Spoken Word Playlist #2: ‘On Listening to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day’ by Shadè Joseph

– Written by Hannah Ledlie –

When I was asked to start this series, I could think of some great performances off the top of my head, but I wanted to cast the widest net possible and allow myself to be surprised. Trawling every YouTube poetry channel I could find, I jumped down a rabbit hole of recommended videos. I’m glad I did, for my search led me to Shadè Joseph and her brilliant poem, ‘On Listening to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day’. Although I hadn’t had the fortune to come across Joseph’s work before, I learned that she is a writer and musician from East London who has been performing, producing, composing and collaborating with other artists for over five years. 

Over time, poems can take on new meanings as their contexts change. Following Withers’ passing in April this year, it is difficult not to consider ‘On Listening to Bill Withers’ Lovely Day’ a kind of eulogy, despite the fact it was published in 2018. The way Joseph highlights the sheer joyousness of Withers’ music, and gradually weaves the song’s lyrics into her poem, is a fitting tribute to his work. But the poem also stands alone, offering several layers of meaning beyond a simple celebration of a legendary musician. 

Listening to spoken word, we tend to expect neatly packaged stories which have a clear beginning, middle and end. Thanks to Joseph’s unaffected, conversational tone and charming extended metaphors, we immediately feel in safe hands in this respect. We are guided along as Joseph adapts Withers’ lyrics to describe the peacefulness of her day, with run-on lines creating a sense of momentum and expansiveness. A lot of poets might have chosen to continue along this path, describing beautiful things, then hinting at some underlining darkness, before linking back to the aforementioned beauty through the use of some clichéd phrase like ‘but none of that matters now…’ or ‘but in this moment…’. Joseph, however, does something far more interesting and effective. Right at the last moment, she switches modes and delivers a staccato line in a more serious tone, subverting all our expectations. In ending the piece sooner and more suddenly than we anticipate, Joseph leaves us with far more to think about, and demonstrates that the best spoken word follows no formula.

Written by Hannah Ledlie — Originally from Edinburgh, Hannah is a Birmingham-based poet interested in ideas of dystopia, sexuality and belonging. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Award, and as a member of the University of Birmingham’s poetry team she came first place at UniSlam in 2018 and ’19. In 2019 Hannah was also a member of the winning team at the Hammer & Tongue National Team Slam Final, and won Platform Penguin’s spoken word competition. When she’s not writing, Hannah enjoys watching way too much Drag Race, and admiring dogs while going for walks.

Email Hannah: [email protected] | Twitter: @HannahLedlie | Web: hannahledliewriting.com