Selby is a 21-year-old spoken word artist living Bournemouth whose very existence questions the idea of poetry as an archaic art. Spoken word is a form of poetry which has more emphasis on rhythm and delivery, many modern spoken word artists have their roots in hip hop and this link is helping to dispel the preconceptions around the genre.
Hip Hop has had a bad rap through the past few decades but spoken word artists like Selby are helping to shine light on how the art is more than just violence, misogyny, jewels and women.
Not that it has ever amounted to those things anywhere but in the mainstream, where what is a rich culture developed around peace and unity has been transformed into an abused commodity. There are however preconceptions and appreciation of the music is limited by this. “Perhaps we shouldn’t put up barriers and box it into genres, “it’s poetry”, “it’s hip hop” it’s more about projecting it and doing your thing I think.” says Selby.
I met Joe Selby, or just Selby as he is known on stage and in the spoken word circles of Bournemouth, in the gardens of Cellar Bar in the early afternoon. Dressed in baggy clothes and with a beanie hat covering a mass of hair, he is a very unassuming young man. He greeted me with a casual handshake and was clearly excited to be able to talk about his art and passion.
Selby was born in Bristol and then nomadically moved around the country, “dragged around the country by [his] mum.” “I’ve always headed back to Bristol though, got a great music scene, I love it, alternative underground stuff” he says.
He began his journey to spoken word through emceeing, a skill he developed after settling in Bournemouth: “I just met a lot of guys who were doing it in a different sort of way, less aggy, less gangster stuff, more positive and funny, just spitting at parties til the early hours. That’s how it developed.”
The artist Akala has done a lot of work in the UK in schools and through talks to enlighten people about the poetic value that hip hop holds and this is what has lead to many hip hop artists engaging in spoken word as a means to express themselves in a different way: a way which sheds more light on the words themselves.
This was something Selby saw in spoken word: “I’d seen a couple of artists doing it in a different way, without beats, sort of acapella, seeing it being done in that way definitely coaxed me into doing some myself.” says Selby. He doesn’t forget the culture which ignited his love for wordplay though: “I think hip hop has helped my style with it, spoken word is just about projecting whatever you’ve got to say in a certain way” he says “You see people who have come from a different place other than hip hop and their styles are very different, it’s more written and then performed.”
He believes that there’s a “new wave of people coming in” and cites artists like Kate Tempest, Chester P, Dizraeli, Scroobius Pip and Polarbear as those heading up the “new wave”. They have a definite new style, one which has definitely been influenced by hip hop roots. These artists are revered in poetry circles across the UK and their talent is evident.
There is along with the new wave of artists emerging from hip hop roots a “new wave of appreciation” says Selby, “You see a lot of younger guys coming into the spoken word gigs and maybe the rap style has helped relate it to them a bit more, got more interest for them in that way so I think that’s got a lot to do with it.”
This new appreciation of the poetic side of hip hop allows people who may have been alienated by traditional poetry to open up to it as a modern art form, not something archaic. “I’ve just started reading a lot more poetry because I felt a bit ignorant of the old structures and styles, I’m becoming a lot more accustomed to it.” said Selby.
“I think it is a lot different; mainly structural differences” says Selby on the modern style, he sees the difference being the rhythm in spoken word “that is the difference, why you call it spoken word, because it’s got less structure and more rhythm.” However the content will always remain the same he says: “You know everyone’s still getting their heart broken, everyone’s got things to get pissed off about. I think the style and the way we say it has changed but there’s always going to be those basic human emotions and experiences to write about.”
He sees poetry as having a self reflective role as well as an analytical one for the world around us. It takes the role of “observing current affairs, but also our own personal development and how we see things in ourselves and then to project it, summing up the world for ourselves.” He says. “I think that’s what poetry is very good at, is making yourself realise what your own thoughts really are, to understand your thoughts and your life.”
Poetry then is more than something to be studied in English and read from books. It is an art which is alive, it has a greater role than to simply entertain, it is therapy for the poet, it is a catalyst for the observer. It lives and is thriving in modern Britain and it has to be accepted that hip hop has something to do with this, at least making it more accessible to a younger generation.
Selby ended our afternoon by saying: “In this modern society there’s a lot more room for people to be outspoken and to be themselves and find in themselves what they want to develop on. Poetry is a good way of doing that. You can be inspired by a poet; you can see things in a different way because of a poet.” words that convince me that poetry cannot die out or stagnate at least for now.