Art as Combat for Social Justice


“I cannot not put into words the effect your poem left on me. But I really felt it. It was as if a tornado of emotions overwhelmed me.”

After performing my first spoken word poem, a girl had approached me with those kind words. After witnessing the power of slam poetry, I now fully know what she meant. And she put it into words perfectly.

This is when I used poetry to raise awareness of honor killings against women.  To convince their hearts, and yours, that change is needed and that we cannot sit back any longer while women are brutalized in the name of reputation over compassion.

Slam poetry has shaped me.  I learned about the poet Michael Lee through the narrative of his pain and drug addiction. I learned about the poet Amir Safi through the narrative of his experiences with hatred towards him because of his religion and ethnicity. I found satisfaction in exploring the depths of another person beyond a surface level connection. On such a real and tangible basis, through poetry, I was introduced to poets inside out.

Witnessing a performance is like witnessing someone perform autopsies on experiences or stories, dissecting the complex mesh of emotions and moments buried dormant inside of that story and giving life to that story with poetry spoken out loud.

With the evolution of slam poetry came messages and experiences intertwined with aspects of social justice crafted into metaphors. And these messages held the capacity to linger with someone, showing itself in a tangible form.

Social justice and slam poetry are now closely brought together, as one does not need to look far to discover a poem regarding prominent political issues or social concepts.

“I know there’s always going to be a dead black body in summer until we run out of houses for black angels in the new heaven… don’t no-one turn on the news and see the someone who got their baby’s eyes… in a country that wishes you buried, you do not wish a child on your children.” Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes in “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.”

Kai Davis, Nayo Jones, and Jasmine Combs in “Sandra Bland” reveal, “Oppression can kill you from the inside out. We have gotten so used to dying that suicide is our way of cutting out the middle-man. There is a unique kind of sadness that comes without reason, that comes when self hate is a rational decision.”

“One in three women will be raped or sexually abused in their lifetime, and I am one of three daughters” tells Sierra Demulder in “Paper dolls.”

Amir Safi in “Thanksgiving” writes, “A muslim boy told me he dreamed of being president of the United States, why is half of this room uncomfortable?”

Social justice and slam poetry have been closely brought together, as one does not need to look far to discover a poem regarding prominent political issues or social concepts.

But I wonder, how did slam poetry prove so effective in communicating these messages on injustice with such a global community?

Maybe scientifically and socially, poetry is an effective way of communicating messages because it makes it socially acceptable for someone to listen to a stranger’s beliefs with respect.

I believe the effect of poetry is more abstract than that. I believe in a metaphor’s capacity to break past the surface, to connect with an audience’s humanity, to cut at someone’s emotions and appeal to their morality and empathy.

Poetry immerses an audience into a well crafted story that is entertaining yet captivating. With language spoken out loud, poetry consumes its audience into its wreckage.

It is then when we begin to truly listen and soak in the messages of others instead of simply waiting for our turn to talk.

I do believe people underestimate the effect of art on social change. What art such as spoken word does is that it reaches past the external barriers of people and contains a rawness so tangible it touches people of all backgrounds.

In the end, slam poetry offers people the platform to change minds and influence others with the simple resource of gathered words.

Written By: Emily Mao

Watch Emily’s powerful spoken word on honor killings to see the true value of spoken word as a tool for activism!

Keep up with Emily’s work through her website, To You I Offer This World.

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