Spoken word is clearly at a different place than it was twenty years ago, when cafe audiences would heckle a poet for using a solecism or dangling modifier. Today's spoken-word poets don't care too much for grammar rules, prescriptivist language, or old-fashioned literary devices. What they do care about is poetry as a heightened (read: "live") form of expression. Most of today's young stars came up during the early 2000s, at a time when spoken word was dominated by performing-arts majors like Saul Williams, who wanted to give the form a Shakespearean quality. Thus, contemporary spoken word is not merely spoken, but performed; it mostly occurs in a cutthroat, one-on-one battle format called a poetry slam; and, as Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam proved during its six-season lifespan on HBO, it overlaps heavily with hip-hop. In fact, hip-hop and spoken word appear to have a reciprocal relationship: Today's poets borrow their cadence, flow, syncopation, and slang from today's rap artists; meanwhile, the tightest rap artists in the game had their genesis in spoken word.
Which goes to explain why Marc Bamuthi Joseph's annual Living Word Festival incorporates so much hip-hop into its annual ten-day program. In fact, Joseph gives the word "hip-hop" a lot of latitude by including not only live emcee performances but also hip-hop theater, an annual graffiti battle (hosted by local muralist Estria Miyashiro), a Hood Games skateboarding expo, scraper bikes, and a B-boy competition. Now in its eighth year, the festival boasts its best lineup yet. It kicks off with Live from the Edge, a fascinating "fusion-theater" performance by the New York group Universe, held at San Francisco's CounterPULSE (1310 Mission St., 8 p.m., $10-$20). Oakland-raised poet Chinaka Hodge will also present an excerpt from her play Mirrors in Every Corner, co-commissioned by Living Word and Intersection for the Arts, and directed by Joseph. Then, on Saturday, comes the event to write home about. Called Life Is Living, it's an all-day celebration in West Oakland's Defremery Park (16th St. at Adeline St., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.), featuring Hood Games skateboard concourses, Estria's 3rd Annual Invitational Living Word Graffiti Battle, a youth town hall on health-care reform sponsored by President Obama's nonprofit Organizing for America, and performances by Linda Tillery & the Cultural Heritage Choir, Kev Choice Ensemble, and Pharoahe Monch — an emcee whose intricate, narrative rap style draws heavily on the spoken-word form.
Living Word caps off next week with the Oct. 17 Brave New Voices Teachers' Conference at Lick Wilmerding High School (755 Ocean Ave., San Francisco), and a gospel-oriented event held at 2 p.m. the following day in Glide Memorial Church (300 Ellis St., San Francisco), during which YouthSpeaks poets will showcase material about faith. Music will obviously be a huge draw at this year's Living Word, not to mention that the words will have a musical quality. Perhaps that's what brings them to life. Oct. 8-18. YouthSpeaks.org
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