The art of winning over an audience, according to two slam poets

Aranya Johar at the Goalkeepers 2018 event.
Aranya Johar at the Goalkeepers 2018 event.
Image: Handout/Mike Lawrence
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It’s not always easy to get the world to care about issues like misogyny and refugee rights—particularly when the people advocating for those issues are young women of color. But the words of Emtithal (Emi) Mahmoud, a 26-year-old Sudanese-American woman, and Aranya Johar, a 20-year-old Indian woman, have been heard by many more people than they could have ever expected. In only a couple of years, in different countries and with different styles, both have performed around the globe, carrying forward a powerful brand of advocacy that doesn’t rely on speeches, rallies, and signs. Instead, it uses poetry.

Poems of peace

Mahmoud—who won the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in 2015 with “Mama,” a poem on her mother, her motherland, and being approached by men in America—is a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ambassador.

She published her first collection of poems, Sisters’ Entrance, last year. Her poetry on peace, war, hope, and anger has opened many doors: At 22, she was named one of BBC’s 100 most inspirational women; she met with the Dalai Lama and launched campaigns for education with Nobel Peace Prize winners; and she’s meetings with Barack Obama and former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to talk about Sudan. At the UN, she was asked to comment on the refugee crisis in South Sudan. She did so in the form of a poem called “Head over Heals”:

Our once country—
all west, and south, and east, and north—
so restless, the Nile couldn’t hold us together
and you ask me to summarise?

Reading aloud “Mama” in her TED Talk, held in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp close to the South Sudan border, Mahmoud offers a powerful demonstration of how poetry can communicate the atrocities of war, piercing through numb layers of indifference:

when I was seven
my mama cradled bullets in the billows of her robe
that same night
she came home
and taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton
with a bar of soap

Last year, she went back to Sudan, the country she fled as a toddler with her family, and walked 1,300 km from El Fasher, in north Darfour, to Khartoum. She was ready to do her walk alone, performing her poems in each town she passed on the way. Instead, hundreds showed up to accompany her journey. Despite the ongoing war that has ravaged the country for nearly two decades, people had heard about her.

Raising voices

Johar’s story may not appear as dramatic as Mahmoud’s. But growing up a girl in India, she had to overcome the obstacles that are a part of everyday life in a deeply patriarchal society, including continuous judgement of everything from the color of her skin to the shape of her body. She was barely 18 when, in 2017, she wrote and performed the poem, “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender,” taking on the misogynistic culture surrounding her.

The poem was an instant sensation: Millions watched the YouTube video, as well as videos of the poems she wrote and performed after. Her words rang true far beyond India:

I had a voice and opinions
but they muted my sound
probably because I was told
boys only like girls who are fair and lovely


Forget snow white, say hello to chocolate brown
I’ll write my own fairytale

This is how they do it

Johar and Mahmoud’s poetic success isn’t just thanks to their natural talent. Both say they’ve grown as writers and performers thanks to consistent labor on their craft. They shared the lessons they’ve drawn from their careers with Quartz during the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers conference in New York last fall. Here is their advice for aspiring spoken-word poets, activists, and anyone else who wants to learn how to speak in a way that will get people to pay attention.

1. Don’t overthink it

“Poetry is something that rhymes about something you care about,” says Mahmoud. Both artists almost anyone who is willing to do the work can become an artist: “Everyone is a poet,” says Mahmoud, “some deeper down than others, so it takes a will to explore.”

Johar says it’s important to not be afraid to make mistakes, and to avoid comparing your work to that of others. Instead, she recommends being open to the influence of other poets—or musicians, as she’s found much inspiration in hip-hop. Turning to other artists for inspiration, she says, can greatly improve one’s style.

2. Be economical

“You have to know how to write,” Mahmoud says, “and how to edit.” The more she works on her poems, the more she understand the advice to “kill your darlings”—to get rid of lines she may have worked hard on, but which are just not strong enough or too artificial. Johar says a common misconception, too, is that spoken-word poetry needs to rhyme. It doesn’t, she says: It’s rhythm that matters most.

3. Pick your weapon

Writing and performing are two different crafts. Not all poems that are written work as spoken-word acts, and vice versa. “The reasons that I write and perform are very different,” says Mahmoud.

In particular, she explains, she performs poems that she feels need to be heard out loud, and poems that she thinks can stand on their own, whereas she thinks of her written poetry (“page poetry,” as she and Johar call it) more in terms of collections.

Johar, too, says different poetry is suited to different media. She started with page poetry but eventually progressed towards spoken-word acts, because she was seeking an interaction with the audience that she feels isn’t quite there in written poems.

4. Speak up—and listen

Learning to speak in a way that moves the audience not only requires a lot of practice—with spoken-word poetry, thinking about how the poems will sound out loud is a crucial part of the writing process. “There is intentionality about how it all sounds,” says Mahmoud.

Mahmoud says it’s also very important to listen to your audience, and be ready to make adjustments to your performance based on the crowd’s response.  Both the poet and the audience are experiencing each other in the moment, and it’s important for that experience to be unique.