From ghetto to ghetto
In his 1990 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia mourned the relegation of poetry to an “intellectual ghetto” where poets only write for other poets and the people languish on a diet of politician’s soundbites and US Magazine. In the decade since, Gioia has changed his elegy to a toast. This happy renaissance is due, in part, to the Spoken Word scene that brought poetry back to the actual ghettos in the form of “slams,” freeing it from university faculty lounges and infusing it with the fresh beats of break dancing Hip-Hop heads along the way.
Russell Simmons, the man who brought us Run DMC, Kurtis Blow , Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker and others through Def Jam records and Def Comedy Jam is capitalizing on this fusion of beat boxing and iambic pentameter in “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway .”
The DJ and the poets
The lights come up in the Longacre Theatre and DJ Tendaji declares that he’s got something for everybody in the house. He plays Mase for the old skool 70’s and Biggie Smalls for ’97. The audience sings along to the song of the day, “give me that sweet that funk that…”
Nine young poets assemble on stage and release the first of many floods, invoking Abner Louima, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, the CIA, Enron, and the statue of limitations for rape in their “Prelude” performance; each emphatic that their words must be spoken.
“I wanna raise poems like kids / Keep them from jail bids / Pessimisim and negativity,” Black Ice declares. Steve Coleman wants “ideas that kiss similes so deep that metaphors get jealous.”
Poems without a page
The poems that follow are sermons, lyrics, rants, confessions, stand-up comedy, and rhymer’s battles. They are poems too, but they don’t belong on a page; many of the compositions would seem deeply average without the brio, acrobatics, and sheer volume of their performers. This is not to disparage the form. In its innovation, Spoken Word marks a return to poetry’s first form as an oral art, with the poet serving a very public role as historian, seer, matchmaker, and muse.
The history in these pieces is reminiscent of Howard Zinn and “conscious” Hip-Hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest . It is riddled through with identity politics. In her “Exotic” monologue, Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad tells would-be suitors that she “don’t wanna be your exotic,” the trophy girl of urban pluralism. “Women everywhere carry my nose on their faces,” she says. Later she puns with “Mike Check,” an imagined airport security worker with cornflower blue eyes, as to why she is always “randomly” selected.
The seeing is concerned with surfaces in a sometimes failed attempt to reach depths. Beau Sia calls himself the “Chinese Hulk Hogan,” and demands that the eggroll be officially recognized as an American food. Black Ice rhymes about the “look of no hope on me and my brother’s faces,” the twin options of slinging coke or sporting rhyme skills and the lure and lie of a record deal.
Much of the show’s two acts are variations on the theme of love–Steve’s piece on his lover’s incessant but, as in “I love you, but,” Georgie Me’s depiction of “Niggods,” and Suheir’s pained love poem, “We Spent the 4th of July in Bed.”
The glad surprise is that the show is not overcome by earnestness or anger. The performers are capable of self-deprecation and comedy too. Poetri depicts the Krispy Kreme Konspiracy to “keep the black man round,” and asks why there are so many “cute people with ugly people.”
The best pieces aren’t about these poets at all. Lemon and Mayda rap a duet for Tito Puente who “put 112th St. on the map,” and Beau, Georgia, and Suheir invoke June Jordan, Prince, and the suburban skyscape of Oklahoma City (Beau’s hometown) as the “first tastes” that set them writing.
If you’ve tasted this same sweetness, if you’re wondering why you still have every last lyric to “Rapper’s Delight” stuck in your head, if you think about the politics of language or what it’d be like to “paint the White House brown,” find your way to New York City and head to the Longacre Theater. Shoot for the $25.00 seats and rock your old Adidas.
Guess what America? The Def Poets love you.