“WE DON’T WRITE JUST TO WRITE; WE WRITE TO BE FREE”: A RHETORICAL ETHNOGRAPHY OF SPOKEN WORD IN LOS ANGELES

Open Access
Author:
Johnson, Amber Lauren
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
June 30, 2006
Committee Members:
  • Ronald L Jackson Ii, Committee Chair
  • Rosa A Eberly, Committee Member
  • Ian E Baptiste, Committee Member
  • Raymond Keith Gilyard, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • rhetoric
  • poetry
  • performance
  • counterpublic
  • collective identity
  • ethnography
  • spoken word
Abstract:
Hip hop is an artistic sub-culture that permeates society as graffiti writing, rap music, break dancing, (Smitherman, 1999; Forman, 2002; Ramsey, 2003) and more recently, poetry. Hip hop poetry, with its roots in African American rhetorical traditions, is a complex and extensive art form that stems from spoken word poetry. Spoken word poetry is an umbrella term for five different genres of poetry: performance poetry, hip hop poetry, slam poetry, Taos poetry, and Nuyorican poetry. It is defined as poetry that is written on the page but performed for an audience. Hip hop poetry, more specifically, “tends to forefront rhythm, improvisation, free association, rhymes, and the use of hybrid language, from rich poetic phrasing to the gritty imagery of vernacular” (Weiss & Herndon, 2001, p. 70). Hip hop poetry also serves specific functions. Hip hop poets act as conduits for literacy education, identity development, political awareness, and activism within their communities. In this sense, art becomes a space for social action, a space where groups can mobilize and generate a sense of power and voice. Using rhetorical ethnography as method, the author embarks on a seven month journey through the Los Angeles spoken word scene to observe how spoken word communities perform collective identity. The author also explores spoken word as a counterpublic collective that engages in oppositional discourse. Through ethnographic observation, interviews, focus groups, and rhetorical analysis, the author analyzes the performance of collective identity, membership, and counterpublicity, and describes the ways in which the spoken word counterpublic collective attempts to confront oppression. This study exposes the interdependence among the study of identity, counterpublicity, and performance. The author concludes that identity directly affects the motives behind a counterpublic collective coming together and performing counter-hegemonic discourse. Ethnographic exploration of counter-hegemonic discursive performance uncovers the ways in which spoken word artists attempt to transgress dominant ideologies and carve space for new meanings to emerge that validate their lived experiences. Rhetorical analysis of the performance illuminates the ways in which spoken word artists are also supporting and reinforcing dominant ideologies. The researcher offers rhetorical ethnography as method and makes suggestions for future studies concerning the multifaceted aspects of counterpublic collective identity and performance.