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Say Owt organiser Henry Raby speaks to about York International Women’s festival, Sophia Walker and art’s place in protest

Say Owt Slam “If I cannot dance to it, it’s not my revolution”; when asked about art’s place in modern protest movements, Henry Raby invokes Emma Goldman. Taking into account the fact that the quote was actually the invention of anarchist Jack Frager in the 1970s, it is a doubly telling choice.

Protest movements, for Raby, require some performative element to remain compelling, and these performative elements hold in them some of the expressive resistance associated with Emma Goldman’s early feminist and anarchist activities. For him, art “gives us something the oppressive powers don’t have: Heart”. It’s a simple perspective (perhaps slightly too much so), but it does touch on an important point: artistic expression on all levels plays an important role in maintaining the vitality of any movement. It opens up discussion, helps to educate and inspire those new to the movement, and (perhaps more importantly when we’re talking about events such as the York International Women’s Festival and International Women’s Day) helps older proponents from giving up to attrition or apathy.

Henry Raby, along with Stu Freestone, is the organiser of the York slam poetry competition Say Owt. As part of the York International Women’s festival, they’re hosting a selection of feminist spoken word poets. Set to take place in The Basement on 11 March, the event brings in guest poets, ranging from regulars of the local scene and past winners, to the internationally successful Sophia Walker.

There is a vigour to Walker’s performances. Surprisingly large amounts of content are covered in short periods of time, with an impressive incessancy that rarely pauses. Raby insists that her talent relocates well to smaller venues and is “incredibly grounded in intimate performances”. Say Owt have had her as a guest before, in their second slam, so his assessment of how she translates in a smaller venue is likely accurate. Regardless, there is a passion to Walker’s poetry that will leave an impression in any venue.

Art gives us something that the oppressive powers don’t have: Heart

While this iteration of Say Owt will be departing slightly from their usual format, facilitating the inclusion of Walker’s show, Cult Friction, it is clear that Raby sees slam as a form of protest performance. He describes how the process of boiling your message down to a three minute performance can help to refine it and make it more concise, and how the process of being judged by an audience forces one to consider their message before presenting it. The performance becomes a ‘bite size chunk’ of a larger argument, and (particularly in a world of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, where everything can be shared and anything too long is dutifully ignored) is an effective way of bringing someone into the fold of a certain perspective. Certainly, slam poetry is a very politically charged format, and one which has been associated with an anti-establishment sentiment since its genesis in the 1980s.

One of Raby’s main points of praise for the York International Women’s festival lies in its ability to connect the small scale to the large scale. The festival acts as a sort of two week extension to International Women’s Day (which falls on 8 March), and as a result allows support for local women’s groups and performers, while at the same time being part of international drives and causes. As he describes: “the local issues can feed into wider struggles across the world”. This attitude has fed into the line-up for Say Owt’s York International Women’s Festival event, with the likes of Sophia Walker performing alongside local performers, such as Marina Poppa and Rose Drew. More generally, Say Owt seem to have a commitment to local performance, bringing in performers from across the North of England, including Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester.

Students from both universities rubbing shoulders with non-students of all ages

It seems to be important to Say Owt to create a platform that allows the voices of different genders and identities to be heard, and Raby describes his “excitement” at being able to present feminist poets who can “excite and inspire in this live format”. Even in this YIWF event, however, the stage is not locked to a single gender, with the open mic available to “anyone of any (or no) genders”. Their commitment to acceptance of transgender voices is seen again on the event’s Facebook page, which holds the note: “This event is to celebrate feminism, and is entirely intersectional. Transphobia and Trans-misogyny will not be tolerated.” They also appear to commit to bridging the ever present student/local divide with, as Raby puts it, “Students from both universities rubbing shoulders with non-students of all ages”. The priority is, above all, the integration of the voices brought in by the universities, with the perspectives of those who live in York.

There are some quite obvious criticisms which are often directed at slam: that its format can reduce the quality of its content; that the competitive nature of the event encourages playing to the crowd and not subtlety of argument; that it tends to give a platform to those who share political opinions. However, one thing it certainly isn’t, is pretentious. It can work, as a kind of rehabilitation of expression; free from the barriers to entry created by more conventional poetry. It is an accessible way to mobilise those broadly sympathetic to a cause, and pull them into a discussion without the air of intellectualism that ‘political art’ can often create. M

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