Speaking Truth to Power: Spoken Word Poetry as Political Engagement among Young Adults in the Millennial Age

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






Civic and political disengagement is an often-cited distinguishing feature of young Americans today, collectively known as the millennial generation--i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000. Yet, measures of engagement often fail to consider how young people themselves define acting political. This dissertation investigates youth politics through the prism of spoken word performance poetry, an art form assigned social change attributes by its principal practitioners: young urban adults. This study asks: how do contemporary young adults use spoken word poetry to civically and politically engage?

Using ethnographic research methods, I followed discourses and practices deployed in the Washington, D.C. spoken word poetry community that centered on social change. I identify three social change processes carried out by these young poets. First, through a process I call speaking truths, poets used spoken word to draw upon their lived experiences--their truths--as a political and moral source of knowledge that guided and legitimated their social change messages. Second, poets healed themselves and others by writing and performing their truths in the form of spoken word therapy narratives, thereby placing their community in a position to do sustainable social justice work. Third, using new school activist approaches, poets leveraged spoken word to advocate for social justice causes, build political networks, and mobilize others into political action.

To frame this analysis, I integrate social change scholarship on (1) public sphere civic and political engagement, focusing on young adults, (2) culture and politics, concentrating on art and popular culture, and (3) the role of identity and narrative in social change. I introduce and develop the theoretical concept of creative politics as a way to situate the untraditional ways that young urban adults in Washington, D.C. politically and civically engaged: poets leveraged the unique properties of art as a way to speak truths, individually and collectively heal, and do new school activism. By doing so, poets honored their subjective truths and identities, and at the same time transcended these subjectivities in order to communicate more universal ideas about social justice and change. Specifically, a universal belief in the power of love guided the poets' creative politics.