It was a couple of weeks after my 18th birthday, and I was on the coach back from a political rally in London. It was either anti-cuts or anti-war, I’m not entirely sure, but safe to say it attracted those of us on the left of the political spectrum.
On the way home, I started chatting to a local activist who was heavily involved in organising politically focused events. It turned out that he was organising a Love Music Hate Racism gig in Wakefield in a couple of weeks’ time, with Jerry Dammers of The Specials doing a DJ set. I’d very recently written an anti-racism poem called ‘Nazis on the Doorstep’ and asked if I could perform it at the event. I saw his face drop, and he mumbled an excuse as to why it might not be feasible.
Regardless of his obvious reluctance, I turned up at the event, eager for the opportunity. Again, he was attempting to palm me off, but a couple of acts in, I slyly arranged to introduce the next band and took to the mic. There were around 500 people in – by far the largest audience I’d ever had at this stage – and I remember my hand shaking as it grasped the sweaty SM58.
I performed my poem, leaning heavily on the machine-gun style of a certain John Cooper Clarke, and much to the surprise of both myself and the event organiser, it went down an absolute storm. I still to this day remember the rapturous applause, and after six months of writing poems and then uploading them to MySpace, I knew that I was genuinely onto something.
At this stage I was approaching the end of my A-Levels, and Government & Politics was one of my subjects, so coupled with my textbooks and a Bill Hicks DVD, I felt well positioned to lead a global revolution. Of the six months that I’d been writing poems, I’d been sporadically performing for four, and every one of these performances was at a music gig. But after the Love Music Hate Racism event, a new chapter was born – and since then my political activism has been inextricably linked to my spoken word career.
Fast forward ten years, and I’ve just finished touring the country in support of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This has involved sharing a stage with names including Paul Weller, Ken Loach, Sara Pascoe, Jeremy Hardy, Francesca Martinez, Mark Steel and more. In late October I supported Sleaford Mods, having appeared in their socio-political documentary ‘Invisible Britain’. In a couple of months, I’m gigging at a trade union annual conference with Corbyn himself and UB40. So, it’s safe to say that I certainly haven’t held back when it comes to fusing poetry and politics. In fact, to be blatantly honest, I can’t imagine what my career would be like if it wasn’t for the political activism.
Now here comes the internal conflict. What difference is it ever going to make? What gives me the right to vent my political views? As a white heterosexual male who always had food on the table and a roof over my head, why does my voice need to be heard? I’m paranoid that there’s an implied sense of self-importance with me getting on stage and putting the world to rights. And I guess to some extent there is.
But in the current climate more than ever, spoken word along with comedy is playing a vital role. As immediate and accessible art forms, they commentate, confront and satirise the political landscape. And politics in general is becoming harder for people to ignore. Much as I despised last year’s referendum campaign, it significantly increased the level of political engagement across all spectrums. Then of course we had Trump across the pond – politics is now a daily topic of conversation.
Poetry can help to articulate people’s views. It can help to bring attention to certain narratives or events. It can also help to soothe people’s anger – straddling both engagement with politics and escapism through art. You can write a poem on a Monday and perform it on stage on the Friday. People come to shows wanting to hear you talk about the latest events and scandals, and with poetry and comedy, you can do that. I recently went to Bridget Christie’s Brexit show and it was as cathartic as it was hilarious. Away from the social media fury and the heavily skewed media reports, it helps us to try and make sense of the world around us – as viewed through the eyes of a comedian or a poet, which I guess decorates it in some way or another.
And on last year’s #JC4PM tour, I could visibly see the difference that it made at every event. People accuse you of preaching to the converted, but the atmosphere in a theatre of 2000 people was electric – and the knowledge that we were all on the same page was essential for morale. We weren’t preaching, we were mobilising; in the face of the constant media onslaught that Corbyn’s met since day one, it’s easy to lose faith. But nights like those really made a difference. Sometimes, you do genuinely need reminding why you choose to fly the red flag.
One thing that’s important to finish off on. Whenever I’m addressing socio-political issues, I think it’s essential to do so in my own voice and my own perspective. Otherwise I’d consider it to be contrived and patronising, and taking ownership of other people’s situations for my own benefit.
I only wrote about the Calais Jungle once I’d visited, and specifically spoke of my own experience there. I wrote about a group of 16-year-old female NEETs in Newcastle, after spending an evening in their company – and again, wrote it through my gaze. All I can do is use my own experience and my own understanding to draw attention to something.
Poetry can achieve powerful things with remarkable simplicity. And in 2017, if I didn’t use my poetry to address the political ills of the world, then I genuinely think I’d be a traitor to myself and the art form. So, strap in. Pick up a pen. And speak out against everything that’s happening around us. Apathy is a form of acceptance, as they say…
Matt Abbott is a spoken word poet from West Yorkshire. Having started a few weeks before his 18th birthday, his career has so far ranged from a major record deal with the band Skint & Demoralised, through to political activism, education work and forming spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs. He is an ambassador for Trinity Homeless Projects and CRIBS International, as well as Poet-in-Residence at the National Coal Mining Museum for England.