It was a night that probably made Mos Def jealous, and one that most Americans didn’t see coming. On Tuesday, Barack and Michelle Obama hosted an evening of entertainment that featured poetry, music, and—you guessed it—spoken word.
The event, held in the East Room of the White House, featured performances by James Earl Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jamaica Osorio, and was broadcast live via the White House website. I, along with many others, read the announcement with great suspicion: How could the Obamas successfully bring the voice of the streets to the White House, mixing together the lyrical stylings of “the people” with Capitol Hill stuffiness? Especially with an art form as concise as spoken word—in which many artists try to keep their pieces less than three minutes.
Surprisingly enough, they had an answer.
Noting that he wanted to “celebrate the power of words,” President Obama allowed for the poets in attendance to share both “beauty” and “pain,” which yes, goes for hard-boiled Hill-types also.
But it should come as no surprise that poetry is one of many artistic vehicles that the Obamas have brought to the White House. Some of the first articulations of everyday life from people of African descent came in the form of poetry (think Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American poet during slavery). And the First Lady, as well as White House social secretary Desirée Rogers are supposedly huge fans of the jazz-poetry hybrid.
This still begs the political question: Why spoken word? Well, the genre has proven to be more than a legitimate form of artistry for my generation. The successes of Def Poetry Jam and nationwide slam competitions have proven there is a market for this work; and the usage of the art form at political rallies, protests, and on street corners (think Mos Def’s arrest at the MTV Video Music Awards a few years back) have given the genre solid political credentials.
The event went off without a hitch—but as black arts struggle in hard times, how can we more effectively utilize the communal ideals of spoken word and poetry and bring them to D.C. for good? Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag has blogged about poetry. With the ever-expanding recession discussion, which has produced thousands of pages of legislation that attempts to articulate where we are as a nation, perhaps we need to rely on those who are able to tell us about the beauty and pain of the everyday…
In three minutes or less.