BreakBeat and the New Auditory Avant-garde—for Children! (Or, That New-fangled Noise the Kids Are All Going On About)

Work Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Liberal Arts and Sciences


breakbeat; children's poetry; hip-hop; poetry; slam poetry; performance poetry; avant-garde


A glance at the shelves in any bookstore today shows what publishers imagine to be the most commercially viable kind of children's poetry, but the apparent ubiquity of nature poetry, silly and sentimental light verse, and verse novel belies something arguably more popular, at least with children themselves. This chapter takes a tour through this largely unexplored poetry landscape, rarely available in bookstores, sometimes called “BreakBeat,” a mixture of hip-hop and the slam/performance poetry scenes that creates what Dana Gioia calls a kind of popular “auditory avant-garde.” Although hip-hop for children may sound like an odd pairing, hip-hop has, since its start in the 1970s, been deeply woven into the lives of youths, bringing with it Black urban culture and engagement with social change, in addition to rigorous technical and aesthetic elements via rap, deejaying, dance, and graffiti. The more recent trend of slam poetry, which had its ragged beginnings in the late 1980s, has since filtered down to teenagers and even elementary schools, creating a thriving arena of competition, cultural criticism, and self-discovery. BreakBeat is the convergence of these aesthetics and cultures: a performative, radical, experimental hybrid genre to which children are finding their way primarily via the Internet, since publishers seem reticent to publish it. This chapter surveys some of the rare print sources of BreakBeat, online sources popular with children, and school and community programs, in both America and the United Kingdom, that promote the appreciation, creation, and performance of BreakBeat poetry. The chapter focuses in particular on three practitioners: Benjamin Zephaniah, Adisa the Verbalizer, and of more recent fame, Amanda Gorman. It also looks at the anthology Hip Hop Speaks to Children, edited by Nikki Giovanni, one of the few examples of commercial print culture embracing this living, thriving new form. It's time we paid attention to it; our children already are.


This is a book chapter appearing in A Companion to Children's Literature, edited by Karen Coats, Deborah Stevenson, and Vivian Yenika-Agbaw and published by Wiley.