Def Poetry: Elevating Spoken Word on TV with Rawkus Records and Mos Def

While not the official definition, it’s quite coincidental that the term “rap” could potentially be a shortened form of “rhythm and poetry.” After nearly four decades since the birth of Hip Hop culture in the South Bronx, it’s increasingly recognized that rap is a form of poetry (even Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize!). Despite rap music constantly combating misconceptions of being solely focused on explicit lyrics about sex, money, and violence, the visionaries behind Def Jam, one of Hip Hop’s most influential and groundbreaking labels, took the initiative in 2002 to create a television show that showcased emerging and established spoken word poets.

But what exactly is spoken word poetry?

Spoken word is a comprehensive term encompassing various forms of poetry performed aloud, including poetry readings, slams, comedic texts, jazz poetry, and even elements of Hip Hop music.

Given Def Jam’s involvement in producing the show and the contemporaneous rise of conscious “backpack rap” attributed to the success of “anti-industry” labels like Rawkus Records, it was a brilliant decision to have Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey), an MC and actor signed to Rawkus, as the show’s regular host.

Def Poetry made recent appearances in Kanye West’s new Netflix-produced trilogy, “Jeen-Yuhs,” as Kanye himself took to the Def Poetry Jam stage before his rise to stardom.

However, it’s crucial not to overshadow the immense talent showcased throughout the show’s five-year run on HBO by focusing solely on Kanye’s presence.

During that time, a multitude of artists graced the stage, including Saul Williams, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Alix Olson, Sonya Sanchez, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, Jill Scott, Common, KRS-One, Ruby Dee, Mike Epps, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, and DMX. Their performances not only elevated the art form but also secured a long-overdue recognition for spoken word poetry on television.

In 2002, a Broadway adaptation of the show emerged, featuring notable figures like Beau Sia, Black Ice, Suheir Hammad, Staceyann Chin, Lemon, Steve Coleman, Georgia Me, and Mayday del Valle.

Def Poetry Jam went on to win the prestigious Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and embarked on international tours.

Although the show concluded in 2007, it continues to be celebrated as one of the most authentic showcases of art and music ever broadcast on television.

Saul Williams – Coded Language

Ruby Dee – Tupac

Suheir Hammad – Not your Erotic, Not your Exotic

Kanye West – 18 years / Self Conscious / Bittersweet

DMX – The Industry

Black Ice – Bigger than Mine

Common – A Letter to the Law

Denizen Kane – Patriot Act

Kelly Tsai – Mao

Erykah Badu – Friends, Fans and Artists Must Meet