I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days about equal opportunities and diversity in the arts.
I should say at the outset that I have dabbled in a lot of art forms over the years , as a practitioner or as an audience member, and spoken word is, by a long chalk, the most genuinely welcoming and diverse medium I have ever encountered. The scene embraces and actively promotes artists of all ethnicities, sexual orientations and genders and, as a woman who took up slamming in her late 40s, I have never been treated as anything other than a respected equal by regulars on the circuit, despite the fact that most of them are men half my age.
Nonetheless, I think even we could improve our record on equality of access and I will outline why below.
There has been a lot of overdue debate in the media recently about the middle-class dominance of the arts and the financial barriers to working-class people who aspire to a career therein, and it is pretty obvious that, where access routes into the industry take the form of unpaid internships or expensive training courses, a lot of people will be locked out. Spoken word is, thankfully, free of the worst excesses of that – it doesn’t require expensive equipment, like music or film; it doesn’t require expensive training , like acting; because it is almost impossible for even the very top artists in the field to do it as a full-time job, gigs and rehearsals tend to be scheduled around normal working hours, so poets, unlike actors, don’t tend to have to resort to badly-paid casual work if they want to follow their dream.
Cultural barriers to working-class aspirants often receive less scrutiny, but they can be just as formidable as financial obstacles and are often harder to dismantle, because middle-class people often just can’t see that there is a problem. In many respects, spoken word erects fewer cultural barriers than written literary genres do – you don’t have to have been educated in the classical literary canon to do performance poetry; in fact, you don’t even have to be functionally literate, so many people who have been denied a voice in written word have found an eager audience in spoken word. However, there is one respect in which I feel that the spoken word community, like most of the other arts, unwittingly discriminates against those from working-class backgrounds: in the onus it puts on artists to self-promote.
I grew up in a working-class home and I don’t think many middle-class people really understand how culturally different working-class communities are from their own. There are huge taboos against boasting and against bothering or imposing on people that are, I think, almost impossible for middle-class people to comprehend. There’s also a greater belief in following rules, staying firmly within the confines of your allotted role, respecting rigid pecking orders and being deferent to those above you in them. Behaviour that would seem admirable to a middle-class person, that would seem to them to show initiative, confidence, leadership skills and a capacity for independent thought, is often viewed as arrogant and rude in a working-class community. I spent my entire childhood being told not to blow my own trumpet, not to stand out, not to get above myself, to know my place, to stick to my own job and not try to tell other people how to do theirs, to remain respectfully distant from posh people (“my betters”) and always call them Mr or Mrs, not by their first name, to wear my best clothes when I went to the doctor as a mark of respect, not to speak unless I was spoken to first, and the list goes on….Seven years of a public school education on a scholarship, five years of university and more than two decades of white-collar employment hasn’t freed me from that mentality, so heaven help poets who left school at 16 and work in a factory.
The point I am trying to make is that, if you are running a spoken word night or a summer festival and your standard method of choosing headline acts is by waiting for them to approach you unsolicited in a bar, introduce themselves, chat to you like an equal and tell you how good they are, then you may as well put a sign up saying “Working-class poets not welcome”. I think you’re also less likely to get female or African-Caribbean poets, too.
Things that you can do to make the process more genuinely accessible to people from all backgrounds:
- Be as transparent as you can about the fact that you are looking for acts (e.g. put something to that effect in a prominent place on your website) and clearly say how they can contact you and what information you need from them.
- As far as possible, select acts on their merit as writers/performers, not on how good they say they are or how confident they seem in a non-performance situation. I know you’re busy, but FFS, it will take you less than five minutes to check them out on YouTube.