Revolutionaries bring it sans flowery poems

by Amy Kingsley

While the threat of snow mutes the usual Saturday downtown commotion, knots of young people outside the Carolina Theater drag on cigarettes, talk and watch the snow melt into street shine.

They’re standing under the incandescent marquee. If you don’t look too far south, where the orange warning signs deflect traffic from a construction zone, it’s a quaint snapshot: snow swirling in headlights, scarves, hats and vests perfectly matched.

The scene tonight could be featured in a snow globe, with the theater’s classic façade populated by rosy-checked revelers. But it isn’t the gentle shaking one associates with the collectibles that is planned for the gathering tonight. Instead, the event is billed as a showcase of world-class revolutionary poetry intended to shake up the entire system.

The fans that have turned out tonight aren’t expecting soliloquies about the weather. No, they won’t get warmed up until about the second round, when the jabs against the present administration get particularly venomous and the personal revelations assume searing intimacy.

‘“That’s right!’” the crowd will yell.

‘“Tell us some truth!’”

The truths tonight are coming from the mouths and pens of 17 street poets spitting their message from the black deck of a stage. The contest is simple: three rounds, no notes and one winner.

The competitors don’t use props of set pieces, they deliver their lines against an elaborate printed scrim with full multi-media presentation.

The backdrop, done up in brick reds and concrete grays, grafts graffiti art onto the Baroque interior of the Carolina Theater. It is, after all, a street poetry competition.

And it is sponsored by Red Bull energy drink. One of the slender blue and silver cans rests in the hand of a front-row spectator.

Host Monte Smith sets the tone for the proletarian bards to come with an expletive-laced warning to audience members with cell phones.

‘“You better turn those f*ckin’ cell phones off right now,’” Smith says.

He is thin, pale and clean-shaven. He barks when he speaks and leads his body with his head. The lights catch deep vertical furrows between his eyes.

‘“Who’s ready for some f*ckin’ revolutionary poetry?’”

He demands noise from the crowd, members of which he admonishes to leave if they don’t like the content.

‘“It might be close to Valentine’s Day, but we aren’t going to have any of that flowery sh*t in here tonight.’”

With that Smith establishes a didactic tone more drill sergeant than Dead Poet’s Society. Members of the audience are here to see poets address the political problems of the day, and the contestants oblige.

Street Poets occupy a netherworld between hip-hop performers and literati ‘– overlapping both, belonging to neither and criticizing all. Their clothing style, by and large, apes the former, with poet Jay Blaze walking out onto stage with headphones draped around his neck.

Poem content encompasses one of two things: criticism of mainstream hip-hop/ghetto youth culture or race/gender/class oppression. Defending champ Queen Sheba steps up first with a rhyme.

‘“This is the final answer. This is abolition of the death penalty. This is not teen athletes on steroids. This is hip hop used to be political. This is 9/11 and Katrina victims were miscounted. This is HIV testing every six months. This is voices for the voiceless.’”

As the three-minute performance hurtles toward its climax, her arms and legs join the recitation. She rallies to a triumphant ending.

‘“We are freedom fighters! Freedom fighters! Freedom fighters!’”

She sets an almost impossible bar, but the crowd isn’t quite with her yet, they applaud but sit silently.

Despite the heavy material, the crowd awards bonus points for humor, and Sheba scored several. Sheba hails from Norfolk, Va., and she’s a small city native who holds her own with spoken word circuit riders from as far as California.

A Californian is the next competitor, and the only Asian to grace the stage tonight, Benjamin Alisuag. Although he seeks to obliterate the model minority myth, he rhymes almost flawlessly, mixing self-awareness, political bite and humor.

‘“You ask me why I spit,’” he begins and sets out a rapid-fire litany of injustice.

‘“I spit for poetry. I spit to shower raindrops of intelligence over your umbrella of ignorance.’” Then he concludes, backing away from standard-issue slam poetry aggression. ‘“I spit because there’s just too much saliva in my mouth.’”

From Greensboro, the Mad Rabbi stakes his entry to dissatisfaction with the president, a feeling palpable within these walls.

‘“We’re led by an oxymoron who likes to drink Wild Turkey and get his war on,’” he says.

Some of the poets mine personal suffering, or the pain of those close, often with moving results. Brent Shuttleworth rhymes about his work with abused and neglected children.

‘“I work with kids who walk with the rain. Reward is not patting ourselves on the back. Reward is knowing that in life, some things are not your fault.’”

During round one, all 17 poets present. In an intermission that pushes 30 minutes, the panel of four judges selects the best ten to move on to round two. One of the judges, Wesley Elam, host of the longest-running true hip hop show in North Carolina on 90.9 WQFS-FM, explains his selection criteria.

‘“I want to see that you really mean this from your core,’” he says. ‘“If you can really feel the message. I’m looking for truth and the way you deliver that truth. I mean, anyone can go up on stage and deliver some poetry all dramatical.’”

He’s been with the event from the beginning four years ago, before the sponsorship by Red Bull.

Elam takes his time getting back to his seat at the end of intermission, which opens up time for Smith to rhyme. He delivers a piece against religion.

‘“A rich preacher is a poor servant to God,’” he says. ‘“Organized religion is nothing to be proud of.’”

Once the judges are seated, the competition heats up again. Poets do not know the order in which they will be called, so each must be prepared backstage to deliver on command.

Another former champion, Carlos Andres Gomez, is up for the second round. Either he or Queen Sheba is favored to prevail and take home the $500 check, but the dark horse competition is fierce.

‘“There are some scars so beautiful they remind us why we take risks and ultimately, why we live,’” Gomez says. His eyes fix blue and shining over the crowd. ‘“You are beautiful, it is not your fault, you survived.’” He is talking to both his younger self and the high school students he teaches.

After the second round wraps, the judges break again to decide which five competitors will make it to the final round. Once that round is over, the scores from each round are added to determine the final outcome. The title once again goes to Queen Sheba.

The crowd ambles out, back to their cars and the winter storm they missed. Perhaps some will remember the verbal flurry they endured, each word as evanescent as a snowflake melted on warm skin, and start preparing their own storm. The poets will pack up and move on like a front to the next town, competition and crowd.

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