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Slam Poets Put Words to The Movement

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Jive Poetic recites one of his poems at the Say Something poetry rally in Washington Square Park in New York City. John Brecher / NBC News

As protests linger across the country in response to the deaths of unarmed black men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, some New York poets feel a responsibility to put words to the movement by creating socially conscious art.

“Poets deal with language. So much of our work is based off of the world we live in and have to survive in, and the things we see,” Jive Poetic said. “We as poets must re-communicate that.”

As an independent artist, Jive Poetic’s work asks his audience to second-guess preconceived notions about what is accepted as normal in society.

Some say this approach is too rare in today’s art world.

Poets Respond to Killings 1:10

Last year, artist and producer, Questlove, condemned his fellow artists for not being political enough in their art and took to Instagram to encourage his peers to get more involved.

“I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in,” he wrote. “Although I’m kinda/sorta addressing the hip hop nation I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need new Dylans, New Public Enemy. Nina Simones. New De La Roaches. New Ideas! …I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them.”

According to politically conscious artist Jennifer Falu, the poet has a unique role in being a voice of this generation. Poets ask people to question what they already know because with art there is no right or wrong.

“Poetry is about what you feel when you’re listening, watching, or hearing a poem. It gives people the ability to let go of what they think they know to be true and just feel.”

For Falu, the ability to make a statement based on feelings is a powerful and much needed tool because it allows messages to break through cultural, racial, and even linguistic barriers.

“A song can be number one in 27 countries because with art, we are all speaking the same language of feelings and have the ability to touch on and agree on the same powerful emotions,” she said.

As a woman of color, it is important to Falu to take a stance on the deaths of black men because she feels that they are often painted as disposable in society.

“When it comes to black men, everybody around you is telling you your life is worth nothing and now someone who looks like you, who has struggled like you, someone who is going through these things with you, and who genuinely loves you is able to breathe new life into you through their words,” she said. “I can give you these words and make you feel a certain way and it’s my responsibility to do that because these words cost me nothing–these words are free.”

While some mainstream artists such as J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, and Ezra Furman did respond to Brown’s death in their music, many chose not to use their famous work to comment.

Poet Mahogany Browne shares Questlove’s frustration with the silence of mainstream artists. She said that all artists must be responsible for creating socially conscious art, because historically it has been the role of storytellers to document current events.

“The role of the poet has always been to bring generations together, it’s how our stories travel and stay with us regardless of where we go,” she said. “Right now we are in the midst of a war against black and brown bodies. If we don’t speak out about how we live and feel right now, then someone else will write our history for us, incorrectly and inaccurately.”

While Falu and Jive Poetic agree with Browne, they point out that there can be risks in speaking out. For instance, artists can be concerned with isolating their audience, being seen as a hypocrite if they change their minds on a topic, or could be told by their management that their work will not be marketable if they only talk about politics.

However, according to Browne, there is a lot to be lost if poets don’t take risks and address current events. She believes that some people rely on artists to make what is going on in the world digestible—and that is exactly what a poem can do.

“Poetry is sound bite, but it is life changing and can be earthshaking, and can make you question everything after you hear it.”