Red Bull Word Clash:
Monte Smith, a 31-year old poetry host from Winston-Salem ‘– a white man in a black hoody wearing Coke-bottle glasses and wisps of facial hair ‘– stares into a sea of mostly black faces in the audience on the second floor of the Kress Building for the Red Bull Word Clash.
He delivers an angry, expletive-laden warning to the 20 poets battling for $500 of prize money, as well the multitudes packed into folding chairs and settled on the floor.
‘“The flower, mountain and comedy routine doesn’t fly here,’” he says. ‘“Don’t bring that bulls***. Anybody here who doesn’t like that, get the f*** out of here now. Tonight is to celebrate the revolutionary’… those who know that the white power structure is killing black people.’”
Although some audience members in the back of the room bristle at the censoriousness of Smith’s approach, by the end of his speech the crowd erupts in wild cheering.
An unwitting Saturday night reveler who wandered into the Kress Building from South Elm Street on March 5 might be forgiven for wondering if she’d stumbled into a Black Panther conference circa 1969. The Afros, raised fists and militant rhetoric about slave ships, unemployment lines, European land grabs and indigenous genocide combine to create the aesthetics of a revolutionary organization. Except that the revolution is actually a stage with a microphone, a battle between 20 cash-strapped poets for prestige and lucre.
The US military understands that the war in Iraq in not just about bullets and guns; it’s also about winning hearts and minds. And so, conversely, Smith is focusing mightily on the hearts and minds side of the ledger. There is no nascent guerilla warfare happening here in the United States much less the actual grassroots organization to successfully contend for power.
Smith is aware that there is hyperbolic aspect to the revolutionary rhetoric.
‘“The masses aren’t ready to fully unite and organize,’” he says. ‘“There has to be a surge in events like this one. Then we can speak about how we can strike and how we can mass demonstrate.’” (By strike, he means collectively withhold labor, not fire off artillery.)
Woe to the unwitting poet who comes to the stage without righteous political fire.
One of the contestants, a local poet named Clement Mallory, performs a poem that expresses the schizophrenia of romantic codependency. ‘“I can love you and hate you,’” he says. The poem devolves into a back and forth of ‘“I love you ‘– I hate you,’” Mallory’s face switching between soft pleading and screwed-up frustration for comedic effect.
Although four accomplished judges will ultimately decide whether Mallory makes it to the second round, Smith makes it clear he’s not above issuing an executive order.
‘“Leave that relationship at home,’” he says in an angry denunciation. ‘“He almost got cut.’” Smith also threatens to have security escort anyone caught with a ringing cell phone from the building.
Queen Sheba, AKA Bathsheba Rem, a 30-year old African-American poet from Norfolk, Va. who wears an Angela Davis-style Afro and a long skirt sewed from patches of camouflage and black leather, wins Smith’s approval and rapturous, foot-stomping support from the audience.
With arms waving in the air, she sends up a scathing indictment of self-centered, materialistic rap stars who flaunt their power but turn out to have little in the way of inner resources.
‘“Your soul goes broke’” and ‘“They’re more nervous than bigots in a church service’” are two of the lines that punctuate ‘“The Countdown.’”
Chunky, a poet from south Florida who wears dreads, glasses and a respectable brown silk shirt raises the temperature a couple degrees higher.
‘“I’m telling you I’m bringing problems,’” she declares. ‘“I’m locked, loaded and armed with a bad-assed speaking gift.’”
This def poetry, which like hip hop is an essentially African-American form that makes space for performers of all races who demonstrate street cred, often relies on a rhetorical style that resembles a wounded and angry late-night lovers’ quarrel, with socio-political historical slights substituted for personal accusations. The poem builds to an emotional climax with vocal cords stretched raw with anger.
Typical of the delivery style is a poem by Amaris Howard, a 22-year old Hampton, Va. native who now lives in Greensboro, which begins: ‘“I will never stop writing black power poems.’”
The poem builds with an apocalyptic fire ‘– insistent, stinging, devastating:
‘“I won’t stop until you understand that we don’t want a pity party; we want change’… Our black boys and men are still considered Emmett Tills when it comes to the police’… My song will be sung with a busted lip’… Until we stop talking about revolution and start one, this poem will go on.’”
A stylistic exception is Mr. Rozzi, also of Greensboro, whose poems sometimes use a kind of shambling minstrel style to sneak in messages of political topicality. Beginning with the enduring issue of tension between the black community and the police, the poem wildly surveys a laundry list of leftist articles of faith on world economics and politics. The total effect of the message is that black people and other poor people are under siege by forces marshaled under a system in which human welfare is not a priority.
‘“The police are coming ‘– run,’” Mr. Rozzi’s poem begins. ‘“They got bullets and guns.’”
Then, in rapid succession, the poet expresses viewpoints on a whole range of issues: 1) international trade ‘– US policymakers could care less about manufacturing jobs exported overseas, jobs blacks once depended upon for economic survival; 2) the war in Iraq ‘– Congress cut Bush a blank check to wage unending war; 3) domestic social programs ‘– because of the war, there’s no money left over for the poor; and 4) the election ‘– Bush stole it, again.
Queen Sheba, Amaris Howard and Mr. Rozzi make it to the second round, along with seven other poets. Clement Mallory and Chunky don’t.
The 20 poets vying for the pot of cash donated by Red Bull were selected by Monte Smith and other organizers through a combination of merit, incumbency and random lottery.
Carlos AndrÃ©s GÃ³mez, last year’s champion, received an automatic invitation, along with two other hand-selected poets. Ten other poets submitted their performances by video, and were selected by Smith and other organizers based on their talent. Another seven poets, who registered the day of the event, were randomly selected.
The judges, who had rolled in their seats with laughter, sat up with stunned attention or nodded in agreement during the performances, tallied their scores during intermission. All four judges are talented cultural producers: Bruce George, an anthologist and co-founder of HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents, Def Poetry; Cherryl Aldave, a Triad-area freelance music journalist who started Headz, North Carolina’s first hip hop magazine; Thomasi McDonald, a poet, actor and musician who works as a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer; and Wesley Elam, who produces a hip hop show for WQFS 90.9 FM, Guilford College’s campus station.
After the 10 who made the first cut perform their second-round poems, the judges eliminate another five contestants, leaving five to battle for the title: Queen Sheba, GÃ³mez, a Philadelphia poet who goes by the name of Lyrispect, Winston-Salem’s Euridices and a poet named Renaissance.
In the last round, Smith addresses the issue of Red Bull’s sponsorship, which has apparently caused grumbling in some quarters. This is the first year of the slam has had a corporate sponsor, and it’s grown so large that Smith estimates 400 people have crammed into the performance space on the second floor of the Kress Building, and another hundred are downstairs watching the performances on a live-stream webcast.
He’s happy to have the support from the energy drink company.
‘“You bring me another corporation that would allow what you’ve heard tonight,’” he says. ‘“You all were able to see this event for free. I’m a poor man. I have trouble feeding myself and my children sometimes. It’s real.’”
The final round delivers the goods. All five poets sling words that show quick wit and dagger-like incision, vocalized with a relentless emotional intensity.
GÃ³mez, a product of a Colombian and American marriage who lives in Brooklyn, makes a strong bid to retain the title.
His poem reflects on personal frustrations with the education system from experiences teaching elementary school students. It tells how he asked for a show of hands for how many of them had heard of the Jewish Holocaust, and how many had heard of the Rwandan genocide. All had heard about the Jewish Holocaust; maybe one had heard of the Rwandan genocide.
‘“Carlos, what’s genocide?’” is the poem’s constant refrain.
One of the more provocative lines declares: ‘“We can’t even talk about ‘f***ed’ when a third of your senior class is pregnant.’”
The poem deals with the students’ personal traumas, which are juxtaposed against their ignorance of the US black freedom movement and the atrocities of the European colonization of Africa.
By the end, tears are rolling down GÃ³mez’s cheeks, and other grown men are crying with him.
Not to be outdone, Queen Sheba rips into ‘“We Are Warriors First,’” a feminist manifesto.
‘“We are warriors; we birth the earth and make the sun roar,’” she declares at the beginning of a poem that slings a horrifying statistic at the listener. (‘“We will not be one of the 2,771 women in Virginia who happened to be raped this year ‘– birth to 18.’”)
Sheba takes the prize.
A full-time poet who decided to pursue her dream after being fired from Bank of America, Sheba has toured Canada, Cuba and Ghana, among other corners of the world. Despite her experience and acclaim, she says she is saddled with debt and definitely needs the money.
‘“I drove down here in a rented car on a suspended license to win ‘– that’s gangsta,’” she says after her performance.
Smith acknowledges there’s something of a contradiction in an event whose poetics champion redistributing the wealth, but actually involves eliminating 19 contenders to choose one champion.
‘“The only reason we call this a competition is so we can put money in one of these poet’s hands,’” he says. ‘“These poets don’t get any respect.’”
Later he adds: ‘“These are twenty underdogs scrapping for first place.’”
To comment on this story, contact Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.