Poetry International Poetry International
An homage to the Rotterdam spoken word scene

How the underground became pop culture

June 23, 2023

In less than five years the Dutch literary world has been turned upside down by the popularity of a style also known as spoken word poetry. Rooted in the fundamental art of storytelling by people of the global majority and the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop, the style is recognisable by its emphasis on performance and its capability to captivate the youth in a way conventional poetry and prose cannot seem to do. Unlike R.A.P. (Rhythm and Poetry), it’s often performed a cappella and has a more open-minded stance, discussing a variety of social themes within its broad thematic scope. Writers of the style are invited to a community that allows space for the most critical voices as well as the most vulnerable and soft-spoken ones. Above all, it’s a community characterised by warmth and support – with the occasional outbursts of ego, of course. I mean, we are writers, after all.


Carina Fernandes is a storyteller from Rotterdam, founder of Verbalism and the Schiedamse Poetry Slam. She is also known as a spoken word artist, songwriter and cultural strategist. She wrote this article at the invitation of Poetry International for the website of Versopolis, an ambitious European collaboration that since 2015 has already united 31 countries and poetry partners, promotes the European exchange of promising poetry talent and provides a digital platform where a wide audience can learn about poets and poetry festivals from different European countries.


Is this due to the rise of the Instagram poets during COVID 2020? Or is it a long-overdue recognition for writers and promoters of the genre? One thing is certain: every writer who was mocking the genre in the early 2000s is probably biting their tongue now. With Babs Gons, the godmother of the Dutch spoken word scene, winning the prestigious title of Dichter des Vaderlands (Poet Laureate) in September 2023, one might say spoken word poetry is unambiguously woven into the field of Dutch literature.

As a writer of the second wave, as I like to call it, I am proud to be able to say that I have seen the rise of Rotterdam as the spoken word capital of the Netherlands. The genre, once a voice of the underground, quickly grew to be the Kobe, the number 1, of the world of literature. Let me take you through it, mixtape-style.

The early 2010s

Most people I have met found spoken word through Def Jam Poetry ­– an American television series hosted by MC Mos Def (now known as Yasin Bey) that was aired between 2002 and 2007. The series featured performances by established and up-and-coming spoken word poets, rappers and singers that shaped a generation, names such as Nikki Giovanni, Black Ice, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Floetry, Alicia Keys, Common, etc.

My story is slightly different. I fell in love with hip-hop and Shakespeare in my early years of secondary school. When I anxiously shared my written thoughts that occasionally rhymed at 15 with my English teacher, he told me what I wrote was spoken word and introduced me to Ursula Rucker, whose poem ‘Four Women’ (inspired by Billie Holiday’s eponymous song) is a perfect example of how spoken word operates – by capturing history and blending it with the now. An invitation to my first open mic followed two years later. The event was called Spoken Notes, organised by Vino Venitas in a gallery next to a barbershop in the Bijlmer, the deep south of Amsterdam. For the first time in my life my ‘profound thoughts’ were appreciated and applauded. It led to an invitation to Cinnamon Wednesdays organised by Clarice Gargard (now a renowned writer and activist), and soon after that I went on a quest to find open mics nearby. I stumbled upon the Poetsclub – a poetry night in a brown café called de Schouw, where, as a 17-year-old, I was quickly introduced to how the ‘real Dutch literary scene’ saw writers like me.

As I often wrote in English, I was part of a small group in this predominantly Dutch-speaking space. The purists would mumble mockingly, some even wrote counter poems expressing their complaints about spoken word. I remember Gino asking me to join the first Poetry Circle in Rotterdam – a poetry academy founded by Babs Gons – but my ambitions at the time were elsewhere. Looking back, that first season had some of our literary stalwarts such as Tomáš de Paauw and Chery Salinas, but I’ll get to that later. I was often underrated at academy because I wrote in English and am a person of colour. As Kendrick Lamar once said: ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ Yet I believe that nowadays it’s a conscious decision to stay ignorant.

2015 – the golden era

Out of nowhere, a new movement arose: event managers, often writers themselves, started organising poetry nights and open mics inspired by Def Jam Poetry. In 2015, The Late Night Poetry Jam by Kenneth Asporaat became a household name. It was a grand poetry night hosted in a renowned theatre and for many of us, the first time we experienced a poetry event like this. We saw the rise of Woorden worden Zinnen (words become sentences) by Ella and Wes in Dordrecht, a village near the city, and the first award show for the genre called The Spoken Awards, an initiative by Kevin de Randamie (also known as MC – Blaxtar) and Zoë Zee. The community, relatively small at the time, moved from one event to another. It was a lot like being in secondary school, you’d always run into the same faces.

Open mics started to claim more space in the city. The best example is Spraakuhloos by Tomáš & Garyl (& co) which had an edition on the plaza in the city centre The subsequent years saw the rise of different organisations such as the Alfabet Soup by Mitz aan de Maas, Next Generation Speaks, Flow, events focused on queer writers by The Hang-Out 010 and Naomi Grant, as well as the local feminist writing academy: the Writer’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sylvana Sodde with its open mic A Mic of One’s Own, and my Verbalism – connecting (Q)BIPOC creatives.

2017 – nothing but hits

Within a year, the organisations started to appear all over the city, where we’d barely had one open mic. At first it seemed as if Rotterdam had one every other week. Initially, the organisers were writers themselves, but people who weren’t necessarily part of the community soon started to capitalise on the concept of open mic. We saw a quick rise and fall of these events. In the meantime, the original scene actors decided to join forces and create a foothold for spoken word poetry in the city. New collaborations were created between the existing institutions and a new generation of promoters. This resulted in the first ever spoken word festival in Dutch history, the 010 Says it All (2017), led by the team of Spraakuhloos, a foundation connecting organisations with local art institutes in order to unify the spoken word community. The festival lasted for three days and was held all over the city. Now known as Tell’Em Festival, it still takes place once in a while. In the same year, Derek Otte became stadsdichter (Poet of the City). For me, Derek is a part of the first wave of writers. He shared his spoken word pieces on the local radio station as sum-ups in the early 2000s, and organised an event called Paginagroots. In two years, he managed to make spoken word poetry an elective in the local college and university. This was a huge moment for the spoken word scene in Rotterdam where workshops were usually extracurricular activities. In 2019, Dean Bowen became stadsdichter. During his term he claimed space for conversations the Dutch like to avoid, such as their colonial history, and created an election for a youth stadsdichter. He created space for underrated and unrecognised multidisciplinary creatives.

2018/2019 – HOT girl summer

It was at this time that Sylvana Sodde (the Writer’s Guide (to the Galaxy)) invited different organisations to create an alliance (De Woordalliantie 010) with a view to obtaining funding from the city budget, the holy grail of the cultural sector. A few, including the Spraakuhloos, managed to secure the funds, which meant a steady income and bigger events, more education and more opportunities in general for writers.

To me, 2019 was a good year. I was part of the renewal of a local poetry slam, and a year later I was involved in the founding of the Schiedamse Poetry Slam. I helped provide poets with the opportunity to participate in the National Poetry Slam Championship (the winner qualifies for the European Championship), and I met some people who set out on their slam journey in our organisation and later moved on to start their own events. Seeing others grow makes my heart smile.

The roaring noughties and the third wave

When the world came to a halt and everyone had to stay in, many people seemed to find strength in the arts. A new generation felt the need to express themselves, and the internet offered a perfect platform, ushering in the era of the insta-poet. Insta-poets rose to prominence slowly, but with the outbreak of COVID they flooded the internet with poetry-related content in all kinds of forms, on all kinds of platforms, such as Clubhouse and Instagram, for instance. Spoken word poetry went mainstream, if it wasn’t mainstream already.

Just before the COVID regulations became stricter, we started hosting the first edition of the Schiedamse Poetry Slam. As digital natives, my team and I instantly transitioned to the online format and ours became the first digital slam in Dutch slam history.

As the city opens back up, the landscape of open mic is returning as well. A new generation has emerged and by now even the insta-poets have their own award show. Whereas less than five years ago spoken word was a new old thing, it has become so common that even the established names who dismissed it at first are now programming (local) spoken word artists. The sincerity of their intent is up for debate, some might say it’s a survival technique or a jump on the bandwagon type of beat. But one thing cannot be denied: spoken word poetry is the voice of this generation. It carries on the long tradition of storytelling and sampling that we were taught as people of the global majority, as children of hip-hop culture and therefore the progenitors of the future innovators.

© Carina Fernandes
Source: Versopolis.com
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère