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Word:Life
The First Poetry Concert & Seminar

Dateline: 2/12/97

Snowy Saturday, February 8, 1997, couldn’t keep the crowd away from NYC’s Irving Plaza for this Black History Month event. Several hundred hip hop and poetry spirits flailed away at ideas, crossovers, and traditions old and new during the five afternoon panel discussions, while close to 1,000 jammed the evening concert that featured twenty acts, a happening house band, and which pret near covered the history of US Black oral poetics of the past thirty years, from Baraka to the Last Poets through Shange and Sundiata to Beanz, Jessica Care Moore, Mike Ladd, the Vibe Khameleons, et al et all. All hats fly to Executive Producers, Nona Hendryx and Amaechi Uzoigwe for pulling this off, and showing off plenty of vitality in the so-called poetry corpse, and pushing forward with consciousness.

The centerpiece of the seminar was a panel on Poetry is to Rap as Rap is to Poetry, featuring Ntozake Shange, KRS-One, Latasha Ntasha Diggs, Chuck D, Rhamelle (Rah Goddess) Green and Carmen Renee Thompson, with K’Tallah officiating.

Chuck D got things roiling by asserting that "a rapper is a poet on steroids." "Poets slow down the world, causing others to see it," he continued, "rappers take on the commercial pace of the world."

"If people paid for the metaphysical communication of words’ meanings, then rap would be poetry." Thus spake KRS-One.

Rhamelle: "I’m on the corner. My stuff is flowetry."

Carmen Renee, who missed being on New York’s Slam team last year because her poems took her beyond the 3-minute limit, spoke of her friends’ critiquing her poems: Hey! If you could just speed it up a bit, bust a rhyme or two, people could get it faster. The business end interrupts the poem."

Chuck saw the business biting as well: "The words that we put a hat and coat on can become a behemoth before the end of the month." To which Zake rejoined, "Or a lotus."

The heavy fireworks (this being Chinese New Year's, after all) were reserved for a meta/physical throwdown between Shange and KRS-One over the reality of dreams and the social utility of poetry/rap. "Here we disagree," soldered KRS, after Zake had commented that artists have an obligation to their unconscious, because we are in control of our unconscious" This floored Zake. KRS continued, "Your fantasies will all come true," at which point Zake shut him off --"You stay outta there! I already got an analyst!"

Not commented upon was why the rappers were male, the poets female. Women have been able to use poetry to be heard, whereas, as Rhamelle put it, "I struggle with Lil Kim daily and I struggle with Foxy daily."

In the four-hour evening concert, poetry struggled with music, while a "pure" singer, Erykah Badu, "the Billie Holliday of the 90s" as critic Tree Sanders puts it, played with the house like fire. Ntozake’s set, based on her appearance at Sundiata’s "Tongues of Fire Choir" concert in November, brought down the roof when soulstress Sandra St. Victor belted out "You knocked me up/And knocked me out," with Nona Hendryx gyrating vocally and physically.

Baraka and The Last Poets got the Last Word. For four hours, the jammed audience sat awestruck and beguiled on the cold floor, flames and dreams exiting from the tops of their skulls. Word is out that Word:Life may tour -- better read, to get ready.



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