When Spoken Verb, Duke’s premier slam poetry and spoken word group, decided to honor the legacy and vision of MLK, they focused on the power of his language in capturing audiences and imparting truth.
“We felt that spoken word was a beautiful and appropriate way to [honor MLK], because not only did his actions have such a great impact, but his words also inspired people and propelled people to act,” Destiny Hemphill, junior and co-president of Spoken Verb, said.
This Saturday, Spoken Verb will feature a reading by poet and teacher Aja Monet in their open mic event, “Unarmed Truth,” in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The theme, while left up to the interpretation of the audience and the performers, focuses mainly on justice rectifying inequity. It emphasizes the power of spoken word as an art form that is used for liberation and activism.
“For me, it’s unguarded truth,” Hemphill said when asked about the event’s theme. “Truth that is bold and forceful…and not only that, but it also kind of alludes to a certain vulnerability that I think you must be willing to accept when you are invested in seeking the truth and the unarmed truth.”
Even more, the stage is open to anyone’s expression. The event is set up such that the audience is prepared to receive as individuals share in their experiences. It harbors the necessary safe space to express truth, particularly when that truth might be uncomfortable elsewhere, or when the speaker otherwise would be silenced.
By drawing on the power of storytelling and the ingrained communal effort, there is a call and response, a give and take, to the open mic. An individual speaking about her experience has the opportunity to empower some, to inform others and to shed new light on her subject.
“[Spoken word is] the ability to release yourself to an audience or to the universe with an expectation of safety, that beauty will be the response, and you are becoming beautiful in the space you are speaking in,” Kimberly McCrae, program coordinator at the Women’s Center and advisor for Spoken Verb, said.
In the same way, MLK and his words were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, captivating audiences outside of his typical religious venues or contexts as a preacher. McCrae hailed the power of his language, citing MLK as one of the greatest spoken word artists that we had.
“His articulation and presentation was such that it drew people in…He understood pitch, the power of actual words that are spoken…He was just very poetic in the way that he presented what he knew he needed to say,” she said.
Aja Monet, the featured performer, is a poet, performer and teacher. She was the youngest ever winner of the Nyuorican Poets Café grand slam, has published books and released records and serves as a mentor for at-risk youth in inner city New York. The immediacy of her stage presence, paired with the approachability of her work—which is at once soulful and surreal—has set her apart. Her readings are conversational, though immediately rhythmic; her work transposes and widens the personal into heavier, and more wrenching topics; her voice is unwavering yet heartfelt and yearning.
“I found myself very intrigued by her work because I can relate very closely to it,” McCrae said of Monet. “She has one poem…It starts out, ‘You are required to keep creating.’ And she talks about being broken by whatever life has produced and the fact that you still have the option of moving forward, of producing, of creating. Everybody can find some kind of entryway and see themselves in her work.”
Both McCrae and Hemphill noted the continued relevance—even necessity—of artistic platforms in engaging justice.
“The words [MLK] put out, the spirit and energy he put out in speaking about justice and rights and equality and humanity and love, those things have returned even after his death,” McCrae said. “They continue to cycle and circle and produce positive results and energy even for us today, two generations later. That’s a powerful connection.”
The event takes place Saturday, Jan. 18, in the White Lecture Hall on Duke University East Campus. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for the open mic. Cost is $5 for Duke students (FLEX or cash), and $7 for non-Duke students. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Plum Blossom Foundation.