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Russell Simmons, who founded Def Jam Records, is one of the godfathers of hip hop. He's made a career of stretching rap's audience beyond the American city into the malls and TVs of the heartland. Now, though -- with Def Poetry Jam -- he wants to call the music back home, in a way, by giving gritty, spoken-word poets a serious mainstream platform. "It brings the lyrics back to hip hop," says Ras Baraka (son of poet Amiri Baraka), on a Web page (www.defpoetryjam.com/DPJroots.htm) that seems to express what Def Poetry Jam is all about. "Hip hop will see that it's been backsliding for a long time."
The show starts with music. A DJ named Tendaji sets up behind two turntables and a microphone, saying, "Little somethin' for the new school, somethin' for the old school." He plays snippets of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., along with '70s-era stuff that sounds closer to R&B than rap. Then he introduces the company of nine poets, a good half of whom live in New York: "Staceyann Chin, from Brooklyn via Jamaica; Suheir Hammad, from Brooklyn via Palestine; Lemon, from Brooklyn." The company also includes one local boy, Beau Sia, from San Francisco. Anyone who's seen the Friday-night HBO series Def Poetry (Simmons' offshoot of HBO's Def Comedy Jam, which he also produced) should recognize most of the faces and some of the work.
A plump poet who calls himself Poetri performs "Sometimes I Pretend I'm Michael Jackson," a wistful meditation on wanting to be a rich black man, slim and powerful and unsuspected by the cops. "If you glance for just a second, you might think that I was him/ I mean -- " [laughter] "if the lights were dim." He also does a funny dashed-romance poem called "Money," and another about finding the perfect partner in "Dating Myself." Some of his patter treads a glib line between poetry and stand-up, but he's a charming presence onstage, even when he suggests that Krispy Kreme donuts are a plot by the KKK "to keep the black man down -- and round."
Beau Sia, a young, Asian poet in bright pants, does a few deadpan comic pieces about race and cock size. Lemon strikes hip hop poses and throws gang signs during his most surprising poems, "Love" and the "County of Kings." One of the strongest and most versatile poets is Staceyann Chin, a willowy, Caribbean-accented woman with a huge, parted Afro, who can range with intelligence and delicacy from images of plantation-era Jamaica and modern lesbian lust to pop culture and whimsical spirituality. In a poem called "I Believe," she says, "Contrary to popular belief, I believe Bert and Ernie are straight/ They're just waitin' for the right woman."
Black Ice (aka Lamar Manson) has the most authority onstage; he delivers his poems about prison, the record industry, and family dysfunction with the cool, measured rhythm of a rap artist. Some of his lines skitter and some of them come slow; his rhymes are always interesting and his voice is personal, natural. He never breaks into that stilted, I'm-reading-a-poem-now drone of the worst slam poets. One idea behind Def Poetry Jam is to bring poetry back to its own oral tradition, but simply putting a poet on a stage isn't enough. It's when the performers try to stretch the idiom of slam itself -- usually by finding something honest and vulnerable, instead of crowd-pleasing and loud -- that Def Poetry Jam catches fire.
I've seen lots of slam poetry, and the tone in the room is almost always like the tone of a demonstration at U.C. Berkeley -- meaning defiant, but not necessarily open and free. The crowd comes with certain expectations that have to be fed, and the worst moments of Def Poetry Jam (or any poetry slam, as far as I can tell) come when poets feed those expectations with chunks of raw meat. Steve Colman's rant about the real "Terrorist Threat" in America coming from Arthur Andersen and Enron is a perfect example. Securities fraud that cheats thousands of workers out of their retirement funds and their jobs is certainly a form of evil, but to suggest to a cheering crowd that it's the moral equivalent of flying planes into the World Trade Center is not just naive, it's demagoguery, simple mental prostitution.
A few rants about identity also argue for selfhood where no one argues back. At the end of a duet with Black Ice about love and gender and race (called "Listen"), Staceyann Chin has a line addressed to society in general. "All we ask," she says, "is that you allow us to be ourselves/ Even when we are not with you."
Hmmm. How did Bob Marley put it?
"Emancipate yourself from mental slav'ry/ None but ourselves can free our minds."
Simmons' show is a healthy experiment in bringing live, breathing poetry to a mainstream audience, but slam itself turns out to be a form, a mode of thinking, that needs to be challenged like any other.
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