Art and personal testimony merge for poets
It’s past midnight early Wednesday morning at Club Orion, a bar discreetly placed among the retail storefronts of West Market Street, and the ladies from the A&T dance team, the hip-hop battlers and the neo-jack swing vocalists, the boasters and the lyrical seducers have stood the floor and spat their words into the mic.
Now in the last fleeting moments of this African-American cabaret the host, a vivacious and personable poet named Donalja James, pours out a torrent of emotionally charged words, daggers of hurt and resilience. Extemporizing, she navigates a common yet sensitive theme in black life: growing up with a distant and self-destructive father, and forging an identity from that void.
‘“He was a black man, but not a real man,’” she charges.
With the father adrift in a fog of addiction, the mother becomes the besieged provider, the role model and ‘— hauntingly ‘— the template for the young woman’s future. ‘“A lot of times mama would come home, cook a meal and go straight to bed,’” she recounts.
The piece culminates with the 31-year-old poet, who performs under the name ‘the Voiceness,’ declaring that her biological father, absent or present, is no longer relevant to the sum of her identity.
‘“That crackhead who was and still is my father is not who I am,’” she says. ‘“When I look in the mirror I see my mother and only my mother.’”
James’ painful words ring true for many of the women in the audience, who murmur, ‘“You know that’s right,’” even as a taunting male voice calls from the back: ‘“Damn, baby, you just needed a man like me.’”
‘“She does all of that off the top of her head,’” says the poet named R-Sonist, who is James’ co-host. R-Sonist, whose given name is Keith Robinson, is a 35-year-old former rapper from New York City. When she finishes, he takes the mic and says: ‘“Just to set the record straight I am a single father.’”
For Robinson and James, who together bill themselves as ‘Blazin’ Ice,’ the words they unleash are art, but they’re definitely also personal testimony.
‘“I’m a single mother,’” James says later, in a conversation outside the club. ‘“I have two daughters. A lot of people say: ‘How am I going to make it?’ And I can relate to that.’”
James was born in Chicago, where she spent the first 13 years of her life, before her family moved to Yazoo City, Miss., where she graduated from high school. She ended up moving to High Point because it was the hometown of her former partner, whom she met while serving in the Navy. She raised children there and went through an abusive relationship before she moved to Greensboro and began to blossom professionally and artistically.
As a corporate trainer working with Bank of America, she won speech contests. Around the same time, she started hosting ‘Love Jones Wednesdays’ at the now-closed Candelites club in Jamestown. From that came the opportunity to open for Arista Records soul cantor Anthony Hamilton and to do voiceover work for 102 JAMZ and 97.1 FM. Now she’s employed as a receptionist for the vice chancellor at NC A&T University and volunteers as a speaker for the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
It would seem almost inevitable then that when she and Robinson, who works as a maintenance mechanic for the US Postal Service in Greensboro ‘— and who like James is a single parent and a military veteran ‘— crossed paths, they would forge a partnership.
They first met when they performed together at a poetry session hosted by the Collective at the Greensboro Borders bookstore on High Point Road. A month later when they performed together in Martinsville, Va., they talked, and since then they’ve been virtually inseparable.
Both hold strong views about the Iraq war and plan to commit their poetic and organizing talents towards building public opinion against President Bush.
R-Sonist, who served with the Marines’ 3rd Battalion in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, came to gradually despise the idea of war because he says he saw innocent people getting killed during his tour and returned to find himself ill-equipped to find work back in civilian life after being conditioned to kill.
‘“They program you, but they don’t deprogram you,’” he says. ‘“With all these people dying over there now, it’s like another Vietnam. We’re not gonna win on their soil.’”
Earlier in the night, he has conveyed that experience to the sharply dressed, mostly black audience at Club Orion in terse, economical rhymes that recall the political rap of old-school artists like Public Enemy and Paris: ‘“I spit harpoons at boojie banquets/ As blood blankets the Persian Gulf/ You sip on Chardon/ Chit-chattin’ about economic infractions/ While Bush is attacking/ The same people he was backing/ Back in ’91 I was there and watched the sun blacken/ The oil fires transmitted smoke/ That collapsed the sun’s lungs and scared the moon into exile.’”
When he finishes, James prods the audience.
‘“Be thankful that you’re here and not over in the desert,’” she says. ‘“If you’re eighteen and male, you might be going over there. I’m not playing.’”
For the two of them poetry is a more conscious art than hip hop, and definitely not an embryonic form of it. Maybe poetry is ‘“the mother of hip hop,’” as James says. But they want righteous poetry to find an audience. And so they invite in the hip-hop lyricists and the dancers to switch things up a little, tweak the energy level and keep their public engaged.
‘“We feel like if we bring all forms of expression, we’ll reach the masses,’” James says. ‘“It’s a marketing play, but at the same time it’s reality.’”
R-Sonist adds: ‘“Hip hop is so often about popping off my gun. That might be what you want to hear, but at some point I’m gonna give you what you need to hear.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org