This has become an annoying question that I have to answer over and over in interviews.
How did the slam movement which has, by intention, embraced so many different styles, themes, people, forms, and cultures get pigeon holed as a synonym for rap?
Was it Def Jam Poetry and their Broadway show? Is it media folk like Jon Stewart who conduct silly debates over rappers “poetry slammin’” at the White House? Is it the goodhearted teachers who use the slam as a vehicle to interest kids in poetry but reward “main stream” rap over other poetic forms?
Here’s an answer to the question. I posted it to a high school student doing a paper on slam just a few minutes ago.
“There are at least two distinctions between rap and slam. 1) Rap evolved out of music, and it has been driven to international status by the commercial music industry. Slam started as, and remains, a grass roots community based movement that evolved out of the world of poetry. 2) Slam poetry is open to all forms of poetry, people. themes, cultures, and styles of performance from haiku to sonnets to Cowboy poetry. Rappers looking for a place to expanded their writing beyond musical lyrics entered into the slam world during the early/mid nineties. They are one part of a big family of poets who have found a home in slam.”
Rap, and the entertainment industry behind it, is certainly one of the most important worldwide lyrical art forms of our time. It has influenced millions. It has given voice to many. It has created oceans of celebrities and stars. I has made alot of people alot of money.
Slam by contrast is small potatoes in a big bag. It has created with little or no money communities of performers, poets, fans, organizers, activists, and educators across the globe who speak their truths on modest platforms for modest reward. It has created stages where grandpas and grandmas “spit” alongside teenagers and tots. Where Cowboys poets can rhyme away the night while LA divas rant on the street corners outside the club.
For all the brilliant people at the top of our society leading the world faithfully from one man-made catastrophe to another, the distinctions between the rap industry and the slam movement may serve as a good on-air joke. But for me (the guy who started it) and those folks who have served their slam communities with little thought of material gain, the distinction is clear and critical … hope it’s clear to you.