Kyra reviews Talking Liberties
By Kyra Hanson 22/05/15
from the IdeasTap website
At a time when free speech is under attack in this country, our Critic Kyra Hanson is fired up by an evening of discussion and performance at the British Library looking back at the angry protest poetry of the 1980s – and drawing worrying parallels with the Britain we live in today…
Increasingly it seems that the voices that would diversify our media, the arts and public spaces generally are being squeezed out by rising tuition fees, funding cuts and a housing crisis exacerbated by redevelopment and gentrification.
With the election results still ringing in our ears the British Library hosted a night dedicated to freedom of speech. It’s just one of the rights under the Human Rights Act which the Conservative government is considering replacing – and no wonder when there is so much power invested in artistic expression to subvert and challenge the status quo.
The night kicked off with Talking Liberties, one of many events curated by Speaking Volumes and Tim Wells of Stand up and Spit. It took the form of a panel discussion which reconnected the dissenting voices of the past with the contemporary struggles of today, in the process unearthing a rich diversity of outspoken but much forgotten voices from the 1980s.
We were treated to the working class rants of Seething Wells (Steven Wells), an angry skinhead who railed against sexists, toffs and vegetarians and the thick Jamaican patois of dub poet Mikey Smith, with his ability to “negotiate the verbal contours of Jamaican speech in a way like nobody else could.” At youth clubs and punk gigs this generation of young people were expressing their anxieties and desires through a mixture of reggae, punk, ranting and dub poetry. As culture became increasingly politicised this movement confronted the establishment with anger, wit and humour.
Despite the differences in accent, tone and style, ranting poets stood in solidarity with the miners’ strikes and anti-apartheid. It’s a much-neglected moment in history but these voices still have resonance – these working class poets were speaking out against an Eton-educated elite who were in charge of a country where austerity, youth unemployment, racism and police brutality were rife. Anyone at the recent Radical Left Assembly, Take back the City launch or the Brick Lane Debates will have heard the poetry of protest once again coming to the fore.
The night was fuelled by humour, politics and performances which exploded the boundaries of expression. Poet and performer Salena Godden talked feminist tits and cervical smears in her usual gutsy, animated style while original ranting poet Tim Wells decried the gentry and their brooms coming to sweep the working class under the carpet after the 2011 London riots. Headliner Saul Williams began his set with the words “For my teacher who said to be quiet in the library” before a heavy bass filled the cavernous space of the entrance hall. The beats breathing new life into the ancient pages of the Magna Carta, which was on display throughout the night. Originally a defence against unjust rulers, the Magna Carta became “an international symbol of freedom and a rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power.”
It seemed apt then to bring this centuries old document back into contemporary consciousness alongside Saul Williams belting out his cutting lyrics amongst the crowd. In an interview Williams talked of “provoking the change we want to see.” The ranting poets of the 80s defended that right to be provocative and antagonistic and it’s only fair that the spoken word scene of today continues in that vein. Late at the Library was a powerful argument for the necessity of socially and politically engaged art where stories were told with an emotional intensity to counter the impartial voice of the media – whether through ranting, spoken word, punk, or reggae this night was a bold reminder of the thoughts we can inspire and the change we can provoke when we just speak up.
For a full list of upcoming gigs, exhibitions and talks celebrating ranting poetry and its legacy click here
The exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at The British Library till September 1st