Words matter. God reveals himself in a book of words. His spoken word created the universe. It’s the word—God’s Word—that’s “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Jesus himself wants us to understand him in terms of words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Maybe that’s what caused a sold-out crowd of a 1,000 people to gather in downtown Dallas last month, where we listened to a group of four poets stand before a mic and shake us to our core for two hours—using nothing but words.
Permanently retire your perception of underground poetry recitals featuring beret-donning beatniks playing bongos and waxing about the way the number eight feels. Imagine instead the most hard-hitting sermon you’ve ever heard—then imagine it rhyming. You’ll start to get a sense of what we experienced that night.
This year marked the advent of what’s likely the first-ever Christian spoken word poetry tour in America: The Poets in Autumn (PIA) Tour. The nationwide tour was a night of poetry and performance art from four artists: Jackie Hill Perry; her husband, Preston Perry; Janette . . . ikz; and Ezekiel. Maybe this is the first you’re hearing their names. It won’t be the last. Nearly 20 of their 26 shows were sold out. A grassroots following has sprung up around these individuals, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, Christian spoken word as an artform is gaining attention and momentum across the board. The largest Christian spoken word event in the world, Rhetoric, located just outside Los Angeles, has seen steady growth since its inception six years ago. It now boasts 3,500 annual attendees who fly in from all around the globe to hear the truth of God’s Word put into poetry.
These poets are defying convention by any estimation. They have virtually no radio success (an eight-minute poem is a hard sell for the airwaves) and no major record labels pouring marketing dollars into them. Many don’t even have albums for sale. In fact, the only way you’d hear anything from most of these performers is to watch them on YouTube. This is where they garner most of their following, with some videos being viewed upwards of a million times and gaining national and international attention. Just last year, the PIA poets did a tour in Africa, often needing to play multiple shows a night at the same venue because of the swarming crowds.
I spoke with Ezekiel, a founding performer at Rhetoric and one of the four poets on the PIA tour, to hear his thoughts on the growth God seems to be granting this new movement.
A first-generation American from Nigeria, Ezekiel began his career in Los Angeles as a rapper. The more he performed, though, the more rapping to tracks wore on him. He was concerned the music distraced his audience from the content of his songs. Around that time he was introduced to a organization called P4CM (Passion for Christ Movement) that was hosting a poetry event. (This event eventually became Rhetoric.) He performed his first poem there six years ago. That was the day his career as a spoken word artist began.
Though their art is enjoyed in many cultural contexts, the biggest influence poets like Ezekiel have is among young urban minorities. The perception of poetry is changing. At one time it was largely seen as soft and weak, especially in the urban context. But in recent years these artists have proven that a poem can have a level of honesty and rawness that hits harder than hip-hop, with a depth that can often surpass a Sunday sermon. (Check out Ezekiel’s poem “ALMOST (saved)” to get a taste of this raw power.)
As I sat in the audience that night of the tour, I felt this effect myself. I also sensed something else. It seemed the crowd found real pleasure in the pain being inflicted on them from the stage. There was an expectation—even a desire—that they would have their theological and moral cages rattled. Topics ranged from masturbation to racial profiling, battling temptation to sexual abuse. Rather than being put off, however, the crowd loved it and was grateful for the candor. Candor is perhaps the secret weapon of the spoken word movement. It’s precisely these poets’ willingness to “go there” that’s selling out concert venues all across the nation. Contrary to what we might think, shining light on people’s hidden corners isn’t a deterrent; it’s an appeal that’s drawing people to Christian spoken word.
One of the four PIA poets, and perhaps best known of the bunch, Jackie Hill Perry [interview], is using her candor as a former lesbian turned God-chaser to speak into the lives of thousands struggling with same-sex attraction and sexual addiction. Her first album, The Art of Joy [interview], released a year ago, has enjoyed a great reception from fans and critics. She’s a regular contributor to ministries like Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition (she’s speaking at TGC’s 2016 Women’s Conference), and is at the forefront of the new spoken word movement. Jackie’s combination of sky-high theology with down-to-earth language makes her an incredibly effective communicator to the urban context, where prosperity preaching and shallow doctrine often stifle growth in Christ. She performed one of the most compelling pieces on tour: the poem, titled “Jig-a-boo,” is perhaps the most intense, sincere, and penetrating six minutes of preaching I’ve ever heard.
Thankfully, these four poets aren’t alone in their mission to make top-shelf theology accessible to the masses. People like Blair Linne [interview], Jefferson Bethke [interview], and many others are paving the way for this new genre of art.
They are artists without brushes and canvas, without beats and hooks. They are opening eyes and moving hearts closer to Christ with words as their only arsenal—naked, bold, gospel-soaked words.