LUX’s Contributing Poet Rhiannon Williams discovers street poetry and protest is alive and thriving on the fringes of the international urban art scene.
As a young poet living in London, I have come to know the many hidden faces of our contemporary poetry landscape well. But nothing has struck home in the way that Jawdance has.
In the heart of Shoreditch, in East London, there is a dark stage. Feel an insistent bass, which picks up pace to keep time with an energy that builds and builds and doesn’t stop building. From the stage comes a spiky, eclectic hybrid between music, hip hop, art and poetry – and a rare glimpse into the soul of an arts scene which is uninhibited and so, so alive. Unseen, and yet bursting at the seams from a small room with a small stage full of big voices.
This is spoken word poetry, a poetic hybrid that speaks of and to people who are otherwise unheard. The talent of the poets you’ll find here is home-grown, full of heart, and iridescently free. Free from the dust of astringent commerciality which can so often choke artists. Free from the inhibitions of so-called ‘sensible society’; day jobs are all forgotten for tonight. As free as the rhymes which are so full of life they seem to transcend their meanings to reach a vivid corporeality. Oh, and it’s free to enter too, which leads to the creation of a rare welcoming charm, something lacking in a world where so many precious things are valued primarily by their marketability and not originality.
It strikes you as reminiscent of the kind of golden poetry you would have found in San Francisco during its sixties scene, or Harlem during the Revival time of Langston Hughes; the real beauty is in the spontaneity. Spoken word as an art form has evolved since its first explosion onto the scene in the early 20th century primarily through the prisms of political change. Since then, its use as a form of protest and experimentation as well as just for a riot of a good time, bringing together a collective consciousness and feeling, has been a powerful influence over young creatives all over the world. And this characteristic of the genre is just as potent today. More than ever, the urgency is palpable, getting bigger and louder often in forgotten corners of our urban landscapes, on both sides of the Atlantic.
At Jawdance, presenter and poet Yomi Sode MCs the evening’s electricity. The creative mastermind behind the evening is an event in himself in the way he merges stand-up comedy continuity with his mastery of the at times very profound issues being laid bare. He calls up act after act to the microphone to infuse the air with a poetry that bites, that shocks, that electrifies. Whether the act is the whip-smart all-female poetry collective Octavia or an open-mic first-timer who has wandered in from the humdrum of the city, the quality of performance is staggeringly high – and what they have to say is important. Because in the poetry at Jawdance there is a sense, from a social and cultural perspective, of something moving. Raw at moments, hilarious at others, a common theme is for a poetry that is plugged in and almost cruelly receptive to the times. You are left breathless from listening, but enthralled to be so, as the candle is held up to the intimacies of life, the social and political issues that trouble so many refracted into words. It is thanks to platforms like Jawdance that there is still a space for this passionate, immediate self-expression in cities where those who may feel themselves to be voiceless can soar.
So if there’s one thing you take away from Jawdance, it is that poetry is willing itself to be heard every day. So grab a craft beer from the bar, let yourself be absorbed into the crowd and lie back for the ride, because to quote from the night, if the true Prime Minister of London is gigs then Jawdance is without a doubt the Woodstock in the cabinet.
Jawdance, every last Wednesday of the month at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London