Fort Greene

Poetry slam at BAM features hip hop-inspired poets

April 6, 2015 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Najee Omar performed with Angyll at BAM’s “Poetry 2015: Speaking Truth” event. Photos by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM
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One person’s poetry can be another’s reason for wanting to take a nap. It’s all about relevance. Wordsworth and Keats may not reach many young people today, but hip hop artists from Jay Z to Notorious B.I.G. — poets in their own right — do.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presented a collection of hip hop-inspired poets at “Poetry 2015: Speaking Truth” Thursday evening, combining music, dance and an urban aesthetic with words of social relevance. BAM’s Fishman Space was packed, and the crowd was racially diverse and largely under 40.

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Hosted by Baba Israel — a spoken word artist and, as he demonstrated between sets, a master beat boxer — the show featured poetry performances by muMsKelly Zen-Yie Tsai, the 2014 Nuyorican Poets Cafe Slam TeamNajee Omar as well as music by Yako440 and Brooklyn-based DJ Reborn. As a special treat, two Brooklyn high school students selected in a contest also took to the stage for a brief share of the spotlight — Keisie Barzola, a senior at West Brooklyn Community High School, and Kirkland DeBrosse, a senior at the Cultural Academy for the Arts & Science.

The distinction between poetry “reading” and poetry “performance” is important here. These were not readings. They were dancer- and effects-backed performances by dynamic artists. Najee Omar went up first, bringing to life the autopsy report of a young black man who was shot by the police. He began speaking in the stripped-down prose generally used in government documents in the piece, gradually ramping up metaphors that brought the humanity suppressed by the report bursting to its surface.

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai brought her quick wit to a frank discussion about the damaging effects of the Internet and social media, as well as a reimagination of demographics. In her poetic world, 5-foot-2 tattooed Asian females were the center of the universe, calling all the shots. The difference, Tsai stressed was that in her universe, she would ensure that everyone had adequate healthcare and equal access to education, among other basic rights. From her position at the center of things, she told everyone else that without her, there would be no them. But she had another line with which to close.

“From the only to the other, I guess there’s no me without you.”

Like Tsai, muMs the Schemer, a Bronx native who played Arnold “Poet” Jackson on the HBO series “Oz,” expressed frustration with digital confusion. He also covered themes of materialism and the meaning of truth in his poetry, speaking against a musical background at times.

“I remember the day Rapper’s Delight was placed in my hand,” he said in comments between sets, where he also called out to the five boroughs (and, after a few shouts from the back of the hall, Long Island, too). “Before hip hop, I could not speak — I had no voice.”

About truth, he said, you love it and you hate it, but you need it.

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