Notes on a Mediocrity-Free Zone

The Last Poets performed Sunday night at The Punch Gallery. “If Only We Knew”¦ What We Could Do!” they sang, and so much more, “America is a Terrorist” and “Madness.” For such agile legends it’s remarkable to feel that they were merely the punch-line to a long night of stellar performances. As the scintillating MC of the evening put it, “This is a Mediocrity-Free Zone!!” I confess my lameness to not be able to name most of the poets, nor quote their absolutely stunning, moving poetry. I am not one to get easily moved by spoken word, so let me tell you that these folks are on another plane altogether! The organizing force behind the event is Youth Speaks, an organization that has been going for a number of years, and whom my daughter Francesca told me about some time ago. You simply MUST check them out.

The night began with 16-year-old Dahlak Braithwaite, who did a piece that left us speechless. His last line, after going through a long story about a friend of his “˜B’ who was going to Iraq, and how the war didn’t mean much until it hit home, and that nothing really breaks through the surreality of reality TV until it really hits home, and that Bush is the easy name (so many raps have gone after the easy target Bush) but in conclusion he could not help but notice that in the middle of Bush is “us””¦ The lyricism and rhyming, the amazing looping and dancing lines, the layers of thought piled one upon the next, but never losing a sparkling clarity. It made me feel like we should all just tip our caps and step aside. It’s time for us to stop all our familiar denunciations of the status quo, our urgent attempts to wrap up a deeper and more useful political analysis, and give the floor to these brilliant voices.

Ise Lyfe came hours later (these two are mentioned by name in the Youth Speaks newsletter, or I’d have lost them too), afro sprawling above his shoulders as he calmly and with increasing ferocity laid out his words. Not only did he start and end with the simple objective fact that people of European descent are killing those of African descent, but the vast middle zone of his soliloquy was dedicated to the co-optation of “˜nigga’ culture by all the engines of mass culture, fueled in no small part by the active participation of the black community itself, cajoling and coercing itself into the endless pursuit of the empty baubles of fake wealth. He was awesome.

So many memories colliding in my head as I try to report small parts of it. Another guy, apparently a well-known MC whose name I missed, hilariously told the story of the Rodney King riots in San Francisco back in ’92, starting with protesting earth activists and tie-dyed hippies at City Hall chanting “No Justice, No Peace.” After a march downtown the rioters were augmented and mostly replaced by residents of the Tenderloin for the intensive looting of the stores around Market and Stockton (which I witnessed too), a worthy companion to the widely disseminated footage of the looting in Los Angeles, a veritable proletarian holiday in both of California’s major urban centers. That looting spree in SF far exceeded anything that happened in 1979 or any other protest or riot in memory. He told the story with great verve and many funny asides, finally taking us in to Wilson’s House of Leather and making a harrowing escape from other looters AND the police with a new leather bag stuffed with a new leather coat (he’d had to go into the back to find something he thought worth taking!). And rhyming and rapping throughout this basically straight narrative exposition.

I was deeply moved so many times in just three hours. I really wish this kind of oratory was more widely distributed, that people could hear this on the radio, on talk shows for chrissakes. This is talking times a million!

The other tidbit I want to share about the night was the beautiful diversity of the crowd. Everyone’s always talking about diversity and it usually seems like a thinly veiled version of what I tend to refer to as “laundry list-ism”. I really hate the crass tokenism we’re so often plagued with. But the Youth Speaks show last night was attended by the most diverse crowd I can ever remember being a part of, racially, gender- and age-wise. There was an amazing amount of love in the room, if I can be indulged a moment of unbearable squishiness. The only other venue I’m personally aware of that had anything approaching this show’s diversity was Jimbo’s Bop City back in the early 1960s in the old Fillmore district.

This is fertile ground indeed. These poets and rappers really get it. They get it way better than I do, or most anyone I know. But really, we all bring something to the moment, and hearing these voices made me realize how much stronger and more numerous we are than we sometimes believe. And that there is a mighty powerful younger generation that’s going to bowl us over! Shit, it already IS bowling us over! Yeehah!

P.S. At the California Historical Society at 3rd and Mission, the Poetry Center at SFSU is celebrating its half-century anniversary with a series of talks and performances. This past Saturday featured David Meltzer and George Herms, sharing anecdotes, a very jocular repartee and a great number of sweet, funny and lyrical poems. This was by far my most poetry-saturated weekend ever!

George Herms tossed crumpled poems into the audience after he read them. Here’s one I caught:
The hot brown drops
in jubilation we cheer
the coffee pot works
Russ Rose

And to top it all off (out of chronological order, of course), our CounterPulse dance floor benefit Saturday night was a resounding success, raising us over $7K (almost a third of the cost of the new floor) and treating all of us to a brilliant night of dance from 11 different troupes. We sold out and then some, and I’m just sorry we can’t do the same thing about 4 more times! It was a fantastic show.

1 comment to Notes on a Mediocrity-Free Zone

  • antoinette henry

    please let me know what album America is A terroist is on form the Last poets in need it and it’s lyrics

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