Student Spotlight / Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett, Marshall scholar  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

AT LAST: At the tender age of 21, Joshua Bennett already is a nationally recognized spoken word artist who was recently awarded the United Kingdom’s Marshall Scholarship. He is the first African-American student at Penn to receive the honor.

LIVING TEXT: There is a distinct difference between poetry and spoken word, says Bennett. “I think they’re two radically different texts. If you read one of my poems as opposed to seeing it performed, it’s drastically different based on what I do with inflection, how I might change my voice and how I get into a different character in certain parts of the piece.”

MOMMA LOVES ME: Bennett has performed at the NAACP Image Awards and at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady. “The coolest thing for me is that my mom got to talk to Michelle Obama,” he says. “My mom grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx with six brothers and sisters. For my mom to get an opportunity to sit and talk to the First Lady just warmed my heart.”

WORD TO A SISTER: At the White House, Bennett performed his signature poem, “Tamara’s Opus,” an apology to his older sister, who is deaf, for their lack of communication. Parts of the poem are in sign language.

JESUS IS HIS COPILOT: Bennett, a senior who is majoring in Africana Studies and English, once turned his Facebook status into a poem. He’s published a book of poetry titled “Jesus Riding Shotgun.”

MARSHALL MATTERS: Bennett plans to use his Marshall Scholarship to pursue a Master of Arts in theater and performance studies. He will be studying at the University of Warwick in England and plans to create a genealogy of disabled black performers from the late 19th century onward.

THE ROSE THAT GREW FROM CONCRETE: His poetry is interspersed throughout the upcoming film “One Night in Vegas,” part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The film chronicles the relationship between Mike Tyson and rapper Tupac Shakur.

STARRING JOSHUA BENNETT: He recently met with an agent and is interested in hip-hop theater. “[I am interested in] finding a way to make spoken word meet the theater arts in a really profound, powerful fashion that you can’t ignore,” he says. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. when he completes his Marshall Scholarship.

ART IS LIFE: Marshall Scholars typically major in sciences, such as chemistry, or liberal arts, such as English and Africana studies. “That’s cool,” Bennett says. “We need chemists. But we need plays too and people forget that. Wake up in a world with no plays and no music, let’s see how happy you are.”

Originally published on January 21, 2010