When inaugural poet Amanda Gorman strode up to the mic on January 20, 2021, for President Biden’s inauguration, she set the stage on fire with her words (and her vibrant yellow coat). Immediately following, my Twitter and Instagram timelines were suddenly flooded with posts about Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and her overall presence. Many of those praising her were people who do not, to my knowledge, usually fawn over writers of verse. But something shifted: during those five beautiful minutes with the world’s eyes on her, Gorman opened up minds to the power of truth through spoken word in an age when honesty itself feels subjective. Here are seven other spoken word poets like Amanda Gorman who speak of hope, pain, and politics.
It feels only right to begin a list about poets like Amanda Gorman with one of Gorman’s inspirations: the legendary, earth-shaking Maya Angelou. The poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings also spoke as a U.S. inaugural poet at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Through Angelou’s writing, which spans 36 titles and 45 years following the publication of her first book, she has unabashedly and eloquently brought to light the horrific realities of racism and sexism. Poems such as “Still I Rise” also showcase Angelou’s confidence, resilience, and hope. Undoubtedly Angelou has influenced many of the greats, including Gorman, who even wore a ring to the inauguration to honor Angelou.
Watch as Angelou reads “On the Pulse of Morning” for the 1993 inauguration.
Anyone who follows the world of young adult fiction surely knows Elizabeth Acevedo’s name by now. The Afro-Dominican author and poet’s first young adult book, The Poet X, was an award winner and New York Times Best Seller title written entirely in verse. She has also published a chapbook called Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths. Before Acevedo was published, though, she was a National Poetry Slam Champion.
Sparkling with energy and sprinkled with Spanish, her poems often navigate the tumultuous waters of race, family, and identity. Listen to Acevedo recite her poem “Afro-Latina.”
Patricia Frazier hails from Chicago but she influences beyond the borders of Illinois. Frazier was named America’s second National Youth Poet Laureate—Gorman being the first—in 2018 and published her first book of poetry, Graphite, in the same year. Through her poems, Frazier shows her love for family and her city, while also delivering unforgettable lines that push against the way the world views Black women. In an early poem in Graphite called “Auditioning for the Role of Child with Teen Parent,” Frazier writes, “what if she’s a teenage mom and this is still a story about Black excellence?”
In “My Block,” watch as Frazier uses her voice to draw attention to the process of gentrification as it affects her neighborhood in Chicago.
Phil Kaye is the co-director of Project VOICE and author of poetry collection Date & Time. His poetry is thoughtful, and often stunningly delivered thanks to his background as a National Poetry Slam finalist. Kaye’s poems are personal, often pulling from his childhood memories, complicated family dynamics, and experience as a Japanese American. When it comes to politics, he is unafraid of voicing his thoughts, hopes, and fears on stage.
Watch Kaye recite “Unalienable,” a poem about history class and the predicted madness after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sarah Abbas is the youngest poet to ever grace the screen for Button Poetry, a Minnesota-based YouTube slam poetry collective and publishing house. The Pakistani American poet is 16 years old and the 2020–2021 Youth Poet Laureate of St. Louis. Currently a student at Marquette High School, she is wise beyond her years, often challenging those who harbor Islamophobic beliefs.
In “War on Iranian Blood,” Abbas unflinchingly confronts the 45th U.S. president.
It’s hard to look away from the screen when Rudy Francisco is dismantling masculinity so musically, with both energy and heart. “And isn’t that what masculinity has become,” the author of Helium says in “Rifle,” the poem below, “A bunch of dudes afraid of their own feelings, terrified of any emotion other than anger, constantly yelling at the shadows on the wall, but still haven’t realized that we’re the ones standing in front of the light?”
Francisco hails from San Diego, California. When it comes to poetry, he coaches, performs, and co-hosts a poetry venue. Francisco is both a National Underground Poetry Slam Champion and an Individual World Poetry Slam Champion.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Sarah Kay perform live. Often thoughtful and humorous, Kay’s poems have the power to leave audiences smiling while also tearing up. The poet has an incredible ability to find hope in situations without denying the gravity. Kay—alongside Phil Kaye, no relation—is also co-director of Project VOICE and the author of four poetry books, including No Matter the Wreckage.
I can confirm a spotlight is unnecessary when she is lighting up the stage all on her own. Find out for yourself as Kay performs a poem that compares the tragedy of 9/11 and violence in Indonesia.