I Lost to Michelle Obama at the Grammys but Still Won Big

Since no one seemed to hold the door open for poets, I kicked it open myself

Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images

Despite spoken word’s steadily rising popularity, it’s been 30 years since a spoken word performance poet received a nomination for the Grammy “Best Spoken Word Album” award. And it was a thrill to be that poet.

While I didn’t win the Grammy in my category this year, I walked away with several huge wins from the awards show overall. To be nominated for music’s highest honor alongside former first lady Michelle Obama, hip-hop icons the Beastie Boys, cancer survivor Eric Alexandrakis, and filmmaker John Waters was a victory all on its own. To lose to the history-making, bestselling book Becoming—by a most beloved first lady—was another. But to achieve a groundbreaking milestone that offers new hope to fellow poets for what is possible with our art form is indeed the biggest win of all.

When most people hear the word “poet,” they don’t tend to think “Grammy-nominated.” Instead, they think of words like “slam,” “beat,” or, sadly, “broke.” Thanks in part to Hollywood’s sterilized and often satirical portrayal of spoken word, as well as the scarcity of media platforms that properly showcase it, the power of performance poetry has been dismissed for too long.

When I introduce myself to people as a full-time poet, they respond as if I’m telling them I’m a full-time mermaid. So I already knew that I would encounter disbelief as soon as I set my sights on a goal as “unrealistic” as winning a Grammy.

Unfortunately, the traditionally spoken word poet, who rocks stages and records albums, has not fared as well. The majority of us are still seen as grassroots. We are too often relegated to the stages of lounges and cafes, and very few of us have shattered the ceiling of four-figure pay rates for our performances. Spoken word poets are still perceived as the true definition of the “starving artist” — starving not only for financial gain but for a higher perceived value for our art.

My mission has been to change that narrative.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been driven to create a more commercially viable industry for spoken word poetry, where poets can make a purposeful and profitable living off of their art. One accomplishment in that mission has been my creation of an entirely new category of speaking called Poetic Voice.

Poetic Voice seamlessly fuses inspirational speaking with spoken word poetry and has broken barriers by bringing spoken word to some of the world’s biggest stages and largest organizations, from Google to the NBA. In addition to having my spoken word featured on a host of media networks, I have also given private poetry performances for legends like Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones, Larry King, Hillary Clinton, Norman Lear, and the Obamas. It reads like fantasy, I know. When I told my mother that I was going after a Grammy, she said, “Sounds unrealistic, but you haven’t achieved all you have by being concerned with reality.” She isn’t wrong.

When I introduce myself to people as a full-time poet, they respond as if I’m telling them I’m a full-time mermaid. So I already knew that I would encounter disbelief as soon as I set my sights on a goal as “unrealistic” as winning a Grammy. I passionately believe that poets deserve a more consistent place at the Grammy table. So, since no one seemed to hold the door open for poets, I kicked it open myself.

As I began my campaign, I discovered how shocked people were to learn that it had been so long since a spoken word poetry album was nominated for Best Spoken Word Album. When people hear the term “spoken word,” they tend to assume it means “spoken word poetry,” not audiobooks. But audiobooks have dominated the Grammy’s spoken word category for decades.

I’m incredibly grateful that the Recording Academy acknowledges the art of spoken word and has created a category to celebrate it. Unfortunately for us poets, ever since the invention of the CD catalyzed the rise of audiobooks in the ’80s, the spoken word category has been ruled by authors, not poets, with two notable exceptions. Nikki Giovanni received a nomination in 2003, and Maya Angelou has been nominated multiple times and won in 1993, 1995, and 2002. But, while both of these iconic women are highly respected literary poets, their projects were audiobooks of poetry, not spoken word poetry albums.

Meanwhile, plenty of hard-hitting spoken word artists with Grammy-caliber albums spit fire on stages across the nation. Queen Sheba’s Domino Effect, Andrea Gibson’s Yellow Bird, and the upcoming “Kill The Poets” project by my creative partner, Steve Connell, are a few of my favorites. Yet, most contemporary poets don’t think they can submit an album and win a Grammy because our art form doesn’t have the backing of an industry to help us compete against audiobooks, the seemingly “immovable objects” of our category. So, to prevail against the Goliaths of presidents, publishing houses, and powerhouse celebrities, I knew I had to conjure the audacity of David. My collaboration with The String Theory proved to be the perfect slingshot.

The chance to pair my poetry with an innovative, 50+ person, neo-classical symphony orchestra, was just what I needed. Our six-track album, Sekou Andrews & The String Theory, provides an epic, genre-bending experience reflecting spoken word at its next level. That perpetual “next level” is what I’ve dedicated my life to pursuing poetry. Most importantly, my 18-year career as a full-time spoken word poet provides a model for how up and coming wordsmiths can take our art form to the next level.

The building of that model is why I left the 62nd Grammy award ceremony smiling, despite losing to Michelle Obama. The honor of this Grammy nomination is a massive win for me because it is a win for our art form. It is a rallying cry to all unrealistic innovators, spoken word artists, and other full-time mermaids, that spoken word poetry may finally be the unstoppable force to this category’s immovable objects — metaphorically speaking.

Creator of Poetic Voice speaking, I partner w/ brands to electrify events, transform audiences, turn messages 2 anthems, & give inspirational voice to stories.

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