The grey area of Spoken Word

By Vicky Carter

Share: Share:

At the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, I was ushered into the depths of the forest by my friends to listen to an artist “I had to see”. Oblivious about what was to come, I stood at the back of this packed-out stage, fighting for standing space next to admirers of his work. On stage came Scroobius Pip, a spoken word artist who was about to introduce me to this new form of poetry. I had never heard spoken word before, really only enjoying poetry through the forms of hiphop and rap. But the dynamics of the new world drew me in, and I felt a personal connection with the artist, mesmerised by the power and pace with which he told his stories. What was it that made me connect so well with him? Was it his style of storytelling or was it the form itself? Is spoken word any different to rap? Finding 24-year-old Sol, an artist who uses both creative forms, has given me an interesting insight into the subject and the different perceptions of performance-based poetry.

Sol as a child was largely influenced by listening to his “older brother’s music in our room”, which was a lot of classic hip hop and grime. From an early age, he understood the complexities of rhyme and rhythm – “rhythm is definitely my thing” – as he began as a beat boxer, translating drum patterns into vocal form. From there, the transition to spoken word was an easy journey because the devices of rhyme and rhythm are prevalent in spoken word, rap and beatboxing. It is the pattern, delivery and style that differentiate between spoken word and rap. With rap, Sol has a “high level of command when it comes to intricate rhythms and flows… and of course rhyming is what rap is predicated on, so you can do that as much as you want.” Spoken word pieces are more conversational, more free flowing, and he employs pauses to focus on perfecting the execution of a line or thematic image: you “will often need time to simmer and develop but it’s fun to sit down and think out ideas properly”.

Although there are aesthetic differences between both rap and spoken word, there are more similarities than one would expect. The dynamics of both performance-based forms are coherent despite their different approaches. Sol has been the front man of the band Sounds of Harlowe for 3 to 4 years, and those live experiences are “mad”, intertwined with the energy from the crowd and the live instruments that are used within the gig. Whilst performing spoken word is different, the experience still creates a personal connection with the storyteller and artist.  It is “a far more exposed experience… knowing that everyone is hanging on each word really amps the pressure up”. Saying this, Sol has also performed raps at spoken word events because the “content was fitting”.

The constructs of these poetic forms are blurred in creative unity, although there are preconceptions of both which lead to them being misconstrued. Both spoken word and rap hold quite stereotypical connotations, “when you hear poetry people think white and when you hear rap you think black or urban”. But as Sol quite rightly puts it, neither art form should be labelled black or white, but more of a “grey one”. Rap “isn’t just about violence etc”, it can be poignant and poetic, “a beautiful discipline when done properly”. Similarly, “poetry doesn’t have to be pretty flowery language. Music can be poetic and poetry can be musical. The two aren’t musically exclusive”. This “grey area” is highlighted in Sol’s EP The Writing is Real, as the lyrics are full of poetry but it follows the rhythm of rap, combining the two art forms and his passions into one.

Rap and spoken word are art forms that are musically and culturally significant in sharing stories and personal reflections with others. We should not focus on the delivery of each poetic form and the perceptions it brings or what sort of person you should be to listen to either, but rather on how it makes you feel, what experience it brings and effect it has on you. Both being creative forms of poetry, fellow artists should not feel restricted in their imagination and creativity, but be open to new poetic and artistic forms that will influence their music, whatever they may be.

Sol is currently on the BBC’s Worlds First Campaign, which hosts week-long workshops around the country on spoken word and the art of storytelling through poetry.


Find out more about Sol: