A Story of Subversion, a Story of Anticipation

Colloquium | January 30 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Hallie Wells, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

 Center for African Studies

Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has circulated around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context of a uniquely rich history of verbal arts that are thoroughly entwined with social and political life. As an artistic movement that emphasizes the co-production of authority between performer and audience, slam is part of a significant shift in Madagascar in conceptions of free expression and public discourse, in a postcolonial context of rapid urbanization and global mediatization.

This paper argues that the format of slam poetry emphasizes the role of the audience in the co-production of the event, and thus as integral to the process of constructing and performing authority. Slam reminds us that authority is always built from encounters between bodies, in addition to being supported by texts, infrastructure, and institutions, and focalizes this relation as a source of generative aesthetic and socio-political potential. In the context of Madagascar, whose verbal art traditions have fascinated scholars seeking to understand the link between aesthetics and sociopolitical processes, this emphasis on the role of the audience is not new. What is new is the notion, promoted through slam, that anyone could be or become an authoritative speaker, regardless of skill or social status. Through an analysis of two poetry performances—a story of subversion and a story of anticipation—this paper argues that the slam community is a key site in which Malagasy youth both critique and perform major societal shifts in understandings of authority and public discourse.

Hallie Wells is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and a current Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. Her research is centered on the nexus of aesthetics, performance, and public speech, which her dissertation examines through the lens of slam poetry in Madagascar. She has won a number of awards for her fiction and poetry, including the Barnard College Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.