authors, the non-profit organization that created the biggest national youth poetry competition Louder Than A Bomb.
“Chicago is both a contemporary metaphor for blackness, and ground zero for a Black Arts renaissance whose thrust, and influence, extends far beyond its geographic boundaries, and will continue to reverberate in the history of Black people.”
It is imperative to recognize that artists of the Black Arts Movement rose to prominence in a period of massive resistance and social struggle. To these ancestors, activism and art were inextricable. Yes, they did write “….poems that kill.”, but more impressively, many were able to exercise their ideology by expressing solidarity to and participating amongst the radical organizers of the time. Baraka even established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS), practicing his Black Power politics of self-determination by creating a Black space for Black art that is owned and operated by and for Black people.
But today, Black Chicagoans find it difficult to build, own, and sustain spaces for Black poetry. Ayinde Cartman, poet, organizer, and West African percussionist, has long used spoken word for instruction and as a medium for education for years in Chcago.
Cartman believes that there is a dearth of open mics in Black communities in comparison to the amount of artists that exist within them.
“Chicago has so many outstanding poets that its unreal how difficult it is to sustain regularly attended open mics,” says Cartman.
“Simultaneously, its absurd how often I meet people who love open mics but can’t find any. This is a minor indicator of how much our community needs functional communication. I’m working on it.”
Newcomers to Chicago, such as Resita Cox, echo the insistence on creating Black spaces for spoken word. Cox is a spoken word poet and just recently moved to Chicago from Kingston, North Carolina. Only living in the city since last summer, Cox has been able to recognize the connection that spoken word has with Chicago and emphasizes how expression is for healing as much as it is for liberation.
“Expression spaces are abundant here, but I’ve noticed the areas that need the expression spaces the most, the areas who need the most healing, are lacking spaces like that, I call them expression deserts,” says Cox.
“I started People Say, a monthly open mic on 79th and Ashland in partnership with Trap House Chicago, to try to fight these expression deserts that exist, mainly on the South and West Sides, and give people who need it the most the resources to heal through art, and even equally important, a space to feel safe.”
As we celebrate Black Arts, and more specifically the art of spoken word, we must never divorce its beginnings and purpose from performance. Those beginnings are found in Black resistance informed by socioeconomic oppression and its purpose was to amplify voices that jarred the status quo and yearned for freedom through self-determination.
Resita Cox puts it eloquently, “Spoken word doesn’t only heal, it is a key tool in the overall fight for Black Liberation, and that is why it is important to continue to make spaces for Black people to express throughout Chicago, and across the country.”