Being Heard: Why Spoken Word can be used to tell our own stories Essay written by Zulile Blinker

I am writing this as I reach the end of my three-month course ‘Critical Thinking through US literature’ organized by Schrijversvakschool. A course that encourages you to read books and chapters with stories that dare you to critically re-think race, the politics behind these stories and the way we use memory to tell our own stories. Writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ayad Akhtar presented new horizons in my thinking. The Spoken Word artist, the brand consultant and the teacher in me was snoozed with the alarm that has been ringing for some time now. During this course it wasn’t about being right or wrong but rather about the realization of the “why” behind the thought, the process of recollecting ideas and experiences spurred from a written piece or discussions during the zoom sessions.

The novel “Beloved” explores the value but also the danger of storytelling. In Suriname, in Sranantongo, there are two sayings that relate to this: ‘Taki na lusu’ (To speak is to be free) and ‘tan tiri a no don’ (Being silent is not a sign of weakness). I am a sucker for good stories and believe that one of the ways in which memories live on is through Storytelling. Knowing this and also knowing how much work there still is in telling our own stories, you can call it an essay, I’ll call it a conversation myself through others that have had conversations about this.

‘The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who are you and what you mean.’- Toni Morrison

Before I get started I need to give you an insight on the country I was born and reside in now for, a bit, more than nine years. In Suriname, South America where we deal with an “Alakondre” (all countries) cultured people. Meaning: a people of different geographical and cultural descends (the Indigenous, Africans, Asians (India, Java, China), Lebanese and more), pure and mixed, living in one country. Where 22 languages are spoken, with Dutch as the colonized endorsed language. Sranantongo is our lingua franca and is spoken or understood by most of the citizens. Besides these influences I also am conditioned with the cultural ways on Sint Maarten and The Netherlands where I lived and grew up.

‘I write because the sounds in my head need fluid placements.’- Zulile Blinker

After two years of residing in The Netherlands I met Babs Gons (Spoken Word artist and event planner) and got the chance to perform at her international poetry event called Palabras. I was stunned and excited to perform at the prestigious venue Paradiso where artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott and Prince had performed. Here is where I tasted and witnessed the power of sharing stories, my own stories. This experience introduced me to the Spoken Word scene in the early 2000’s. Along the way I acknowledge that I’m in the business of sharing stories. On this path I have used different media: stages, scenario for film, radio, audio recordings, commercials and writings. The manner in which the story is told is key for getting the message across. And the fact that this carries a certain responsibility in coloring identity. When mentioning identity I can’t help to think of how Toni Morrison explains this. Identity is nothing more than memory, as well as a link to ancestry. If one would listen to the flow of my Spoken Word pieces a mix of influences of Caribbean poets such as: Dobru, known from his poem ‘Wan’, Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lasana Sekou, Shrinvasi and Celestine Raalte can be detected. The American and European influences that were mostly induced by the education system. The mix of these influences induce the value but also the danger of storytelling. Knowing the worth of shaping our own stories is key here.

What I’ve witnessed as coach and performer is that many of the young Surinamese poets sound or used to sound like other poets from back in the days. Either that or their sound and voice were non-Surinamese. The question is what is a Surinamese sound or better said voice? Being yourself authentically? Being keen in shaping your own stories, your memories? The diversity of us as a people gives us more opportunities to be heard by a larger audience.  In 2014 I got the opportunity to start a Poetry Collective named Kokolampu for young orupcoming poets that in the span of two years grew into an art movement giving platforms to creative ones with one goal: telling your stories and finding your voice. I’ve seen several poets come out of their shells to overcome their fears and perform for an audience, to write honest poetry, and to bare their souls to rooms full of strangers. Suriname embarked on a new breed of creatives telling their stories for campaigns, commercials, voice-overs and several poetry events organized by Platform Support Suriname and other organizations that recognized the power of Spoken Word. The aspect of being recognized is vital in this journey to be heard.

Talking about being recognized: Spoken Word poetry is poetry that cannot just be left alone on paper. It demands to be performed, to be shared with someone, and to fill the world with the verses you have created. Everyone has stories to tell for we all have memories. It’s a way to express yourself, and like Sarah Kay says in her TED Talk in 2011: ’It’s not just the average write what you know, it’s about gathering all the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up until now to help you dive into the things you don’t know’. Poetry distils thought. It allows us to examine in fine detail a range of issues, ideas, concepts, emotions and visions. More so a good tool to let the world know and recognize our stories. So which media works best?

It is said that Spoken Word poetry is the last free art. At its heart is the idea of the open mic, a ritual that takes place before many live poetry events. The open mic gives us the next generation of artists, and the next generation of audience. It is at the open mic circuit and at the workshop sessions that most of us learn our art.  What other prominent art form encourages an audience to try out their own work before the main bill? This is the essence of what Spoken Word gives people: the right to be an artist, the right to be involved. It is a long tradition that the role of the poet is seen as a social commentator, a dissident and a thinker. This reminds me of a revolutionary moment in our nation’s timeline.

During a protest of the labor union, to enforce their demand that the back wages be paid out, Ronald Abaisa also known as Jowini Abaisa was killed by cops. This took place on the 27th of February 1973 in Paramaribo. He was a 29 year old Aucan trade unionist of the Geological Mining Service Labor Union. A commemorative needle was installed close to the spot where it happened as a remembrance of Abaisa’s struggle. On this piece a text out of Dobru’s poem ‘Abaisa Jowini’ was installed. The text: Abaisa Jowini, joe broedoe ben lon fu wasi sranangron.’ (Abaisa Jowini, your blood has shed to wash Suriname’s soil). The commemorative needle was taken down 24 hours after it was installed. Nowadays this piece is the shadow of another monument Kwakoe. A struggle that has been forsaken if you ask me. A moment that has inked our history pages. An example in our history where the poet played his known role. An event where we can link the power of Spoken Word for being heard. Because it is a long tradition that the role of the poet is seen as a social commentator, a dissident and a thinker. In these bewildering, challenging times we need a poets that fosters free thought, immediate response and provide a sense of community, of coming together.

‘Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon.’ – Linton Kwesi Johnson

Often Spoken Word is viewed by the literary establishment as something people do before they learn to write properly. But the very thing we are condemned for – our accessibility – is the thing we have to be proudest of. In the trainings, besides the skills, the focus should be on knowledge and attitude. This can enhance the discipline of self-research and the courage to tell the stories without apologies. In these bewildering, challenging times we need a poetic that fosters free thought, immediate response and provides a sense of community, of coming together. The poet thinks outside the lines, and live poetry events often reflect that. It also allows writers to sidestep literary gatekeepers and to publish first on air, to hear immediate feedback, and to connect directly with other poets in their local area. Through this network, we learn, we grow, we challenge, and we arrive at a poetic distinctly our own, of this age. This has impact on the power of the stories we tell ourselves, the way we use it as a tool for getting the message across and with that the courage to tell. In this we shouldn’t forget to use our memories, like Abaisa’s story. Introducing young people to poetry will help generate a powerful and diverse scene as it is proven in other parts of the world.

In this ever-changing era we witness artists from the entire world that are changing their platforms to the virtual world. And more and more Spoken Word artist are using the page to transcend their once, only on stage, performances. It’s the intimacy, the warmth; how we are all disarmed by this moment in history. Zoom, or better said COVID, has changed our performances as artists too. The performances require a stillness and focus. The most effective virtual performances I have seen are close to camera shots, where the eyes of the performer become small cinema screens. Everything is in the eyes, and in the modulation of the voice. Quietude is a performance too. It is here that we can induce our culturally colored stories, the Alakondre identities. Let us just say that important moments need important words, and poets have the ability to interrogate moments and translate them into something indefinable that touches each of us. Here is where own sound is inevitable.

There are regular events that people can stream or participate in live, as well as pre-recorded alternatives. Live streaming options still offer powerful, transformative experiences; they also increase the democratic nature of the art form. More than doubling the capacity of in-person audiences, hosting events online allows us to reach people who can’t afford to travel or the usual ticket price. The collaborations with international online stages have had a positive effect on the scene as well and teaches us to craft our stories for listeners beyond our borders. I strive for this live streaming culture to become a regular part of Spoken Word poetry in Suriname. The bottleneck in this lies by the Internet provider whose services need serious upgrading. This can have a discouraging effect on the willingness to translate this into a business model and a tool to be heard. In times where the nation is struggling financially and mentally these are the art forms that are needed for healing. With the input of memory in our stories that genuinely represent us – our culture and our identity – we have no more excuses for getting the job done. We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors and our next of kin. We owe it to the stories we leave behind to shape our coming glories.

There is work ahead for us poets/Spoken Word artists and we are obliged to do this in order to shape our identities and get the messages across. Our stories should be found online, in books, on stages, films, music and more. Spoken Word has great potentials in doing that. I have learned to write from within and perform with own voice, but edit cautiously. I am no longer possessive of the language used; I know I am all in one. Some poems are meant to be flung from stages, others in media formats that the story chooses itself and others prefer quiet corners in notebooks – and that’s all fine. At the end of the day it is about sharing our stories and being heard.


Zulile Blinker