It’s not the official definition, but it’s quite a coincidence that the word “rap“ could be short for “rhythm and poetry.“ But hopefully now after almost 40 years since the Hiphop culture was born in the South Bronx, most people might be aware, that rap is poetry (Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Price for heaven’s sake…). While rap music always had to fight the prejudices of being just a vehicle for vulgar lyrics about sex, money and murder, the masterminds behind one of Hiphop’s most important and ground-breaking labels – Def Jam – decided to produce a TV-show highlighting upcoming and already established spoken word poets in 2002.
But what is spoken word poetry?
Spoken word is a collective term for any kind of poetry that is performed aloud. It includes poetry readings, slams, comedic texts, jazz poetry and even hiphop music.
With Def Jam producing the show and and the contemporaneous rise of conscious „backpack rap“ due to the success of “anti-industry“ labels like Rawkus Records, it was an awesome idea to invite Rawkus-signed MC and actor Mos Def (nowadays known as Yasiin Bey) to be the show’s regular host.
Def Poetry was recently featured in the new Netflix-produced Kanye West “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy“, because an up-and-coming Kanye West paid more than visit to Def Poetry Jam’s stage.
But don’t let Kanye’s presence overshadow the talents taking the stage over the show’s five year run on HBO.
Throughout that time artists ranging from Saul Williams, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Alix Olson, Sonya Sanchez, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chapelle, Jamie Foxx, Jill Scott to Common, KRS-One, Ruby Dee, Mike Epps, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and DMX graced the stage and gave a long overlooked art form finally a well-deserved place on TV.
A Broadway adaption started also in 2002 featuring the likes of Beau Sia, Black Ice, Suheir Hammad, Staceyann Chin, Lemon, Steve Coleman, Georgia Me and Mayday del Valle.
The show went on to win the prestigeous Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and even toured internationally.
Def Poetry Jam ended in 2007, but until this day is remembered as one of the “realest“ art and music shows to ever be broadcast on TV.
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