Slam poetry is one of the most recent cultural innovations of African Americans. As with many cultural innovations, the artistry of slam poetry is undervalued while its entertainment appeal is overvalued. Although slam poetry’s artistry lies in both verbal and non-verbal aspects of performance, this research project focuses mainly on selected verbal features of slam poetry. This research seeks to balance the artistic and entertainment appeal of contemporary slam poetry by demonstrating that its verbal features derive from a linguistic heritage in early forms of Black English vernacular oral storytelling and from new styles of performance poetry produced by African Americans in the mid-twentieth century, specifically during the Black Nationalist/ Black Arts movement.
Based on sociolinguistic principles, there are historical and sociological rationales for seeking continuities between early forms of Black vernacular speech and slam poetry. Black vernacular English was an oral language created by involuntary immigrants from the African continent to North America. The early African immigrants inhabited a unique speech community, and they were forced to invent a unique form of language to communicate in a new natural, political and cultural environment. Once linguists began to study the unique Black vernacular language that early Africans invented, linguists found distinctive verbal patterns. Many of these verbal patterns or features have endured in modified form over several centuries and are present in today’s slam poetry.
This research uses sociolinguistics, descriptive linguistics and discourse analysis as methodologies to isolate and describe artistic and rhetorical features that slam poetry shares with texts in the Black vernacular oral tradition and in performance poetry from the mid- 1960’s-70’s Black Nationalist/Black Arts Movement. This research will discuss the historical formation of the Black vernacular speech community and its continuation in slam poetry as well as analyze in detail one rhetorical feature: performativity including two verbal stylistic features, signifying and tonal semantics. Two questions, “What is slam?” and “What does the ‘slam’ in slam poetry mean?” will be addressed from a sociolinguistic perspective to give readers a better understanding of this recent poetry form.
An original slam poem written by the researcher will be analyzed. It is important to note that none of the poetry texts used as examples in this research, specifically the poem written by the researcher, was written with any prior knowledge of Black vernacular’s unique verbal features. This analysis will also feature excerpts from an interview with a practicing slam poet. She will provide an overview of slam poetry’s performance power in her own life and in the audience’s appreciation of her work.
Individuals who have dismissed or misunderstood the literary merits of slam poetry should be intrigued after learning about its verbal artistry. This research will also introduce contemporaries who are better informed of slam poetry’s cultural legacy.