It would makes sense that spoken word exists in Haiti. Moreover, it’s a truism that spoken word is a vocal extension of the Haitian experience. If one were to tell me that spoken word, rather than being invented in NY, actually originated from Haiti and was later brought over by immigrants to New York where it was later adapted into English and made popular in pop culture by mogul Russell Simmons, I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.
Spoken word and Haiti are two concepts that define each other. Spoken word is a style of poetry born out of a need for greater expression. Sometimes referred to as “slam poetry,” spoken word is to the poetry world what hip hop became to the music world. Similarly, Haiti is a country that cries out for greater expression. There is nothing that Haitians do lightly, whether it’s a revolution or selling chicken on the side of the road. Everything is somehow magnified and made into a greater experience in Haiti, especially when compared to the experiences of its Caribbean neighbors. In Haiti, the daily grind of getting to work in the morning is in and of itself a spoken word masterpiece: traversing roads cracked and hollowed like so many dreams, I see mothers shed salted tears into polluted streams. The daily journey of being Haitian is some of the greatest spoken word I can imagine.
All this I should have thought of before getting up to give the introduction at the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Knowledge and Freedom Foundation; FOKAL) Cultural Center for the first of two spoken word nights, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Truthfully I didn’t know what to expect. Like so many visitors to Haiti, I could only imagine the details of this particular scenario, infinitely guessing what the Haitian take on spoken word might be. All I knew at this point, was that the French term for slam poetry was “la claque,” from the verb claquer or to hit/to slam.
With the help of some information from www.google.fr, I told a standing only crowd of young Haitians that to truly perform spoken word, one had to be like the instant when a door is slammed, claquez comme une porte, because that’s the only moment that mattered. I told them that the Haitian experience lends itself to spoken word because Haitians have to always live in the moment. Looking back, it would be as if a guest speaker came to Harlem to tell a youth league that hip hop lends itself to the Black experience because Black people are traditionally under-represented.
I performed a hastily written spoken word piece in French about slavery and America, using a call and response for the words nwa (Black) and claque. It’s the type of bland piece I would have rolled my eyes to had I heard it in English because it’s been done so many times. Nonetheless, I walked off the stage to healthy applause, and commendation from the host. And then, the first Haitian artist walked up, performing a poem from Camus.
Immediately, my assumptions about Haiti’s flirtation with spoken word melted down my skin, leaving the hard, bare fact that Haitians get this art form. It wasn’t a matter of, say, hip hop being transposed from poor kids in urban America to well-to-do kids in Dubai. It was instead as if Haitians had casually said “why wouldn’t we do spoken word?” And with every new performer on stage, I began to question if this wasn’t something Haitians hadn’t been casually doing for decades.
Of course, as is the essence of spoken word, it’s impossible to understand its power without seeing it. Below is a clip from one of the performers from the FOKAL slam poetry night:
Spoken word, an art form that demands over the top performance, a mastery of language, and an acute understanding of the world around you, seems as if it was invented along the candlelit backalleys of downtown Port au Prince, alongside vendors selling side-street chicken and in between rounds of cold Prestige beers. It’s an art form that has been passed down as a precursor to the now more standard troubadours, possibly a split between cultural preferences, the more uplifting and soul warming music of troubadours, or the sharp realities of spoken word. There were a few spoken word artists who made their way from Haiti to the U.S., some cramped on rickety boats that wound up on the Florida shores, others as students to universities, and still more as traveling artists. Slowly, spoken word made its ways from the Haitian experience and took root in similar soil in New York, where poets dissatisfied with the performance limitations of regular poetry readily took to this new art form.
Yea, at least in my mind, that’s how spoken word started.