"Connected to words like Siamese twins": That line from Dasan Ahanu's poem "Deep in Thought" epitomizes the rise of the Triangle's spoken-word community. Metaphors and similes dangle with cadence and intonation. The words—bled from poets who carry pens, pads and bags filled with homemade books and CDs in store-bought cases—entertain and inspire. These poets live in these words, and, symbiotically, those words live off of their poets.
"A lot of people share their story, but I don't sugar coat it," says Monica "Mona" Daye, one of Durham's most successful spoken-word artists and a member of the first Bull City Slam Team back in 2005. "What you hear when you listen to my poetry is what I was going through when I wrote it."
Daye certainly has a story to communicate: At age 11, she was raped by a vendor at the Shirley Caesar Convention at the Marriott Hotel in Durham. Daye became a problem child—school suspensions, middle-school arrests, a conviction for assaulting a fellow student. She was sent to a youth detention center near Asheville. Now, she writes poetry for how she used it in her own life: to heal and to change. She calls her work a ministry and refers to Shairi's Open Mic—the longest-running Durham poetry night, which she co-hosts—as the "open-minded church."
"I don't believe in you getting on my mic doing negative things, playing degrading music and saying things not positive," Daye says. "People often come ask me, 'Can we curse?' My rule is just keep it positive, keep it uplifting."
Daye has been co-hosting Shairi's at Durham's Broad Street Café since December. As owner Jonathan Tagg reckons, it's one of the most important cultural moments in the Triangle when it happens the third Saturday of each month. It's also representative of one of the most vibrant cultural movements in the Triangle: "Shairi's is not an event. Shairi's is an experience: It is passionate like an opera, smooth like jazz, and hard-hitting like a prizefight."
Like a prizefight? At 6 feet 6 inches, Dasan Ahanu certainly looks more like a championship athlete than a spoken-word or hip-hop artist. He's a towering, captivating presence, and he demands respect with his words. Ahanu is the captain of the Bull City Slam Team, a key catalyst for the continual rise of spoken word in the Triangle since its formation in 2005.
After a successful response to the first Spoken Word & Hip-Hop Festival at the Hayti Heritage Center in January 2005, the Hayti decided to expand its programming with poetry and hip hop. Ahanu had been a member of the planning committee for the festival and had successfully organized the Raleigh Slam Team. The summer before, he'd been a member of the Charlotte Slam Team that finished fifth at national competition.
Given the festival's success, St. Joseph's Historic Foundation—the parent foundation of the Hayti Heritage Center—approached Ahanu about hosting the Jambalaya Soul Slam. The Jambalaya Soul Slam has continued every last Friday of the month ever since, and, earlier this year, the center and the slam won their bid to host the 2009 Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam.
The link between the Jambalaya slam and the slam team is a close one: The Bull City Slam Team came together only when St. Joseph's committed to becoming its major sponsor. Ahanu was chosen as the slam team coach because of his Soul Slam participation, and a series of small slams helped select the first team that May. That team ranked as one of the top teams at regional competition later that year, and at a national competition sponsored by Poetry Slam Incorporated—the national governing body of slam poetry—they finished in the top third of the 75 participating teams. In August, the team will return for its second year at the National Poetry Slam Competition in Austin, Texas.
"We have consistently held our own," says Ahanu, adding that he feels the team is finally coming together and is at least capable of surprising a lot of people when they compete in August. "We have very talented poets here. Now we just have to build our body of work and improve on the lessons we have learned from competition. We have to match new ideas with what makes us special here as poets."
Da Poet Tim Jackson stands before an assembly hungry for his words. He leads a radio show with Daye on WXDU every Friday night, and he's a top poetic tongue in Durham. Some have called him crazy. Others have refused to give him the space to share his radically edged rhetoric: "I think the Devil and I be spending time together just a little bit too much," he says. The members of the poetic church know this story all too well— the archetypical struggle between Good and Evil.
"I think I'm still a righteous man because I think I still feel God's touch. I think I be smoking weed too much. Now I'm not saying I think smoking weed is devilish. It's just I been smoking daily and doing it for a long time and ain't no telling when I'ma quit. But I think I'm going to let the weed go."
Jackson is known for his hard-hitting message of life as a black man who's been hindered by racism and personal struggles. The words force an introspective gaze with the crowd. More than entertainment, more than an emotional release, Jackson's words link with ears hoping to find meaning in a world soaked in contradiction. This is the world of the poetic church.
That church is expanding here, but it's been a long rise: Spoken-word poetry started to gain popularity in the Triangle in 1999 at Expressions, a long-gone Raleigh reggae club. The club hosted The Spot, a weekly open mic, and The Cypher, a monthly showcase of the best poets. Ahanu was the host of The Cypher.
"The main change has been the struggle to hold a venue," Ahanu says, detailing the long, nomadic search for a permanent home in the Triangle. "When I first started, we had a home. Since Expressions closed, we have been searching for other venues to call home."
The Vibes Open Mic, originally located at Ideas Coffee House in Durham, was so successful it had to move next door to Montas International Lounge. But The Vibe ended its four-year stint as the premiere poetry night in the Triangle when Montas closed in December.
Broad Street is now carrying on strong with Shairi's Open Mic, though it's just the latest in a series of Triangle venues to delve into spoken word with mixed success: Shairi's Open Mic started at the Marvell Event Center two years ago, and, when Yancey's opened a second location in Durham years ago, The Cypher was hosted there until it closed, too. The Red Onion Restaurant and Blue Coffee, both in Durham, are now hosting regular poetry events, as well as Zydeco, Artspace and a McDonald's on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh.
Poets from across the nation have noticed the good things happening in Durham, too. Shairi's draws crowds from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and New York. "People are calling now and saying, 'Hey, I want to spend a week there," says Daye, who hosts Shairi's and the WXDU radio show with Jackson. "We're getting closer to having places for people to come and make some money every day."
Daye has traveled to South Carolina, New Mexico, Atlanta, Virginia, Maryland, Baltimore, D.C., New York, Alabama and Chicago to perform. Poetry has become her job, and she says that comes tough: "Financially, I don't always make the money. As a single parent, I sacrifice a lot. I'm doing so much but gain very little."
Still, she sees inspiration in Amir Sulaiman, a New York poet who's gotten exposure through magazine covers and the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. His album, Like a Thief in the Night, has approached mainstream success, and his achievements, says Daye, are important in providing hope for those whose words wait to be heard across the country.
The quest for mainstream appeal, though, presents massive internal tension for spoken-word artists. Ahanu says that too often the quest for an audience can make artists struggle with self-identity.
"Some folks let the audience make them believe they are writers, and they are truly performers," he says. "Nothing wrong with either, but you do more damage if you aren't true to who you are. Or if you don't do what it takes to maintain both, if you are both."
Daye doesn't just want to be famous: Part of her mainstream desire is to see the positivity she sees behind the poet's mic translated for more people. She realizes the record industry is, in large part, supported by the big beats and negative lyrics she sees in hip hop. She thinks that hip hop and spoken word were once closer partners, and now she hopes one can make way for the other.
"What I want to see is poetry go mainstream," Daye says. "People are tired of hip-hop music, degrading music. People are going to wake up. Hip hop started with poetry. Somewhere in the early '90s that changed. Now people want to talk about bling-bling and women showing their bodies for money."
Daye and Ahanu attempt to reunite hip hop and spoken word. Both have recorded albums with hot hip-hop beats behind their poetry. Ahanu's The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment delves into the way hip hop is fragmented and pitted against itself and how spoken-word artists aren't regarded as emcees. Jim Crow Jackson also examines how North Carolina history shapes what North Carolina poets write.
"Some of the artists and some of the fans with a more narrow scope find it hard to take us," Ahanu says of poets who make the connection to hip hop. Spoken-word poets still promote social action, something they feel hip hop has lost along the way. "There has to be a place for that. Some folks would rather keep it separate or merge us more with the jazz element. That's part of our history too but is less natural for artists who grew up a part of hip-hop culture."
Silent Myndz Open Mic: Thursdays, 8 p.m. Red Onion Restaurant, Phoenix Square Shopping Center, 826 Fayetteville St., Durham.
Poetry Night at McDonald's: Fridays, 7 p.m. McDonald's Restaurant, 2801 Wake Forest Road, Raleigh.
The Jambalaya Soul Slam: Last Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham.
Shairi's Open Mic: Third Saturdays, 7 p.m. Broad Street Café, 1116 Broad St., Durham.
Mosadi Music: Friday, July 27, 6 p.m. With Bishop Dready Manning. West Village, 604 W. Morgan St., Durham. Free.
Carolina Slam Tour: Friday, July 27, 8:30 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham. Hosted by Dasan Ahanu.
Black Poetry: Performance Poetry Meets Theatre: Aug. 2-3. By Joseph "Churchdapoet" Churchwell. Manbites Dog Theatre, 703 Foster St., Durham.
Kim Arrington featuring Blaza-Blade Band: Friday, Aug. 10, 9 p.m. Broad Street Café, 1116 Broad St., Durham.
Dasan Ahanu & Picasso, The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment. www.myspace.com/dasanahanu.
Monica "Mona" Daye, 7 Days of Freedom. monicadaye.com.
Mosadi Music, The Window. www.myspace.com/mosadilive.
Amir Sulaiman, Like a Thief in the Night. www.myspace.com/amirsulaiman.