London's spoken word scene

Discover the power of the spoken word as Time Out catches up with poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Inua ’Phaze‘ Ellams and Saul Williams

  • London's spoken word scene

    'Art can hold up a mirror; politics has to enable change' says hip hop wordsmith Linton Kwesi Johnson

  • London is teeming with poets, mics, metaphors and messages. Spoken word isn’t new, in fact it’s ancient – think of the Greek epics or the west African griots – but a hip hop backlash has revitalised this scene. Thirty years ago, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s groundbreaking album ‘Dread Beat an’ Blood’ helped lay the foundations. When he pronounced ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’, he spoke for the disillusioned children of the Windrush, using their language (patois) and their music (reggae). Johnson will give an anniversary performance of his album at the Barbican this Sunday as part of the East Festival; on March 11 the London Word Festival will feature up-and-coming poet Inua ‘Phaze’ Ellams. These two Londoners, with New York’s hip-rock renaissance man Saul Williams (who recently released ‘The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust’ with Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor), spoke to Time Out about the poetry of politics and the politics of poetry.

    How did you arrive at this form?

    Linton Kwesi Johnson ‘Poetry discovered me and used me. I discovered black literature when I was a youngster involved in the black radical movement; it opened up a new world. Poetry was a cultural weapon in the struggle for race equality and social justice. My engagement in poetry is based on wanting, as a youngster, to articulate my generation’s experiences growing up in London.’Inua ‘Phaze’ Ellams ‘Similarly, I never wanted to be a poet. A friend and I discovered King Lear in school in Dublin and began dabbling; our teacher told us we were quite good but my friend committed suicide when I was about 16. I began writing, not so much to vent any great pain but simply because I had lost the person I discovered English with. When I came over here, I just carried on. It felt natural. Only then did I discover that what I was writing could be termed poetry.’Saul Williams ‘I don’t write poetry because I love words. I couldn’t give a fuck about words actually. I’ve said it before – I treat words like rappers treat girls in videos. I pour Champagne on ’em. Because my poetry isn’t about love of language; it’s a love of life, and words are tools that help me sculpt my expression of this love.’

    Why do you think London’s spoken word scene is so strong at the moment?

    Ellams ‘A lot of what attracted people to things like hip hop has sort of died away and something had to take its place.’Williams ‘I’ve always been inspired by a lot of work coming out of the UK. As a teenager, it was Soul II Soul, and then trip hop and later I got into the grime scene. But my favourite poet actually lives in England: Ben Okri. He may not be a spoken word artist but I don’t think of a “scene”; poetry is poetry, whether you recite it or not.’ Johnson ‘The scene is very vibrant. [But] I worry when I hear poets say they don’t read. You can’t just string a few words together, make it rhyme and call it poetry. It’s the distillation of human experience through language.’

    London has a mayoral election approaching; Americans will soon vote for what could be their first black or female president. Does it help a poet to live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times?

    Williams ‘It is an exciting time. I have never shared who I’m going to vote for, [but I support] Obama. I see more humanity in him than in the others. Also, like Niggy Tardust, he’s a hybrid. So both politically and figuratively he symbolises a fusion of worlds. I think he realises that.’ Johnson ‘I make no comment on the current controversies surrounding Ken Livingstone, but given the fact that the campaign against him is so virulent, and has been orchestrated by bigots and right wingers, I think I’ll vote for him.’ Ellams ‘I just know Boris Johnson rubs me the wrong way. He’s just… eurgh! He seems extremely brash and arrogant. I just don’t like the man.’

    Is art political? That is: can you, as artists, promote change?

    Ellams ‘I think my generation still has this idea that regardless of how much you do and how much change you wish for, nothing every really changes.’Williams ‘You can’t do anything that’s not political. Keats said “Poets are the midwives of reality”. I think poets may be the first to realise the power of what they are saying and the responsibility that brings.’
    ‘Art can hold up a mirror; politics has to enable change. I know young people these days probably feel powerless but my generation organised for justice and rights and brought about change in this country. Young people need to acquaint themselves with what has gone before so they can take it forward.’ Read an extended Q&A with Saul Williams.

    The East Festival takes place in east London and runs from Thur Mar 6 until Tue Mar 11 (

    The London Word Festival takes place in various venues and runs until Mar 13 (

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