The Strivers Row on Sharing Spoken Word Poetry Through Online Video

During the frosty winter months of 2011, in the vibrant streets of New York City, spoken word collective The Strivers Row was born, a product of the passionate love affair between hip hop and poetry. A medium all it’s own, spoken word has taken poetry from the page to the stage and now to YouTube, connecting performers and audience’s experiences of heartbreak, unconditional love, discrimination and triumph. “I think [of spoken word] as if Shakespeare had had a little tougher time growing up this is what his writing would look and sound like after,” says The Strivers Row owner Latoya Bennett-Johnson. “The Strivers Row is the best example of taking poetry from the stage and putting it in your living room.”

Originally started as an idea passed between poet Joshua Bennett and talent agent Latoya Bennett-Johnson, The Strivers Row has become a performance collective and management team representing some of the biggest spoken word talents such as Jasmine Mans, Alysia Harris, Carvens Lissaint, Zora Howard, Joshua Bennett and Miles Hodges. With years of experience working as a talent booker, Latoya knew that in order to build the popularity of this underground performance group, she would need a way to take the passion emitted from the stage and transmit it through the computer screens of viewers watching around the world. “Social media has been a major factor in the success of this group,” says Johnson. “Every show has a name so it can be hashtag-able. It helps to track the success of an event and engage more followers. We film all of our shows so we can post the footage on YouTube. If someone is an Alysia Harris fan, and they see a suggested video for Jasmine Mans on the same channel, they oftentimes will become a Jasmine Mans fan. It works for all of the artists that way.” In addition to a group YouTube channel, each artist has a personal Tumblr where they can correspond and build relationships with their fans.

The poets’ passionate union of words instantly connects with their audience’s experiences, as though together they are sharing the whispered secrets of their past. Though depicting the diverse personal experiences of each performer, the poems of The Strivers Row poets are unified by the raw emotion and disarming honesty felt upon their performance. In true literary style, The Strivers Row’s name takes on a double meaning: Read like a sentence, this name is both representative of a building in Harlem that at one time was closed to African Americans, as well as the actions of rowing, striving and working in-sync with one another. Since their first performances together in 2011, these artists have performed at the White House, the Sundance Film Festival, the Kennedy Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the HBO series “Brave New Voices,” in film, on stages with Grammy-winning and nominated artists, and venues across the country. “[This group] is really organic,” says Johnson. “I don’t want to feel like you just recited words off of paper. Especially for the poets, I want to feel like you’ve lived it.”

When not traveling the world to perform — Joshua Bennett just returned from South Africa and Miles Hodges performed last month at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India — each of the Strivers Row poets are students in some of the most competitive programs at Yale, NYU, UPenn and St. John’s University. “We find it important that [our poets] are in school. [They are] this example because a lot of people will think like, ‘I can never go to Yale. Look at where I live,’ or ‘Look at where I’m from. I could never go to Princeton.’ We try to spotlight these opportunities that you can get regardless of your skin color, regardless of your neighborhood.” Excited for their upcoming UK tour in December, The Strivers Row continues to inspire others with their raw emotion and heart-wrenching honesty, giving audiences the opportunity to become immersed in the emotional verses, lyrics and movements of each poem both on stage and through online video.

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