A few years ago I wrote a story for another publication about a poet named Boris Rogers, whom you probably know better as Bluz, the tireless slam master of this city's award-winning spoken-word team, SlamCharlotte.
You know Bluz even if you don't know him. He's the big guy with long dreads who's fond of oversized dress shirts, jeans and sneakers. He's the guy who writes and performs deeply moving spoken-word pieces about scared young American kids fighting in a war overseas — or about his own daughter or his own community. He's the radio personality who hosts shows on literary matters and speaks out on issues ranging from feminism to HIV/AIDS.
Bluz is the guy you'll see out in the community coaching younger kids from neighborhoods — the ones that a bigoted commissioner calls "moral sewers" — on how to craft the kind of poetry and social commentary that's as powerful and effective coming from a stage as from a printed page. Bluz also is the guy whose SlamCharlotte team won back-to-back top honors in 2007 and 2008 at the National Poetry Slam competitions held those years in Austin, Tex., and Madison, Wis.
Because of the number of extraordinary spoken-word poets in this city — which, in addition to Bluz, includes other influential veterans like Terry Creech, Ed Mabrey and Carlos Robson, as well as up-and-comers such as Micah Roman, Sylenz and Tavii — the 23rd Annual National Poetry Slam is being held this year in Charlotte. A total of 72 teams from around the world — that's more than 300 individual poets! — are competing this week in venues across town. Those teams range from the legendary Nuyorican Poets of New York's Lower East Side to a Hawaiian slam team based in Honolulu to poets from Charlotte's other spoken-word group, Respect da Mic. The finals take place Saturday, Aug. 11 at Knight Theater. (For more information on the event, see Anita Overcash's story here.)
Spoken-word poetry doesn't get the attention that spoken-word politics does, and that's a shame. Our city — this media outlet included — has spent the past year chattering non-stop about the Democratic National Convention, the four-day confab early next month that will consist of a bunch of inflated egos, self-congratulatory speeches and railing against the other party. Not nearly as much has been said of the National Poetry Slam, which will include street-savvier voices talking more bluntly about real issues and real people, relationships, sex, anger, hurt, insecurity — in addition to politics. Sure, the egos will be out in force during the slam competition, too, just like at the political convention, but the topics will not be so tidy in the Blumenthal spaces this week, the rhetoric will not be so well-designed to not offend.
Not that spoken-word poetry has ever gotten the attention it deserved. In fact, it gets more attention today than it ever did. When poets like Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were criticizing America for some of her social and political atrocities in verse over jazz in the '50s and '60s, virtually no one was listening save for a few beatniks and future leaders of the black power movement. But those poets inspired new generations, who by the '60s and '70s had formed poetry performance groups like Harlem's Last Poets, Los Angeles' Watts Prophets and solo poetry man Gil Scott-Heron.
It was Scott-Heron's 1970 classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" — re-recorded with an updated sound in 1974 — that helped popularize spoken-word poetry and social commentary performed over music. Within another decade, that trend would manifest itself in hip-hop culture as rap. Taking the mantle from Scott-Heron and company, younger poets from Chuck D of Public Enemy to the whimsical rappers of De La Soul to the street-smart N.W.A brought spoken-word social commentary into popular culture like never before.
Rap has come a long way since the '80s and '90s, veering into cartoonish territory much like heavy metal did in the hair-metal '80s. But spoken-word social commentary never died. It just sneaked back underground a little, where a formidable movement still thrives and grows and produces artists and activists who make a difference in their individual worlds. Like Bluz does in Charlotte.
This city is as fortunate that spoken-word artists are taking over Charlotte this week as it is that Democrats and other global movers and shakers will be descending on the city en masse in early September. Actually, luckier. Because hopefully, some of the poets in Charlotte this week will be offering the keynote addresses at Democratic National Conventions to come.