Friday, March 27, 2009

Slammed




      Years ago, I owned the 2-disc CD set Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like The Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work. (It mysteriously “vanished” from my collection a while back, and I’ve never gotten around to replacing it.) One of the things I really dug about Our Souls was the way it outlined the evolution of the Negro poet’s public speaking style. (It’s not only poets who constitute the discs’ line-up but they do dominate.) The collection kicks off with folks like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks, and ends with Carl Hancock Rux, Saul Williams and Public Enemy. But it’s the bridge of the ‘60s (Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka) that fascinated me. That’s when shit took a crucial turn and the template was set. While I love(d) listening to the performances from that Black Pride / Revolution Now! era, I loathe what they spawned, that god-awful spoken-word cadence (you know what I’m talking about) and all its accompanying clichés – the uniformity and conformity of body language, facial expressions and stage demeanor. The way almost any topic tackled is funneled down a path of crowd-pandering predictability. There are glorious exceptions, of course, but they are (to my mind and ear) rare. So it was with some [much] trepidation that I popped in the screeners for the first three episodes of Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices, the HBO documentary mini-series that was executive produced by Stan Lathan and James Kass. (Queen Latifah narrates.) I’m hooked.
      The show follows teams of young slam performers that have been gathered from across the U.S. (Hawaii; San Francisco, Philly; New York; Ann Arbor; Florida) as they prepare for a national competition. Initially, all my preconceptions were confirmed as those familiar rhythms (and yelling) started to unfold. Early in my notes, I jotted that many of these kids ooze a weariness / wariness / soul-exhaustion that is clearly real and deeply felt, but that is filtered through hack signifiers and dictates of "performed realness." I felt that was unfortunate because they’re addressing topics ranging from serious health issues (sickle cell; bi-polar disorder) to the pain of absent fathers (surprise: it ain’t just a colored folks issue), to sex and sexuality (there’s a harrowing real-life tale of a foiled kidnapping that was meant to include rape and murder) to the erasure of native cultures (Hawaiian and Native American).
      It’s humbling and horrifying to realize (or be reminded, because it’s not news) of the range of “fucked-up” that is standard-issue for so many of these kids. (One young Negro is almost apologetic that he actually comes from a pretty stable family and safe neighborhood; while the largely white, middle-class kids from Ann Arbor have to battle preconceptions of privilege.) But as you settle into the unfolding narratives, the charm / self-possession and insecurities / and sharp intellect of the kids completely wins you over. The battles between forging ahead and self-sabotage are sometimes painful to watch, especially as folks who most need a win almost go out of their way to cheat themselves of it. As the cameras swung between rehearsals, performances and the home lives of these fledgling (and in a few cases, already scarily mature) poets, I even fell under the sway of some of the work. A line or phrase would leap out, causing an “oh, shit” response that was genuinely earned. There are a couple of whole pieces that blew me away; the alchemic process of turning auto-bio into art dazzled.
      Still, questions nagged at me as I watched the arduous preparations, the internal battles that were placed center-stage, and the youth being upped by OGs like Ursula Rucker. The questions stuck because for all my preconceptions that were shattered, and that I happily surrendered, there were just as many that were confirmed. The questions: Is anyone going to have a conversation about the assembly-line aspect of all this, the process by which so many of these young folk and their work are being put on a conveyor-belt of cookie-cutter personas and mannerisms, encouraged to slip into already threadbare performance drag, or not challenged when they do? How do we draw a distinction between education and the teaching of standards, the mastery of form, and the enforcement of discipline, without it all dove-tailing into sludgey formula? Would these kids have a shot at “visibility” if they did step outside the familiar grooves, if instead of being reborn manifestations of the tried & true, they slipped the ropes of an already commodified, prepackaged expression of creativity and lay claim to some freestyle freshness? I’m hoping (but very, very doubtful) that some of that will be addressed in future episodes. Either way, I am completely hooked on these kids and their efforts to become artists. The series starts this weekend; check your local listings.

Check out this Sylvia Plath interview. Especially hold on till the end, where she talks about the necessity of poets elevating the autobiographical into the “historical” in order to create meaningful, relevant art:


      I am dashing off to get a haircut as soon as I post this update, getting ready to fly to New York to speak at CUNY on Monday, March 30th. Then I’m headed over to Brown University for this amazing conference, and where on April 3rd I will be participating on the panel, "Production, Performance, Product: The politics of writing and performing Blackness/Queerness." Staceyann Chin and Andre Lancaster (Freedom Train Productions) are scheduled to be on the panel with me. I’m also geeked (I’m bringing it back) to see performances by Chin; Brian Freeman, formerly of Pomo Afro Homos; my Redbone Press sister, Sharon Bridgforth; and Daniel Alexander Jones.
      This past week has been insanely busy, as I finished an arts essay for a monograph being published later this year, edited the intro to War Diaries, and interviewed Bruce LaBruce and Vaginal Davis for a profile I’m writing on LaBruce for Flaunt magazine. All were/are due before I head back east. Those last two, the interviews, were like crack, reminding me why I do what I do and how much I love writing. Via email, LaBruce (who is working in Berlin) and I talked about the politics of his zombie film Otto, the potential for radical cultural critique via porn, the possibility of a reborn counterculture in the wake of global economic meltdown, and the parallels between punk and hip-hop cultures. Here is just a snippet from the LaBruce Q&A, followed by a quick quote from the interview with Ms. Davis (who now lives in Berlin), which is going to be a sidebar to the LaBruce piece.

EH: Building a bit on punk, its homoeroticism and counter-culture position, you’ve also long been interested in hip-hop and have been quite vocal in your critique of “corporate hip-hop.” I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about the parallels as you might see them between punk and hip-hop – in terms of their large-scale “queerness” (i.e., being “outsider” art or expression) but also their undercurrents of homoeroticism; their trajectories of co-option by & voluntary subservience to the status quo; and what it even means anymore to be an anti-corporate culture, or anti-corporate artist.

BL: Whew Ernest! Those are all big questions. But to try to be succinct about it, you only have to go back to the roots of the black, gay and feminist movements in the late sixties and seventies to recognize the parallels and common goals of all three movements, which were all, at that time, militant Marxist-influenced movements in opposition to the dominant white patriarchal elite class. It’s well documented that Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers reached out to his gay and feminist brothers and sisters in the struggle against the white bourgeoisie ruling class! Genet famously supported the Black Panthers, solidifying the connection between gay and black outsider opposition to the dominant order, and Angela Davis’ strong revolutionary voice dovetailed nicely with feminist radicalism.
      The point is that all three movements shared anti-capitalist values, and the abandonment of that platform is what has killed counterculture and true opposition in the modern Western world. Corporate black hip-hop learned far too well at the feet of their capitalist white masters, and the same can be said for the gays. Even feminism was largely dismantled by misguided post-feminist capitulation to corporate values. The oppressed became the oppressors, and, incidentally, became more than happily complicit with the unbridled corporate greed and malfeasance that ushered in the current economic calamity. The only people left to complain or protest these days are the French Revolution-style peasants who are crying for the blood of the financial barons and CEOs. There’s no organized, anti-capitalist intellectual resistance, it seems. Anyway, I digress, but for me personally, and as an artist, I’ve always fetishized militant resistance to all kinds of brutal dictatorships, corporate, capitalist overlords, and other assorted hegemonies. I even extend it to a literal sexual fetish because each of these radical movements started out with very strong resistance against sexual orthodoxy and repression. Each movement had a strong component of sexual revolution, and an overtly sexualized style. I’ve always been attracted to that.

Here’s a bit from Vag, who calls Bruce “Judy”:

EH: And what is it like collaborating on a professional level [with Bruce], given that you are also friends?

VD: I work well with Judy but she can be problematic. She’s selfish, egotistical and bratty. Those are her good qualities. We butt heads quite a bit. She has a husband now, this Afro-Cuban Santeria priest that she gay-married – yuck – and talks about non stop. The guy has a 14-inch penis. I am an old-fashioned loner type who is basically unboyfriendable, so of course I hate people who are coupled. That is natural for me to resent domesticity in my friends.

And here is a filmed bit from the Bruce / Vag 2007 stage collaboration (in Berlin), “Cheap Blacky”:



Finally, my weekend play-list:





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2 comments:

Jack Curtis Dubowsky said...

I don't know where to start. Compare and contrast Vag's seemingly helium-induced monologue with the slam poets!!!! Who's more "real" ??!!! Chew on that! I admit that slam poet trailer made me cringe. Slam poetry just bothers me for the most part. Interestingly, my friend Randy Nolan, who's written lyrics I've used for choral writing, gave me a subscription to Poetry magazine, which is about as far away from that slam scene as you can go, and neither one has the immediacy of Ms Davis. As to Bruce, he's absolutely right. We have no counter culture movement at all any more. Ironically the true capitalist approach is to let dying businesses fail; so now we have de facto this bizarre system which doesn't actually adhere to a capitalist ideology or any ideology. And still there's no real counter culture, apart from Vag and Bruce and what few people like them are doing.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky said...

Oh I hope this doesn't offend you... but this is Will Franken's "Poetry Slam" routine. !!!!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Xg8FOlvXCs
"Discuss"