COUNTERCULTURE: Resistance Through Zines & Slam Poetry

Posted on December 12, 2011 by



Resistance Through Zines & Slam Poetry

“Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.”

-Mahmoud Darwish


Resistance to oppression through literature and poetry can span from counterculture pamphlets to radical book circles, poetry slams, underground hip-hop and rap to formal publications that criticize and resist forms of oppression, to much more. My main focus here will be on the both the historical and contemporary usage of zines and slam poetry that fight to resist racism as well as the intersections of anti-racism with feminism and pro-queer sentiments. Here, I will include examples of each art form while engaging with the concept of resistance that each offer.

Aspects of Systemic Racism Targeted by Zines and Slam Poetry

-all! including:

-internalized racism

-color-blind racism

-“the white man’s burden”

-cultural racism (i.e. media)

-industrialized racism (i.e., via the industrial prison complex)


What is a zine?

A zine (pronounced zeen) is a hand-designed and hand-crafted pamphlet or small booklet that is usually self-published or published on a small scale for small-scale distribution. Zines can cover any topic, but because of their history as products of counterculture, zines generally address topics such as queerness, feminism, anti-racism, veganism or vegetarianism, and/or movements and ideals such as anti-civilization, anarchy, riot grrl, punk, and straight-edge.

Zines have been used for dozens and dozens of years to circulate information and create resistance to typical capitalistic ideals. Unlike regular magazines, zines are not intended to make a profit; instead, they are intended to inform, incite, and call to action.

A Brief History

Many believe that the beginnings of the modern-day zine first came about in the 1930s, starting as fan-mags for underground science-fiction literature, made and distributed simply for the enjoyment of some readers. In the 60s and 70s, zines turned towards more provocative topics, commentating on the war, drug use, rock n’ roll, and other cultural happenings. The invention of the typewriter and mimeograph in decades before made small-scale distribution possible for radicals who wanted to inform others of their ideas and beliefs that generally went against popular culture. The mid-70s saw the beginning of the punk movement, and punk zines began circulating throughout the 80s and 90s. In 1998, a big step for zine-dom came with the creation of the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. The IPRC is an organization dedicated to helping to create, publish, and distribute zines on a larger level.

Many anti-racist zines in particular focus on the intersection of race with class, gender, and sexual orientation, and through poetry, prose, articles, and photographs, spread the word about anti-racism and work to unite activists against oppression in general.

Zines as Agents of Resistance

Racial oppression is perpetuated, supported, and bound up with other forms of oppression such as sexism, classism, and homophobia. Very rarely will one find a zine dedicated to resisting only one form because of the intersections that occur across all forms of oppression. Through stories, poems, and articles, anti-racist zines provide information and ideas to fight racism on many levels. For example, Jenny Bourne’s Towards an Anti-Racist Feminism is a single article about the intersection of gender and race and the oppression that binds women and people of color. Thirdspace, a feminist anti-oppression zine created by students at the University of Victoria in Canada, uses art, poetry, and stories to resist oppression (check out the link below).

Zine content, however, is not the only way zines act as agents of resistance; the pamphlets themselves, and the not-for-profit, small-scale, DIY way they are produced, act as resistance to mass media, capitalism, and popular culture in general. Since racism is, unfortunately, deeply embedded in both historical and contemporary culture, the fact that zines are associated with counter-culture offers an obvious resistance to embedded oppression.

Some images of zines!

Current Movements: PDFs of anti-racist zines


What is slam poetry?

Like zines, poetry can be used as an agent of resistance through art. Slam poetry refers to the act of a poet reciting his or her poetry out loud, usually to some sort of beat or rhythm. This is known as “slamming.” Slam poetry has become an agent of resistance because it has been adopted by many as accessible means to a call for action. Slam poetry has both branched off of and inspired different forms of hip-hop, rap, and spoken word. Like zines, slamming has become a symbol for counterculture as it is normally produced independently of mass media and covers important and provocative topics.

“Such philosophies might sound a high tone in your head and leave your cynical self muttering “What Bull!” . Sometimes it is. The idealism and cooperative forces of the Slam are in constant conflict with the competitive and self-serving appetites of its ambitious nature. This struggle has taught us much, but threatens to obliterate all that has grown to be. I , as surely you have guessed, am on the side of idealism and hope.” 

-Marc Smith

A Brief History

Slam poetry officially began in the mid-80s in Chicago when a nightclub owner wanted a way to draw attention to local poets in a creative and entertaining way. However, unofficially, slamming had been happening long before that. The Beat poet era of post-World War II produced poetry resistant to capitalism, materialism, racism, and homophobia. Alan Ginsberg’s Howl famously captured the hopeless, drug-addled scene of impoverished young people in New York City in the 50s, through a language obscene and fluid that flowed rhythmically. Ginsberg and other Beat poets read their works at poetry readings and book circles, but it wasn’t until the 80s that the term “slamming” was coined. Slam poetry took off throughout the 80s and 90s, and in 1990 first national poetry slam competition was held in San Francisco. Currently, the national slam poetry competition still exists, and hundreds of high schools throughout the country have teams. Slam poetry has even been used in prisons to allow the prisoners to creatively express their opinions and emotions.
Slamming As Resistance 
Slamming can work to creatively protest all forms of intersected oppression because it uses expression, language, and opinion to make a statement. It externalizes feelings once internalized and calls attention to deep-rooted issues in an accessible format. In my opinion, slamming represents struggle, the struggle to put words to movements and actions and emotions that may have been bottled up or internalized. Like zines, slamming is a form of counter-culture that is a call to action. Some slam poets specifically known for their anti-racist words, along with focusing on the intersection between class, gender, and sexuality,  are Khodi Dill, Kit Yan, Andrea Gibson, Mos Def, and the all-girl San Francisco group Sister Spit.
Current Movements: videos of slam performances
  • Kit Yan, Ethnic Studies:
“The eloquence of Kit’s spoken-word delivery lies in the anti-racist, anti-homophobic, gender-inclusive language that ties his lyrics together.” -Bitch MaKhodi Dill for Black History Month:
  • Andrea Gibson, See Through:
  • Mos Def reads Malcolm X:
  • 18-year-old Nate Marshall, winner of national high school poetry slam competition: (AMAZING)



Personal Analysis and Recommendations 

In my opinion, both zines and slam poetry, though generally marks of counterculture, have the potential to infiltrate our current system of mass media and communication and effectively work to end oppression in all forms. Our current racialized and capitalistic system perpetuates racism on a grand scale through most major media outlets, from television shows that stereotype characters of color to biased and conservative news channels that paint people of color in negative light to internalized and colorblind racism in our schools, workplaces, cities and towns. Zines and slam poetry, though not as pervasive as traditional, consumerist media, have the potential to be just as powerful. A movement centered around once-alternative forms of artful and creative resistance can bring zines and slam poetry, as well as similar art forms such as underground rap and hip-hop, to the forefront of our society.

So, make art your form of resistance. Write poetry about what you see around you, problems in our society, things you’d like to change. Support local spoken word poets and slam poetry teams. Read books. Make zines! Do it yourself. Do it cheap. Fight capitalism at the same time. Publish your opinions yourself. Start a blog. Support underground rap. Support unbiased news media (if possible) or radical news media such as Democracy Now. Art has the power to change. 



References/Useful Links

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