Five Diaspora Spoken Word Artists You Should Know

By Mariga Thoithi

Ahead of the much anticipated, sold out show of the next Two Early for Birds performance, we wondered who else out there is reviving spoken word as a tool for protest?

Art as a cultural disruptor is as old as humanity itself. Long before technology or what we refer to as modern civilization, poetry and spoken word existed with a great African example being the Epic of Sundiata, which was a poem about Sundiata Keita (who died in died 1255) the hero and founder of the Mali empire—the largest empire in North Africa.

Gediminas Urbonas, an MIT associate professor and artist says, “Art teaches us how to disrupt, in order to create a new public space. The point of art is not scaling up answers, but to tackle painful questions, to provoke and mobilize humanity to find the answers themselves, or to create a space of possibility where the truth can be found.”

Art in general and spoken word in particular has been used as a mirror to society and more widespread as a tool to address marginalisation, discrimination and oppression while keeping the audience engaged and entertained. In this way, in the age of non-stop distractions, spoken word as info-tainment, can be very effective in moving people to act.

These are some of the 21st Century's diaspora spoken word artists from across the world making their mark with their words and their rhythm.

Faisal Salah

Faisal is a British-based Somali artist. His parents were granted Asylum like many others once the war in Somali broke out, and they chose to settle in West London.

In an interview with CNN, he broke down his journey to rewriting Somali history, which has been plagued with stereotypes and forgotten culture occasioned by colonialism and the pervasive civil war that has plagued the country since the Said Barre resistance movement in the 80s .

“When people see Somalia, we've got all this crap about us. Piracy, extremism, Al-Shabaab. Broken state, Black Hawk Down, Captain Phillips. All of these different things are how we're represented now. But for me it's about the nation, the heart and the spirit of the people back home. Connecting to that, and preserving it in some ways -- it plays such a huge part of who we are."

Faisal who describes his technique as ‘words in motion’ pushes the boundary of spoken word through his sultry singing and he has so far performed for audiences in Indonesia, Australia and several countries across Europe.

Mwende "FreeQuency" Katwiwa

Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa is a 26 year old Kenyan, Immigrant in Chicago, USA. She’s a, Queer womyn, spoken word artist, speaker and performer.

Mwende is an award-winning spoken word artist who ranked 3rd at the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam. She ruffled feathers with an article on her first TedWomen Talk where she was asked to cut Black Lives Matter from it. She not only challenged the organisers for their censorship, but went on to deliver her Ted Talk met with a standing ovation.

She is a founding committee member of the New Orleans Youth Open Mic (NOYOM) and a festival coordinator for the New Orleans Youth Poetry Festival a blogger. She’s passionate about racial justice and LGBT equality and has used her hard hitting poetry to make her mark in the world.

Sabrina Benaim

Poets in pre-Islamic Arabia held an important place in the society as custodians of oral history and would also engage in competitions in public squares similar to modern dance battles. Sabrina in continuing that tradition is a Canadian- born spoken word artist and writer.

She’s best known for her poem "Explaining My Depression To My Mother." which has over 75 million Facebook views which brought to the world the complexity of explaining mental health illness to family members who don’t understand it.

She started poetry as a response to cope with health complications after the discovery of a benign tumor in her throat, and additionally to help her speak out on her battle with anxiety and depression.

She was the winner of the 2014 Toronto Grand Slam and has subsequently written a book, Depression and other Magic Tricks


D’Lo is a transgender Tamil–Sri Lankan American spoken word artist based in Los Angeles.

He currently has an ongoing tour which he describes as “stories of being a queer boy/stud/transgendered person who grew up in a strict immigrant family, He pokes fun at trying to make it all work peacefully while radically and bizarrely challenging mind frames in choosing to exist unapologetically.”

His dive into the world of comedy was a defense mechanism and a way to deflect away from questions around his sexuality and how he presented himself; now it’s grown into a full blown career.

He first came to light after taking part in a documentary about his life, "Performing Girl", which explored his relationship with his conservative Tamil parents. He’s come to represent freedom and emancipation to his hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide.

Te Kahu Rolleston

Te Kahu is a Maori spoken word artist. The Maori are a minority New Zealand tribe who have been disenfranchised through systemic racist barriers including laws on land and voting and property and citizenship.

Te Kahu works towards bringing these issues to light as part of the overall work that he does in addressing the Maori's marginalisation.

With his youthful following, he works towards education reform and the promotion of poetry as as a way of learning. A recurring theme in his work is around identity and pride and in merging old Maori culture and the contemporary Maori society.

"I create poetry that links people to people and people to places. That’s a big part of (Māori) Kaupapa because if you have respect for your people and the place you are in, there is nothing greater than that."

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