The room was already electric.
By the time Ebo Barton was preparing to walk on stage at the Northwest African American Museum’s Alchemy Spoken Word event in July, a handful of Seattle-based poets had taken the stage and asked the audience about their fears, their insecurities, their triumphs, then shared their own, wrapped in rhythm, rhyme and emotion. They spoke of shared pain.
As the crowd cheered Barton on, the poet relished in the feeling of shared vulnerability and thanked the audience for being there. For taking up space, for listening, and for allowing them to close out the night. Then they smiled, leaned back, took a breath, and began.
“It’s like they’re poking holes in our streets to see if we’ll leak from them,” Barton, who prefers the pronoun they, says. “Every time they build, they never give us a minute to mourn our holy open graves. They put up tombstones we can’t afford to look at.”
Barton’s spoken word poem is about stolen culture, stolen space and hypocrisy. It’s about Seattle’s rising gentrification problem. It’s about feeling lost when you’re meant to be at home.
Spoken word poetry is performance art based in rhyming, improvisation, word play and emotion, and it has long been an outlet of expression for artists — particularly artists of color — to speak, perform, air grievances, discuss passions and share fears. However, as the cost of living keeps rising in Seattle and the city continues to gentrify, many spoken word poets and venues are being pushed out of the city. The spoken word scene is struggling to find its place.
Seattle Poetry Slam announced last month that it’s looking for a new home after a few months in its Capitol Hill space.
The Seattle chapter of Youth Speaks, a spoken word organization for 13- to 19-year-olds that works predominantly with Seattle’s minority and low income youths, has also grappled with the effects of gentrification and the rising cost of living.
“It’s difficult to be able to pay teaching artists and mentors and coaches enough that they can make a living,” said Chris Zweigle, VP of Art Corps, the nonprofit under which Youth Speaks was formed. “There’s a lot more pressure now increasing what we can compensate for. There’s challenges in what young people need and what people are interested in funding.”
When rents rise, the teachers involved in the program need higher pay and many people who support the arts slow down their donations, Zweigle said. Youth Speaks has, thus far, stood up to the test of gentrification, moving from the University District to South Seattle to be closer to the teens who use the program. Other poetry spaces in the Seattle area haven’t been so lucky.
Barton started performing in Seattle in 2009 at a — now closed — art house in Fremont called ToST. Over the last decade, they have performed at four other venues all over Seattle: Re-Bar, a queer nightclub/bar; Spitfire, a Belltown bar; Mirabeau Room, a Queen Anne bar; and Sit N Spin, a laundromat/bar. All these venues except for Re-Bar have since had to shut down.
The artists have also been personally affected by the changing nature of the city. Barton moved from the Central District to Tukwila this June in part because it had gotten too expensive, but in part because they started experiencing increasing levels of harassment and racism.
Being the only person of color in their building, Barton recalled repeated microaggressions.
“It happened very slowly,” said Barton. “There were little passive-aggressive things, like my laundry was thrown away.”
Then, one morning, after a shooting took place outside their building, a neighbor collected the bullet shells outside the building and approached Barton, seemingly demanding an explanation.
“I responded, ‘I don’t know. I was in my room. I’m just as shocked as you are,’ ” Barton said.
When Barton left their car, white joggers would cross the street. Police would drive by their car if they were smoking a cigarette inside.
“To see stuff like that and not be able to say that, that’s what it is, felt really hard for me. Eventually I just had to go,” Barton said.
Spoken word serves as an outlet for artists to express frustration, eagerness, and discomfort toward change.
In the midst of the city’s rapidly changing demographics, the spoken word poetry scene continues to be a “safe space for people of color in this town,” said Ben Yisrael, another Seattle-based spoken word poet.
The slam poetry community became Yisrael’s first family when he moved to Seattle from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2014. Much of Yisrael’s poetry begs for humanity. As Seattle becomes seemingly more and more splintered, Yisrael writes to try and connect seemingly opposite groups of people together.
“That’s always been a vocal part of writing and even my life: trying to find ways where we can find common ground. We might have different religions, we might have different genders, we might have different amounts of money, but at the end of the day we’re going to have to find a way to get along if we want humanity to survive,” said Yisrael.
After seeing the neighborhoods they thought they knew change so drastically, poetry became Barton’s outlet.
In 2014, Barton wrote the poem “Open For Business,” detailing their experiences with gentrification and the pain that comes with it. For Barton, the act of performing the poem and experiencing validation was healing.
“The snaps, the groans. People coming up to you afterward and saying, ‘I know that feeling,’ or ‘I am there now’ or having people wanting to make a change in their own neighborhood because of what they’ve heard,” said Barton. “Having those experiences and hearing other people do poetry about those very same experiences is heartbreakingly validating in a way — I’m not alone in this idea. I’m not out of my mind that this is happening.”
Spoken word is more than an art form, it’s a conversation between the poets and the audience.
“There’s a culture of support in poetry,” said Barton. “So when you like something, you snap or make a noise. It makes you think, ‘I’m doing something right and I can do this again.’ ”
Despite the rising difficulties of pursuing spoken word in the Seattle area, the art is not to be overlooked or brushed aside. Spoken word poetry is as strong as the people in it, said Yisrael.
“Slam poetry is usually a tool for people who’ve suffered from racism, classism and sexism. If those people are pushed out of Seattle, it will exist elsewhere. You can’t destroy art — artists are resilient. I think we’re going to find creative ways to figure out how to make art. That’s what we’re doing. We’re not going to lose, it just makes it more challenging,” said Yisrael.
The artists are determined to stand their ground.
As Barton closed their poem at the Northwest African American Museum, they leaned into the mic, resolutely: “It is clear we are unwanted. It is not clear where we should go.”
Barton stepped back from the mic, and walked off the stage.
The audience rose to its feet. One person cried: “Speak your truth! You are not alone.”