The 2023 Grammy’s new spoken word category brings visibility, but is it enough?


Illustration by Allie Hall

Karrington Garland, Opinions Editor

As an avid lover of spoken word and poetry, I am excited for but critical of the 2023 Grammy nominations for the Spoken word category for this upcoming awards show. Officially titled “Best Spoken Word Poetry Album,” this new category exclusively for poetry is packed full of Black pain, love and the retelling of narrative trauma Black men face.

The albums up for nomination are “Black Men Are Precious” by Ethelbert Miller, “You Will Be Someone’s Ancestor. Act Accordingly.” by Amir Sulaiman, “Hiding in Plain View” by Malcom-Jamal Warner, “The Poet Who Sat By the Door” by J. Ivy and “Call Us What We Carry: Poems” by Amanda Gorman.

Largely dominated by Black men, this category is almost an ode to a universally succinct need among the Black community to reclaim the stereotypical archetypes perpetuated throughout the years. Many entries deal with absentee fathers, drug addiction and the overall violent and dangerous persona imposed on Black men from their inception.

Ethelbert Miller’s album “Black Men Are Precious” takes us back in time to a jazzy rendition of his childhood and his interactions with his father and the other Black men in his life with the poems “Black Men Are Precious,” “Jazz and Sex Education” and “Ken Griffey Sr.,” which contrasts with poems “Crossing the Line,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Divine Love,” in the album. These last three poems call into question the role of Black women in his life and the unfair circumstances many of them go through at the hands of their male counterparts and the longing and admiration he feels for their strength and endurance.

Many of the poems in the album sound from another decade, a 70s feel reminiscent of the Black diaspora and fight for freedom. Yet, the subtle and soft way in which Miller regards his Black counterparts is contrary to the belief some bear when thinking about how Black men communicate with their loved ones. I enjoyed the quietness of his voice and it greatly contrasted from “Hiding in Plain View” by Malcom-Jamal Warner.

“Hiding in Plain View” by Malcom-Jamal Warner felt like a tribute to Gil Scott Heron and the legacy of his album “Pieces of Man.” The use of archival audio used in context with his poems sets up an unapologetic narrative of redefining his life as a Black man and the way he takes hold of the negative stereotypes settled onto him and gives them a new meaning. The second poem on his album “Dope” does this perfectly. He compares himself to the drug in a way to remix the power of not becoming susceptible to it.

Throughout the album, Warner details blunt slam poems about vulnerability, self-love, violence and the act of running back in time to save all his Black heroes. And much like Miller’s album, it sounds reminiscent of another decade, trapped in the need to honor past traumas collectively felt in the Black community.

“You Will Be Someone’s Ancestor. Act Accordingly.” by Amir Sulaiman, is a more modern approach to the spoken word poetry album. More of an insight into his own poetry and the cadence of his opinions on the prison system set on the backdrop of biblical allusions paints a ceremonial and gospel-like approach to poetry. While listening I felt his need to call into question and reflection of a higher power and the belief in his relationship with Allah.
His earnest questioning causes the listener to reflect on their own beliefs and reveals to us he too struggles with his faith. I think out of all the nominations in this category, Sulaiman’s is my favorite.

With only six poems, it is concise and calls into action the duty Black men and women face to honor their ancestors and make them proud. Whether through prayer or action in life he urges his listeners to hold their heritage close and to not fear destiny when they are cheering from the sidelines.

In J. Ivy’s album, “The Poet Who Sat By the Door,” all of the poems were set in more of a musical sense then the other poets in this category. The musicality of it was nice and flowed well. It is an album that urges poets to really cement the goal of their art and the job he believes they hold to heal but also spark insight and change in others – especially among those in the Black community, where poetry has routinely operated as a tool for healing and retribution.

The only woman nominated in this category is Amanda Gorman, former inauguration poet for Joe Biden’s presidential swearing in. Gorman’s poetry book, “Call Us What We Carry: Poems,” is brought to life in the audio version. Sans music, the album forces you to hear the poet with no interruptions or distractions.

Gorman’s cadence as she reads is soothing, her inflections throughout leave the reader with lasting thoughts of the points she is making. Her poems are more of a universal experience we all feel in the wake of shootings, COVID-19 and the perils of the last three years.

Not solely focused on the Black experience, her album calls us all into a collective conscious of understanding. I think because this album is so different from the tracks of Miller, Warner, Sulaiman and Ivy, critics will face the challenge of discounting it at the get go due to the lack of musicality and creativity it holds in comparison to its competitors.

Or critics will see the power in her poetry and honor poetry without the flash of jazz, or drums, or steely tracks reminiscent of the 70s. And although, “You Will Be Someone’s Ancestor. Act Accordingly.” by Amir Sulaiman, is my favorite nomination in the category, I of course hope that Gorman, as the only female, brings home a Grammy win this upcoming year.

The lack of female diversity in the category is unfortunate – I do not know if there is a lack of spoken word albums by Black females or by other non-minority poets, who did not enter their work into this new category. And although spoken word is adopted into an integral part of the Black community in reference to healing, I hope in the future we will see more women and non-minorities in this category.