The Evolution of Spoken Word Poetry

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Nikki DeMarco


The inimitable Nikki DeMarco is as well-traveled as she is well-read. Being an enneagram 3, Aries, high school librarian, makes her love for efficiency is unmatched. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is passionate about helping teens connect to books. Nikki has an MFA in creative writing, is a TBR bibliologist, and writes for Harlequin, Audible, Kobo, and MacMillan. Since that leaves her so much time, she’s currently working on writing a romance novel, too. Find her on all socials @iamnikkidemarco (Instagram, Twitter, Threads)

Oral traditions span continents and cultures. One of the most famous from history is Greek mythology. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are epic poems which tell the stories of their gods. Western Africa is known for their griots, a historian and entertainer who often played a kora along with their recitations. During the Middle Ages in Central Europe, troubadours would sing poems to music and were among the few people who were allowed to speak truth to power. Native American nations have been passing their history on verbally for centuries. Other cultures known to have oral traditions are Central Asian tribes, Indigenous Australians, and ancient Vedic South Asians. 

Humans have been imparting knowledge through passion and rhyme for as long as we can remember. Spoken word poetry as we know it today is a descendant of ancient oral traditions, even though it’s only been around the last 100 years or so. In that blip of time in human history, it has continued to evolve in response to modern technology’s effect on culture and how people consume entertainment today. Let’s get into it. 

What is Spoken Word Poetry?

Spoken word is a broad term that characterizes poetry that is meant to be performed. It may also be written down, published, and enjoyed by readers, but that’s not its primary intention. This form of poetry focuses on rhyme, repetition, and word play. Often, the content of spoken word poetry is on social justice topics such as racism, sexism, political issues, and mental health stigmas. 

Spoken word poetry and slam poetry are different. While both are written with the intention to be performed, spoken word takes that directive much looser than slam poetry. Spoken word can be performed in all instances: coffee shops, open mic nights, informal gatherings, the White House, alone in your home to your cell phone. Slam poetry, on the other hand, is specifically for competitions where a winner will be announced and receives a prize, even if that prize is just bragging rights. 

20th Century

The origins of spoken word poetry starts in the 1920s with jazz poets. These performers recited poetry alongside jazz music being played. The improvisation of jazz perfectly accompanies improvisation in spoken word. Langston Hughes was known to perform his poetry with jazz accompaniment. In the video below, Hughes is reciting is 1925 poem “The Weary Blues” in 1958 on CBC’s 7 o’clock show. 

Bob Kaufman, a Black and Jewish poet, used jazz influences in his poetry. He was known to perform in the San Francisco area in coffee shops and on street corners. He is recognized as an influential voice of the Beat poetry movement of the 1940s-1950s. 

The Beat Poets arose after the disillusionment of World War II in the 1950s in an effort to rebel against mainstream American life. First starting in metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles, the Beat Poets settled mainly in the Bay Area of San Francisco. This group consisted almost exclusively of white men like Jack Kerouac and Micheal McClure. They considered themselves nonconformists who wrote about oppression, power, and politics. 

The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s followed immediately after. Poets, artists, writers, and performers who were part of the Black Arts Movement emerged after the assassination of Malcolm X, when the Black Power movement began in earnest. Imamu Amiri Baraka, a poet, playwright, and activist, is considered the father of the Black Arts Movement. Alongside the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement poetry and music groups known as The Last Poets arose. The name is taken from activist poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who thought that this was the final age of poetry. They spoke out against racism and are thought to be an early influence on today’s hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron ushered spoken word into the next decade. In 1970, his poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” came out on the album Small Talk at 125th, and Lenox is a major influence on the development of hip-hop music. Gil Scott-Heron is cited as the godfather of rap music. His spoken word pieces have been sampled by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Common. He referred to himself as a “bluesologist,” bringing together jazz, blues, soul, and poetry. Scott-Heron’s work heavily featured themes of politics and social issues. 

In 1973, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was founded in New York City’s Upper East Side to be a place where artists of all kinds had a stage to perform on. It’s still operational today. As a “multicultural and multi-arts institution, the Cafe gives voice to a diverse group of rising poets, actors, filmmakers and musicians.” Spoken word poets were able to perform in a safe space where they wouldn’t be afraid to speak to social justice inequities. 

The first slam poetry competition started in Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern in 1987 by Marc Smith aka Slam Papi. Smith said, “The very word ‘poetry’ repels people. Why is that? Because of what schools have done to it. The slam gives it back to the people…. We need people to talk poetry to each other. That’s how we communicate our values, our hearts, the things that we’ve learned that make us who we are.” He wanted “interactive poetry shows” where people could respond to the poets performing in real time. Smith is still an advocate for slam poetry today.

Throughout the 1980s, slam continued to gain popularity, leading to the first national competition held in 1990 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. In the ’90s, slam poetry continued to grow alongside other spoken word poetry performances, though it was looked down on. A performer who was interviewed in 1997 said, “Pablo Neruda or Garcia Lorca would never have been caught dead in a poetry slam. To them, poetry was pure. Slam takes it to the gutter.”

21st Century

A huge turning point for spoken word poetry happened in 2002, when Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry aired on HBO. Host Mos Def featured performances by up and coming performance poets. This brought spoken word poetry into the homes of millions of Americans who otherwise wouldn’t have experienced a spoken word performance. The show ran from 2002-2007, coinciding with the creation of YouTube in 2005. 

YouTube, and later other social media platforms like TikTok, transformed spoken word poetry. Now, anyone had access to poetry performances. They didn’t have to go to their local open mic and hope that someone was brave enough to perform: they could find inspirational, passionate performances online. 

Today, spoken word poetry is easy to find. You can find Kobe Bryant performing a poem about the hit 1990’s show Family Matters on the Tonight Show. You can find Brandon Leake competing on America’s Got Talent. Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s viral spoken word performance of “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration is a simple search away. World poetry slam winners continue to wow watchers long after they have left the stage. 

It has moved beyond YouTube. TikTok is ripe with spoken word poets. There are videos of people performing at competitions and people performing at home

Spoken word has come a long way as an art form. From prestigious awards like the Grammy’s spoken word category (check out 2023 winner J. Ivy’s album The Poet Who Sat by the Door) to student competitions like Poetry Out Loud, where students recite other poet’s work to win money for scholarships or for their schools. Poetry isn’t just for academics or a privileged few.

Now it has evolved into an easily consumable medium. We can find poetry in the pocket computers we hold in our hands. English teachers have started incorporating slam poetry lessons when they teach poetry to increase buy in from students. We are able to enjoy this type of art in its intended form without paying a cover charge or sitting in an over-crowded bookstore. Now, we can add a little poetry to our lives easily every day. 

If you want to find more spoken word poets to enjoy, check out 12 of the best slam poetry performances and 11 spoken word performances by queer poets. Maybe you still enjoy consuming your poetry on paper. Then you should read 24 of the best award winning poetry books and how poetry can ground you when you feel hopeless.