'Def Poetry Jam' Reunion Ignites Harlem

After stints on HBO and Broadway, Russell Simmons' showcase of spoken-word vets still has legs.

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Jessica Care Moore; Abiodun Oyewale (Courtesy of Baja Ukweli)

(The Root) -- Harlem's MIST Theater welcomed in a familiar sort of artistic renaissance on Wednesday night, one that had begun in 2002 and been centered on featuring the country's top spoken-word artists. As performers and fans crowded in the venue for the Def Poetry Jam Reunion, it was clear that the once-popular showcase -- which ran for seven seasons on HBO (with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons' imprimatur) and had a Tony Award-winning stint on Broadway -- still has an impact on pop culture. But in the theater's green room, co-creator Danny Simmons, brother of Russell and Run-DMC's Rev. Run, said things were sweeter before the accolades.

"I had to talk Russell into the idea, and what sealed it was a showcase we did at actor Malik Yoba's old restaurant on 42nd Street," Danny Simmons told The Root. "A poet named Black Ice came out with Timberland boots and baggy pants, and he was commercially what my brother was used to selling. Then we had 10 good years of Def Poetry, we put it on Broadway and it crashed. Poetry isn't made for 3,000-seat theaters, and the audience for poetry is poor people, but no one listened because I'm the hippie in the family."

Now Simmons said he's open to a national run of Def Poetry Jam but on a more relaxed schedule, including perhaps one bimonthly show in a different city. But that undertaking would need financial backing that Simmons, a painter by trade, doesn't have just yet. "Everybody wants it, ain't nobody got no money or so they claim," Simmons said with a smile.

Elsewhere, as the theater lights dimmed, an original Def Poetry Jam performer, Asha Bandele, author of The Prisoner's Wife, took the stage as the evening's host and den mother. Introducing the first of eight performers from the show's family, Bandele welcomed Abiodun Oyewole of the group The Last Poets with a big hug to kick off the night. Dressed in a brown sweatsuit with a red, yellow and green hat and a scruffy grey beard, Oyewole, whose work influenced everyone from Saul Williams to Kanye West, launched into "For the Millions" as his drummer Babatunde followed his lead.

"When Def Poetry was on television, it really brought together a community of people and allowed us to really love and speak about each other in terms that countered all of the negative images we often saw about ourselves," Bandele said. "We were treated with such professionalism and respect, which we hadn't had then as young, black poets who didn't have much money."

Steve Colman, one of the first Def Poetry Jam performers, followed with two guitarists in tow and a confession. "You guys are the reason I dropped out of grad school to be a poet," Colman, co-producer of Bridge & Tunnel starring Sarah Jones, said before reciting his very first Def Poetry Jam piece, "I Want to Hear a Poem."

Liza Jessie Peterson rocked the microphone with an encouraging piece for black men, which she said she wrote after putting down her pen for an entire year when her sister died in 2010.

Black Ice, the Philadelphia native who convinced Simmons to expand the Def Jam brand to poetry, stepped up next with several pieces including "Bigger Than Mine" and an excerpt of The Last Poets' "Niggas Are Scared of Revolution."

Author and opera composer Carl Hancock Rux followed with a whirlwind monologue interpretation of his life, after which Kraal "Kayo" Charles, who was New York's Nuyorican Café's youngest-ever Grand Slam champion in 1998, delivered "How Do You Know" with a rich, Paul Robeson-like baritone. Finally, Detroit's Jessica Care Moore took the stage with a story of a trip to South Africa, where the coloreds who benefited from the country's caste system felt attacked when she read her work about racial injustice toward black people, and the poem "Even the Light-Skinned Girls Are Sick of the Light-Skinned Girls" was born.

And as the lights began to dim once again, Bandele acknowledged her fellow artists and thanked the audience for keeping this moment in time alive for a new generation.

Danny Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam Reunion at MIST HARLEM from Melvin MCCRAY on Vimeo.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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