On Tuesday night, Urban Roots was bristling with nervous energy. Or maybe it was just me. After all, it was time for The Vine Open Mic Poetry night, and just before I left my home in Norman to drive to the Deep Deuce district in downtown Oklahoma City, I made the decision that I was going to step to the mic myself to try and spit some spoken word.
Earlier in the day, I pondered a discussion I had with my 16 year old son Austin a couple days prior, in which he said he thought I should be more critical in the reviews of artists that I write for Culturocity. He said “I’m sure they’re good; I just feel like if everything you say about someone is good, then it might come across like you’re not being completely honest.” First of all, that’s the kind of relationship I have with my son, whom I am raising alone. We talk about everything. Respect is rule number one, but talk we do, and it’s always real. Second, my son is definitely not a hater, nor am I anyone’s ass kisser. I tell the truth, and so does he. We simply had a difference in perspective, and had simply arrived at a teachable moment. As a father, part of my job is to school my son in the things they don’t teach in school. I shared with him why I do what I do the way I do it. I later posted a synopsis of the lesson I gave to Austin as my status on Facebook. Like to hear it? Here it go:
I was asked why my reviews are not more critical. My reply: I am not a critic. The world is full of those. Anyone can be a critic. I am an artist. I love art. Art is subjective; what one can’t appreciate, someone else loves. Who am I to say what is beautiful and what is not? An artist is a lover. A critic is a hater. I am not a hater, therefore I cannot be a critic. I am a lover of all things beautiful. Yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If my spirit, soul and senses perceive beauty in a person, place or thing, I say what I see. If I can’t say anything good, I say nothing at all; I leave that to the critics.
I shared with my son that I had a vision when I started Culturocity for it to be all about the love, support and promotion of the arts and local artists. I was determined to remain true to that vision at all costs. I certainly felt justified in every word I had written up until this point. I was simply informing people of what I saw, from an artist’s perspective.
But tonight was different. This was open mic poetry night, where anyone could step to the mic and bring an offering of what was inside of them to present to a crowded room full of total strangers. Anyone.
Suddenly I felt that tonight if I stepped into Urban Roots – which almost seems to be turning into my second home – armed only with a pad and pen and no offering, and if I wrote anything about anyone else – including those who had never stepped up to the mic in their lives – without also stepping up myself, then I was indeed a critic. No matter what I said or how positive it was, on this night I could be called a critic because I would have written and published an assessment of those who did, even though I also had an equal opportunity to do, and did not.
I couldn’t go out like that.
I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and rattled off an old poem I wrote several years ago and updated a few times to keep cultural references relevant, but never quoted in front of an audience. I had recited it numerous times – in the shower, in the car, in bed at 3am staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, imagining myself at an open mic. I had done this a million times over the years. Tonight would be the night that I finally did something I always dreamed of doing. I would unveil my poem in front of a room full of people. And they would love it. At least that’s what I told myself. It might be a little churchy for Urban Roots, I thought, but it was all I had readily stored that would allow me to both participate and focus on the rest of the night without being consumed with my own performance. I was going to do it.
I took the long trek up I-35 North, which seemed even longer tonight than on other nights. I was listening to my Quentin Moore CD that I copped over the weekend at Urban Roots from the Dallas-based artist himself, whom I also reviewed. It sounded great, but it reminded me of Urban Roots, and I didn’t want to think about it; I just wanted to get there already, and I was already running late. I turned off the CD and started rattling off my poem again, trying to sound poetic. Scratch that. That’s not me.
As I pulled up to park about fifteen minutes after the scheduled 7pm start time, people were still gradually wandering in. I entered, seeing a couple of familiar faces, and a lot of unfamiliar ones. I found a seat at a table for two, as I usually do so I can hold a seat for whatever late black woman is supposed to be joining me. Tonight it was to be artist Soul Secure, again. Tonight especially, I wanted her, or anyone, to be there already. The place quickly filled to capacity, and I could hear people conversing near me.
“Yeah I’m nervous.”
Excuse me people, you’re not helping me here.
To make matters more tense, I now had to guard the vacant chair that awaited Ms. Soul, as brotha after brotha approached my table and inquired about the status of my cornbread, er, my chair, which I was not giving up for anyone. As 8pm approached, then passed, the rectangular black throw rug with the Urban Roots logo remained vacant at the center of the room, taunting me, occupied only by a mic stand.
The Hair Café entrepreneur David Threatt was moving about, setting things in order. David, the organizing force behind a lot of urban cultural happenings in the area, is also behind The Vine Open Mic Poetry night, a Tuesday mainstay at Urban Roots. I presumed David was the emcee of tonight’s event as he approached the performance area. He was not. Those duties would belong to Grace Franklin, the illustrious director of the stage play Badu-izms, also brought to us by David Threatt and company. Grace, who I later learned arrived together with Soul, was not there yet.
Finally, at 8:12 pm, Grace Franklin entered the room and stepped up to the mic.
“The list is still open. It is open. You can make your poetry dreams happen.”
Oh shit. There’s a list?
I couldn’t move, knowing that to do so would be to forfeit Soul’s seat, as well as my own. Anxiously, I texted her:
“I’m gonna need u to hurry up. Trying to get on this list. Can’t get up from table.”
As soon as I hit Send, I looked up and there stood Soul. I ran to find Grace, who was now near the entrance, and asked her to add me to the list. “Okay! Brian Scott,” she said as she wrote. She already knew my name. “And what’s your stage name?”
Oh shit. You gotta have a stage name?
I wondered this aloud, sans the “oh shit” part, which I thought silently. Grace offered “you’re going to need a stage name. We gotta get Culturocity out there.”
I sheepishly half-suggested that perhaps I could use Culturocity itself as my stage name. Grace said nothing, but her face said no. “I’ll work on that” I said. She agreed.
1) The mic is open. You can say anything you want to say. There is no censorship. Just know that you have to get out of the building in one piece, and there is only one way in, and one way out.
2) Please respect her poets. Each person has three and one half minutes to do his or her thing, which can include up to two separate pieces as long as both – combined – are concluded within the allotted time.
3) Support one another. As Grace put it, “we believe in love.”
With that, open mic night was finally underway. First up was Joseph Wilson, a Caucasian brother with a cool ZZ-Top Blues Brothers thing going on appearance wise. He calmly read a poem well within the time allowed. The audience showed him love and respect. Okay, I can do this.
Next up were a pair of comedians, Jesse Dansby, followed by Teran Houston. Both told amusing family stories, entertaining the crowd as much with their demeanor as much as with their anecdotes. The pattern continued, people being called by name – Carey McNeil, Anthony Williams, on and on, each stepping to the mic, bravely doing his thing, and being shown love by the audience who all seemed to have an appreciation for art and a healthy respect for the courage it took to even approach the microphone.
Grace returned with a few announcements, then continued introducing more poets. Only now, her introductions took on a noticeable twist. Instead of two names, many of the artists were introduced with only one name, or with exotic and eccentric names that, upon hearing, made one think “it’s about to go down up in this piece.”
First among them was “Coop”, a tall, husky brotha I had seen in action before, as the final member of the opening cadre of poets at Badu-izms. Coop spat a classic piece by Melle Mel, paying homage to the icon, then delivering a more R-rated version of his own original work, “The Devil Said to Me”, than the one I had heard previously. It went hard, just as before, but was delivered in a totally original manner, as one senses Coop does each time he steps to the mic.
Editor’s note: After we were done for the night, Coop gave some sage delivery pointers to a couple of green poets, including myself. Thanks Coop.
The one-named artists continued. Kia, a poet. Ashley, a singer – yes, you could sing, tell jokes, or do whatever you wished – who gave a stirring rendition of “At Last” by Etta James. Cooki – yes, that Miss Cooki, she of the recently released album “Heart of Me.” Cooki humbly gave much deserved props to Ashley who preceded her before going on to perform an acapella version of “Try” from her new album and demonstrating that she is indeed the truth.
Next, a fiery, conscious young poet named Shunu Tehu stepped to the plate. Midway through his poem, he abruptly changed course, announcing he wasn’t feeling the piece he started – although the audience certainly was – and that he was going to switch back to his original plan and deliver another one. It was a rare display of humility and transparency that only seemed to cause his respect to grow around the packed house. Deliver he did. Kudos Shunu.
After Shunu, Grace announced that there were five more poets on the list. I knew I was one of those five, although it was anyone’s guess which number I could be.
Then Stacy – yep, just Stacy – a poet, rendered a raw piece titled “Insomnia”, introducing it by saying that two things she didn’t count on when going though a divorce were loneliness and lack of sleep. Mannn, Stacy, I can relate. I could relate to everyone on some level or another. It seems everyone could, based on the acknowledgement and respect everyone was shown.
But this next poet is one I must credit with making me feel most at home and at ease on this particular night. This gentleman, who went by “J-Wig”, first paid homage to other poets in the room, including Coop and Shunu Tehu, setting a tone of mutual respect before he even started. Then he likened the gathering to a potluck, in which everyone brings a different dish to the table, and we all have the opportunity to partake of one another’s offering. If there’s something someone doesn’t particularly enjoy, that’s absolutely fine, because there’s enough of everything else, and something for everyone’s taste. Or something like that. I cannot articulate his message as well, but the essence of it said to me that whatever I brought to the table would perhaps be appreciated by someone even if not everyone. That was all I needed.
Then J-Wig delivered his poem, titled “TKO”, in which he laments having been a casualty of love. He let us know it was the first thing he had ever written, many years ago. It was dope, to say the least. My confidence grew. In fact, I now felt I HAD to represent. I did not want to return home carrying the full dish I had brought, uneaten by anyone. The visual increased my motivation, and just in time I might add.
The time was now 9:36 pm. It felt like I had been waiting for about ten hours. I had lost count of how many poets had graced the mic since Grace told us there were five left. Was it two? Three? Following more announcements, including shout-outs and plugs for a couple of local entrepreneurs in the house, makeup artist extraordinaire Centerria Wright and photographer PJ Tolar, whose amazing work often mysteriously shows up as his subjects’ social media profile pictures and cover photos.
Then it happened.
Grace asked how many had heard of Culturocity, and a smattering of modest applause could be heard, including my own – I had to represent. Then she introduced me and graciously informed the house about the site and our mission to support and promote the arts and local artists. Then she disappeared, and I stepped to the mic, nerves be damned. I recalled Coop’s declaration that he was a wordsmith when I previously saw him in action, and I thought to myself, “if Coop can be a wordsmith, doggone it, I can be one too.”
I prefaced my delivery with a further Culturocity plug, but quickly sensed I needed to get down to business and not let the energy fall. And so I did. I gave my untitled offering, a piece about God. Although it carried more church boy overtones than others, it seemed to be received. I dare not attempt to review my own offering, so I will include it here:
Hold up … wait a minute, I’m bout to speak, yo, and prophesy to the dry bones like Ezekiel. That was part one, but yo, this is the sequel. Let Hova and Yeezus ‘nem know the real God don’t have no equal.
When I think of His goodness and all the things he’s done for me, rivers of living water be bubbling up inside my tummy. I used to run from Him but I see I was a dummy, ’cause I tasted and I’ve seen the Lord is yummy, yall don’t hear me.
Ever since I got that Holy Ghost infillin’, I been fillin’ like I could straight up raise up through the sillin’, no mo illin’ or stillin’ or dillin’, livin’ like a villain, and if you want to send me Lord I’m willin’. Listen, He’s got mo money than yo millions, mo hillin’ than penicillin, and He can take that stress up out yo chest and have you chillin’.
Yall think it’s odd that my squad be screamin’ God, but, uh, He comfort us wit His staff and His rod, and He lead us through the valley of the shadow of death with no fear, and do he make our heads nod? Oh yeah.
So if you cannot sleep at night, the Lord’ll rock ya, and if you sick in yo body, He’ll be yo docta; if you in trouble He will defend you as yo lawya, oh yeah, be knockin’ out demons like De La Hoya, Hallelujah, thinking of His goodness do something to ya. It’ll change ya, regenerate your mind and renew ya.
Some people might wanna be like Mike, but don’t believe the hype, I wanna be like Christ. You ask why? Cause Christ paid the price to save my life when I was walkin’ round town like a hoodlum with a knife.
I was down and He raised me, lost and He saved me, eternal life He gave me. To deny Him … man that’d be crazy
I paused ever so briefly, and walked away from the mic. I heard applause and yells, and I absorbed the love. All of it. If there was any hate, I was completely oblivious to it. I had found another drug of choice, to go along with my theatre habit which I cannot kick. I will do this again. And again. And I will get better. And better. And fellowship with others of this craft and learn from them. I will talk about God. And the devil. And myself. And my joy. And my pain. And anything else I damn well please.
I am a poet. Dare I borrow from my big brother Coop … I am a wordsmith.
Next up was Juan Moore, who honored his beautiful wife, who was also present, with a poem about his love for her.
Then came a man among men whose name I’ve been hearing everywhere as a master of his craft. Obbie West brought a skillful, scintillating, real, raw poem about the spiritual and emotional casualties of casual sex that had the whole house mesmerized and all on our feet by the time he was done. Obbie West is the truth, and nothing but the truth. Respect.
Respect to all.
Finally, my friend Soul Secure performed an original song-slash-poem titled The Covenant – complete with background vocals by Grace – that had brothas going in their wallets and throwing money at her feet. One even pulled out a credit card, as she proclaimed her readiness to submit to a man who was ready to be the king he is supposed to be. That submission, she told us, would include pedicuring his toes, picking his nose, and an assortment of other forms of catering that had single men looking for the sign up sheet. For those who say there are no good men or women left, where were you last night?
We were at The Vine Open Mic Poetry Night at Urban Roots. We hope to see you there for the next potluck. Bringing a dish of your own is completely optional. It is, however, highly encouraged.