Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Defense of Slam Poetry Part 2

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"Most slam poets are failed rappers."

If slam is a genre of poetry (or an amalgamation of genres) then this supposes two things:
1/ Rap is not a genre of poetry (Hence, success in said non-genre is not transferable into any actual genre, or amalgamation of.)
2/ A bad rapper could be a good slam poet

Let's squash number one quickly. Versions of what would become rap began popping up in the Beatnik era. Not only that, Beat luminaries like Ginsberg were influenced and influencing the amalgamation of black music and poetry. Heck, Ginsberg married Charlie Mingus to his 5th wife! Mingus was at the forefront of this marriage. A great example being his poem/song “Freedom.” Or, his collaborations with Langston Hughes.

As far as modern rap, how many university papers, thesis, and academic analysis of Tupac Shakur need to exist before people accept that rap is not only a legit genre of poetry, but a revered one?

Can a bad rapper become a good slam poet? In short – no. Why? Bad rappers hide themselves between crews. I'm not saying that the Wu-Tang Clan is rife with bad rappers, however, they did create part of the lexicon that bad rappers use to protect themselves from being found out.

Bad rappers often are propped up by ghost writers and are always poor performers. Slam poets are required to write their own work and perform by themselves. Occasionally, slam poets showcase group poems – but the mechanisms behind this and posse cut performances are different.

As a former DJ who had the opportunity to DJ at numerous festivals, it is always an easy task to spot the bad rapper before they utter a syllable. First sign? A group larger than 3 people enters the stage, each with a mic, and they're way too fashion forward for a group without a reputation or a record deal. Even more so if only one has been introduced as a rapper and the other four demand to carry mics.

As the bad rapper falters, his crew picks him up, fills in lines he forgets, back the rapper's weak punches (punchlines) with ohs, and cheers. They attempt to hype up an audience for their mediocre friend (or they lip-synch -- have you ever seen a lip-synch rapper? Atrocious). Want to hear a good rapper? Check out local cyphers, groups like KOTD are helping battle rap explode across North America. Good rap has little to do with successful rap. One is the measurement of technical skill, while the other is the measurement of corporate liquidity. Both have a place, and the best commercially successful rappers can balance both ideals.

My point? A bad rapper needs 5-10 people to propel their performance, so how could you take their security blanket away and think that they could survive a poetry slam? You're asking someone to write their own work, memorize 2-3 poems, and perform flawlessly.

I know what you're thinking, “Dane, but you have ties to Canada's hip-hop community. What about you? Were you not a failed rapper? And what about the Freedom Writers? There are more than 3 of them on stage and they're not signed to a major. Are you saying the Freedom Writers are bad rappers?”

Yes, I was a rapper. I hosted one of Canada's first all Canadian hip-hop radio shows, “The Lunch Break” on CKCU FM (Carleton University) Canada's longest running community radio station. The largest audiences that I have performed for were in the capacity of a rapper (over 500 people multiple times) and as a DJ (well over 1000 people multiple times). I was offered deals with a handful of small indie labels. When I was young, I was even offered the opportunity to work on a project with a major label. My brother and I put out an indie vinyl with friends...Yes, I did not make millions of dollars, but to call my rap career anything but a success would be an insult. How many people do you know who went from small island boy, to rapping for packed crowds?

As far as groups like the Freedom Writers? All the members have put out solo material and are as likely to show up at smaller gigs on stage by themselves as they are with their whole collective. They have the talent to stand on their own. To be honest, if the record industry wasn't so blatantly racist (For instance, it wasn't until the Rascalz refused to accept their Junos that urban categories began being televised) in Canada the Freedom Writers would be running their own imprint for a major instead of being an underground giant.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Dane Swan

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011.

Go to Dane Swan’s Author Page