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Art Into Action

Can the spoken word community lead us in improving social justice efforts? A new book by acclaimed poet Javon Johnson considers the possibility.

Arts and Culture  |  Apr 2, 2018  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
man at microphone
Editor's Note: 

Javon Johnson will participate in The Believer Festival, a two-day roving celebration of writing, music, and visual arts, April 13-14 in Las Vegas. Admission to three of the events are free, but RSVP is required.  More information is available on The Believer website.

You — a raced, gendered, sexually oriented, classed human being — are reading an article by a differently raced, gendered, sexually oriented, classed human being about the work of yet another differently raced, gendered, sexually oriented, classed human being.

Imagine a space in which, from the start, instead of denying the complexities of our selves and the biases attached to our identities, we instead acknowledged our realities before we took any other action. A space in which, by acknowledging the whole of our selves, we were able to start difficult but necessary dialogues and find ways we might begin dismantling systems of oppression that have divided us. A space in which we could dream of new possibilities and work toward building better communities together.

Javon Johnson has. He imagines that space could be found, at least in part, on the spoken word stage he’s graced so many times.

But that space doesn’t exist quite yet, he implies in his latest book, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. Not quite yet.

A Look From Within

“Opening and interpreting lives is very different when those lives are opening and closing your book,” Johnson tells me, paraphrasing a dilemma inherent to studying the communities to which one belongs that ethnographer Dwight Conquergood spoke about in his book Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.

But for Johnson, an acclaimed spoken word poet and assistant professor and director of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV, no other reasonable or authentic choice existed.

“This objectivity thing is a myth. It’s a ruse. It doesn’t exist,” Johnson says. “Ethnography is subjective. And the best way to deal with that subjectivity is to be honest about it, put it on the line. And the best way to do that is to say who you are, which is to talk about the self.”

It’s not as big a leap between ethnography and spoken word poetry as one might think. With roots in oral tradition and performance, contemporary spoken word poetry not only demands that artists speak their work aloud; it often addresses matters of social justice, which implicitly demands an acknowledgement of the body or self.

Killing Poetry traces Johnson’s spoken word career from its origins in Los Angeles through the “slams” (or competitions) that took him around the country, into the online world that’s immortalized his work, and finally to Chicago, where he both performed and completed the studies that in large part became the book. The book is at times autobiographical, at times journalistic, at times archival, and at times analytic, but it is always ethnographic (that is, concerned with the study of communities, cultures, and people).

More than a decade of his life—including countless hours performing and observing the performances of others performing in poetry clubs and workshops, an excess of 100 interviews, plenty of reading and writing, and even sweeping floors and baby-sitting—informed Killing Poetry.

“Ethnography is a process by which you have to go and get to know the people and talk to them,” Johnson says. “I had to hang out and just think about what it means to be in this space, to be of this space, and to participate in it—for not just me, but for the other folks who are in it.”

Through critical interrogation, Johnson came to discover that the world of spoken word, which seeks to use the art form to illuminate and fight larger systems of oppression, wasn’t entirely exempt from them.

“There is something about the immediate vigilance of spoken word that holds people accountable,” Johnson says. “That I absolutely love. But there are moments when we get it wrong.”

Bearing Witness

Like the spotlight that’s so often shone upon him, Johnson’s book illuminates critical conversations the spoken word community has been engaged in since the early 2000s—conversations that arose out of the challenges the community faced both from the outside and within.

In his hometown, it was black masculinity.

“When I was in L.A. doing research, black men were having a pissing contest, for lack of a better term, and I wanted to understand, what’s at play there?” Johnson says. “How do we better ourselves? How do we grow from that?”

Later, as he turned into an internet sensation, he became more aware of the marginalization of women of color in the online spoken word community.

“There are no brown or black women going viral on Button Poetry,” he says, referring to the popular YouTube channel for performance poetry. “Now, certainly they’re not responsible for virility, but I wanted to look at this digital divide of ‘producers and objects.’ The producers of social media are by and large white men, so if Button Poetry becomes this digital archive for slam and spoken word, and brown and black women aren’t sticking, what happens to their voices in the future?”

Finally, as he was heading into the national scene in the early 2010s, the conversation turned to the subject of sexual assault—now nationalized through the #MeToo movement.

In the book, Johnson recalls a national meeting in 2013 where two white women accused a white male of assaulting them. He notes how swiftly black men became villains at the meeting. The women wanted the accused man removed from the community without question. But in spite of the current justice system consistently failing the black community, some of the black men feared the systemless justice system the women were proposing even more.

“How do we get justice when justice, as we know it, is wrapped in raced and gendered issues that we claim to be pushing against?” Johnson says. “What are we going to do as a community that’s supposed to be based in social justice when these kinds of things hit?”

Johnson also pauses within his pages to take a hard look in the mirror because he’s known for several years that one of the poets who inspired him is alleged to have assaulted several women.

“I have to admit to myself that I’m also a part of rape culture,” he says. “I told myself all this time that I didn’t want to hear the stories because I don’t believe in hearsay, but truth be told, I didn’t want to investigate that which got me to where I am. That makes me responsible too—for not looking inward, for not looking at people I view as heroes. And it wasn’t that I didn’t believe; I found a way around it. And I needed that for that moment, but how terrible is that of me?”

A Way Forward

So if the spoken word community isn’t the safe, democratic space so many have hoped it would be or have even at times claimed it is, where does that leave the dream of such a space to exist, and exist within the spoken word framework?

“I’m hoping that we begin to understand these spaces as complex and fraught with both problems and possibilities,” Johnson says. “I hope that I’ve begun to unpack enough of the problem that we can begin to have honest, fruitful discussions about how to make ourselves better in the community.”

Then what will make the community—or any of us—any better in the end?

Johnson doesn’t have the answers, he says, though he believes his book has helped shed light on the problems, and he’s open to discussing how we can all solve the issues collectively from there.

Has spoken word made any difference? Can the change agent we desperately need really be the art?

“It is the art. It is the performance. The brave person on the mic who calls out someone who’s assaulted her, saying, ‘Yo, he did this,’ does an incredible amount,” Johnson says.

“But it’s also a collection of actions and discussions,” he’s quick to add. “This is a conversation not only among poets, but also with psychologists, people who deal critically with criminal justice and social justice, and others who come together to think about not just what is, but also what can be. And it’s putting strategies in place to try to squash as much injustice as possible but also deal with it more effectively when it does happen.”