Poetry is Political: Brave New Voices on HBO

Everybody has been weighing in on HBO’s new series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a show based on books written by a white woman about a feisty African woman detective in Botswana. While all of the attention has been on this quirky, multinational, show and the centering of women as authors, detectives, and main characters, very little has gone to the show that immediately follows it on HBO’s Sunday night line up.  And while I too am enthralled by Jill Scott’s triumphant return to the spotlight as the titular character of that show and the setting of my favorite fluff genre (detective novels) in mother Africa, I want to encourage those watching to stay a while and watch the latest offering from Russell Simmons that immediately follows it.

As a poet, who got her start in venues like the Nuyorican and local woc poetry cafes, I was glued to Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam. For me, it was a chance to see some of the best creative and political minds throwing down their craft for a multi-racial audience even when I wasn’t living in an urban poetry center. White, black, Asian-American, Latin@, Arab-Amerians, etc. all gathered to speak their truths with the mostly amazing lyrical craft that had largely been hidden in smoky clubs and college campuses since the Beat generation left the national imaginary. Poetry never left us mind you, but we as a nation seemed to leave it once with Beat and then again after the 70s flourishing of cultural poets.

Def Poetry Jam was a chance to remember the meaning of poetry in our political and socially conscious lives, with themes ranging from CSA, physical abuse, and rape, to various oppressions, to reclaiming his and herstory and celebrating one’s self, to any number of other things. And though at its height it attracted wannabees looking for cred as well as more celebrities than unknowns, it was always a place that reminded us theory comes from the forgotten corners of urban decay just as much as from the ivory towers. And when it was gone from our airwaves, I felt the world outside of poet circles and urban poetry centers (like CA and NY) slowly forget again about the brown sistahs trying to get to class through an array of government sanctioned pitfalls, and the black brothas trying to be more than all the things they had literally beaten into them to be, and all the poor white kids who knew that whiteness was a construct b/c they had limited access to it, and the Boricuas stylin’ about freedom and home, and the Asian-Americans telling you where you could stick your mama san, and the Arab-Americans breaking down the military industrial complex’s intersections with racism and sexism, and the black sistahs claiming their rights to their bodies and their sexualities in a world that denies them both.  All of those voices, once center stage in the cable owning populace’s mind . . . gone without replacement. And while these lyricists went on to poetry slams and Def Poetry tours, the national interest waned with the loss of a weekly slice on tv, once again making the realm of the cultural poet much more removed from the ears of those most needing to hear them.

As I think about it, I have this thought, I shutter at: Thank G-d for youtube

Youtube’s selective re-presentation of Def Poetry Jam not only brought those poets back into the popular imaginary but opened up new audiences. In my mind, it helped rescue the cultural, political, poet from the halls of academe as professors, classroom “doodlers”, or guest speakers.  All of which have their place but all of which are bound by some increasingly high ivory towers these days. It also reminded that poetry was accessible in the streets not just bookstores and cafes where everyone is already pretty invested in the scene.

Rafael Casal A.D.D.

(discussing the problem with medicalizing creativity)

“Tell kids they are inferior and then have them buy back their efficency”

Whole new generation of poets has come up since those days, and they still remain the wild, passionate voices, of their high school English classes, the songs of minds land locked by redistricting and ghettoization, the sweet, sad, harmonies of little girls staring out classroom windows looking for their reflection, and the scribbled down notes left on the 5 am bus rides to clean houses in the suburbs with mami, until now.

Russell Simmons Brave New Voices brings the poetry slams that most of us poets have participated in at one time or another to the small screen. The show highlights 45 teams of youth in 45 cities. Many teams are from urban centers tho some are from college towns. They feature the voices of youth of color and white youth. Differently-abled and temporary able bodied people speak together about their experiences at all of the intersections. The poets speak about their dreams as young people from all genders as well, and in so doing they highlight the struggles to dismantle sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Thus their diversity highlights both the ways in which poetry is transgressive in giving voice to the marginalized and also transformative by providing a pathway through which they can imagine anti-oppressive, decolonized, worlds.

Alysia – That Girl

(poetry critiquing the way young men treat young girls they don’t recognize in public)

“I am so tired of being your hamper”

In the two episodes that I have seen already, a young white female poet discussed her own body image and how the media was erasing real bodies from her world. In it she avoids the oft-heard rallying against the cosmetic industry or super models and instead focuses on the actors and actresses that dare to be normal rather than a false version of perfect on the screen, and how they inspire her to keep being herself. As she talks about her poetry that celebrates these figures, she gives one of the most salient critiques of online social networking and its impact on real life social interactions in high school that I have ever heard. She says simply that everyone is so scared of being blasted on the internet in a feeding frenzy over a simple mistake or moment of clumsiness that they spend all day every day trying to be perfect, putting forward an absolutely perfect face, perfect life, perfect everything so they won’t be shamed. And she reminds that it is only when the mask of perfection comes down that people actually connect to one another in any real way . . .

In another segment, a young black man talks candidly about his relationship with other poets and with his craft.  He comes across as a little nerdy and full of life, a happy and vibrant presence. But when he opens his mouth to speak his poetry, a different voice emerges, talking about how he struggles to interrogate the versions of manhood that lurk within him.  Like the girl mentioned above, he offers no easy answers like blaming his desires on videos or video games. Instead he weaves an analysis of masculinity in the U.S. that takes accountability for one’s own actions and intertwines them with messages sent about women’s roles and women as sexual objects from various arenas aimed at young men. In the end, he paints a violently conflicting image between who he wants to be and who he finds himself sometimes being in his head and how all of it is wrapped up in a racialized sexism that focuses on the black female body as always available, always lacking bodily integrity, always an object of scorn and violation.

Like the poets of Def Poetry Jam, Brave New Voices gives us a glimpse into the fierce, politically and socially aware minds of poets. More than that, by focusing on young voices, it acts as a counter-narrative to the mainstream myth of political apathy amongst today’s youth. It shows us vibrant, critically aware, youth combating all of the oppressions of our worlds while struggling to find themselves and embrace the power of their voices. Their analysis is often more nuanced and heartfelt than any academic. And while I am quick to teach that radical theory and practice comes from all directions, all educational backgrounds, all cultures and experiences, I think the U.S. still remains a hierarchical society that denies youth, the working poor, poc, etc. the right to an intelligent voice.

Speaking as a poet for a moment, I remember my first real public performance and all the people I invited to come see me. I remember looking out at the audience from off to the side and not seeing one academic face among the people who had come to show me support (academic = professors/advisers). The feeling of abandonment that swept over me nearly silenced my voice right then and there. And even the ovation I got that night, thundered like a distant stream through the haze of disappointment.  As a professor myself, I know now that there are a million reasons we don’t go to all of the student events we are invited to (no matter how small the campus is, how close we may live, or  how dead the town). But I can’t help but think that for some of those invited, what kept them away was the idea that young women of color had nothing really relevant to say anyway. And noting when and where they did show up, and for whom, nothing they taught me after that, nor what I have learned about how we academics do things, could ever shake that impression.

Brave New Voices is on a very short run on HBO. It only has a 7 episodes. 2 have already aired. So if you haven’t been watching, I hope this encourages you to do so. I can’t begin to imagine how powerful the remaining 5 episodes will be.

Here is Episode 1 to get you started

If you live in a place with poetry readings, take some time to go out and support your local poets. They need to know their words matter and you get the chance to seem some of our best and brightest cultural critics, perhaps before they even break and everyone knows their names.

3 thoughts on “Poetry is Political: Brave New Voices on HBO

  1. hi there prof,
    we would love to cross post this to raven’s eye. if you would be interested please email us at ravenseyeblog@gmail.com
    it is a perfect post for national poetry month. and i am glad to know that brave new voices exist…(i dont have a television)…

    • I am swamped with end of the year student presentations and thesis/diss advising and may not get a chance to email any time soon. You are welcome to cross-post this tho.

      I would appreciate it if you would also cross-post the call for volunteers in Philly.

      PS. I hope they post the rest of the series so people without tvs or cable can still watch it. These youth are amazing!!!

  2. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Poetry is Political: Brave New Voices on HBO « Like a Whisper [likeawhisper.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

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