Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
April 20th, 2009

Microphone Messiahs

Spoken word poets offer a raw, inspiring and spiritual message



On a Friday night in the East Village of Manhattan, a diverse crowd of 250 people in chairs, on the floor and standing shoulder to shoulder packs the historic Nuyorican Poetry Cafe to hear poetry. Princess Souvenir, a Detroit native, sits in the audience waiting for the show to begin. Unapologetically defining herself as “spiritual” as opposed to religious, she believes that poetry venues are in a sense “spiritual… you hear and grow from it, it liberates you.”

Princess is not alone. Many who attend poetry venues like the Nuyorican sense that something spiritual is going on. Not only is the poetry live and engaging, but people are getting a consistent dose of faith, hope and spiritual connection.

The first poets on stage tonight are the Baltimore spoken word duo, The 5th L. In their twenty-minute interactive set, they speak on such themes as putting action into practice and protecting our children. After them, a male poet reads a poem entitled, “A Prayer for Gaza”. Three poets follow him, each with spiritual themes and biblical references. Just like preachers, they use passion and thoughtful ideas to illuminate issues of everyday living.

A spiritual encounter

Native Son , a 5th L member, says not only is the audience having a spiritual encounter, but the artists are as well: “When I perform poems that I’ve written, sometimes it might sound a bit ‘preachy.’ But as I perform, it’s not always a message for my audience. Sometimes it is a reminder to myself… to correct things that I believe are wrong in my own life.”

While churches across the country are striving to appeal to this young demographic, this unconscious spiritual technique is working in poetry venues. Sherri Wright, a Brooklyn resident who sits at the back of the venue with a friend, believes there is an important difference between the church and poetry venues. “It’s more real than church,” she explains. “In church a lot is sugarcoated and it doesn’t address issues on a day-to-day basis. This is raw. In church they are talking at you… here you can relate. Its not preachy”.

Poet, minister

I am a part of what’s going on at the Nuyorican tonight, not merely as an audience member and journalist, but as what some may consider a poetry veteran. I became a part of the spoken word poetry scene in 2000. One year later, I was licensed as a minister in the AME Church. Nine years later, I am still performing on stage and preaching in church. While my poetic style may have changed, my message is still the same: holistic empowerment.

Poetry is my way to bring a message to others who may never enter a church. And while I do not mention Jesus often, his spirit of healing and enlightenment still flows in between each line. I am passionate about poetry because it provides an opportunity to be creative and empowering at the same time. It allows me to go beyond the walls of the traditional church and into bars and cafes to share my spiritual revelations and even my human failures, artistically.

In my own church ministry, I have learned how to minister more effectively through my work as a poet. Poetry venues have taught me what seminary failed to really convey: that connection to people and honesty with them allows any message to flow easily. And it is here on stage, five steps from a bar full of people, where the secular meets the sacred and, even as an ordained clergy person, I feel right at home.

Different venues, more messages of inspiration

“Sometimes [poems] can be a little cliché, but there are times when a poet says something… and it makes me remember what hope is and know that I should continue to believe in myself and in everything else and everyone else.”

Six days later a young, hipster crowd packs the Bowery Poetry Club to witness something very similar. Tonight the five-member poetry collective known as Writer’s Block has sponsored a standing room only night of music and poetry. Jason Reynolds is the first poet to speak. His poem is a prayer; at play is the issue of theodicy. He begins by saying: “On blue collar brown colored knees I knelt/I figured I’ll tell God how I felt/about the cards I’ve been dealt.” His message is clear: while we are asking God why he let certain things happen, God is asking us the same thing. It’s a prayer of vulnerability and a call to accountability.

Female poet Falu, approaches the microphone next and uses 2 Chronicles 7:14 to open up her poem about President Barack Obama. Next, Soulful Jones urges the audience to use their “inside voice and follow their intuition.” It is these young poets who will give audiences — who may or may not attend a religious institution that weekend — messages that inspire and challenge them in their daily lives.

Gia Hamilton is in the crowd at the Bowery. She says attending poetry venues has helped her believe: “Sometimes [poems] can be a little cliché, but there are times when a poet says something… and it makes me remember what hope is and know that I should continue to believe in myself and in everything else and everyone else.”

This phenomenon of poetry meeting spirituality is happening in other parts of the country too. E the Poet Emcee, creator of The Art of Conversation in Baltimore, Maryland, believes that people come out because “there’s a part of them that is seeking communion on a mental and spiritual level that they are missing in their day to day life.”

In Sacramento, California, Khiry Malik, creator of The Mahagony Poetry Series, tells the story of a guy who approached him in a bar after a poetry reading. He acknowledged to Khiry that he was depressed and was thinking suicidal thoughts. However, hearing his poem lifted his spirits and he no longer felt alone. “I’m not saying that my poem alone saved his life”, Khiry explains. “But it gave him hope, and he was able to stand there and tell me his story.”

What keeps people coming out to poetry venues is not just the literary experience, but the raw, inspiring and communal message being shared. It is here where all kinds of people, the religious, the spiritual, the nonreligious, and the unchurched, come together under one roof to hear artistic words that spark thought, change and hope. People are being uplifted in these venues as words are being uttered through what poet Soulful Jones describes as “messiahs manifested in microphones.”

The Author : Myisha Cherry
Myisha Cherry, 30, is a literary artist, freelance writer and AME Minister. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Ain

    Excellent article! Words, truth, spirit and emotion should be priority everywhere. Your connection between spirit and poetry should inspire people to continue to blur the lines and reach people wherever they are.

  • Femi lawal

    its funny how this article reads because anytime I go to a church I spend all of my time watching the preachers performance along with how they manipulate the congregations emotions with words and I think to myself, “this is just like a poetry venue”

  • Tom S

    Every generation requires a new approach to touch theor sprititual heartstrings. Myisha seems to have the “touch” for this generation. — What’s more, she can interpret it for us old folks!!

  • Maisha Johnson

    Awesome article Myisha!

  • zaks

    definitely hit the nail on the head here. sweet work.

  • Ric

    Myisha, That was a great article!!! I’m going to have to check out on e of these venue’s sooner that later!!!

  • Sister Mothyna

    This article is wonderful! Well written and entirely true. Having been around the poetry scene in at least 3 different cities at some point. I find the connection between spirituality, education and empowerment to be quite accurate. Excellant work Ms. Cherry!

  • Keisha

    Loved the article! It challenged me to think how I can make the message of the gospel relevant in and outside the church. I will definitely be sharing this read with others.

  • Shantel

    This is a wonderful article. I like the way the connection is made between poetry venues and the church. Those of us who are in the church (ME) that really have a heart for the people often wonder how to make the connection for those that refuse to come inside the church to hear the Word of God. This proves to be an effective method to help people become enlightened and receive positive motivation for their daily walk.

  • Miss Brown

    Not sure that I would use the word Messiahs…but I think the article is VERY POIGNANT!!! I def think poetry, spoken word and hip hop are some of the most relevant preaching forms in our present day. Glad to find such an article. Would like to read more from the author.

  • Jerome


    great article. i love spoken word and the message it conveys.
    Baltimore loves you !!

  • Marshall “Soulful” Jones

    Wow. Poetry has done so much for my spiritual development and I am grateful to see that in words.
    Great job Myisha.

  • Terrence

    Thanks Myisha for informing and inspiring.

  • Terrence

    We as artists have a divine responsibility to inform and inspire. Jesus himself rarely taught in a temple setting. He brought the word directly to the people, traveling from place to place preaching of salvation. True ministry stretches beyond walls.

  • Thema Bryant-Davis

    People are hungry for the Word and like Christ we have to bring it where they are. Thank you for shedding light on this powerful ministry that is transforming lives at poetry venues around the world.

  • Derek B.

    Why do people think that if it doesn’t’ go on or isn’t controlled by the church it’s not spiritual? It’s very possible to have a relationship with God outside of the Church. I thank you for this article Myisha and I hope that you continue to spread this “spiritual” love and understanding through your spoken word.

  • Rae Brown

    excellent article! i would love to read more about what you think about churches and pastors whose services seem directed to entertain younger audiences, almost like a show. do you think commercializing “the word” during praise & worship and sermons with poetry or rap, takes away from the education, and seriousness of “the word”?

  • Roxana

    After reading this I realized that “the church” all kinds has not done a good job of taking God’s Word into every day life for illumination and healing of all situations. It is just amazing the power of words. God’ s words and ours. If you can write words that change a life you would have saved some one out of doing the same thing over and over. Thanks for writing with such a fresh outlook.

  • VaNatta

    This is article is great! I love to read and hear about the mixing of the “sacred” and the “secular”. God has given the gift of poetry to connect people together! There is a place for this type of artistic creativity (inside and outside of the church) and I’m glad people aren’t afraid to take part in this expressive medium!
    That Myisha is a Heaven of a writer!

  • Mirlande Jeanlouis

    Wow, Myisha! This is a really great article because it addresses a “spiritual underground” of sorts. A lot of the youth today relate to poetry and hip-hop’s prophetic elements because they crave what past generations would usually get every Sunday.

    Thanks for the good read. = )

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