This is where you can find out more about what's happening on & off the scene in Amen's WORLD! There will be reviews / interviews posted by various journalists and alternaive information available on Amen Noir. This portal will be regulary updated, so stay tuned for further insights into the spoken word, music, political & social scenes.
Go to any performance poetry night popping up throughout the world and you’ll be heralded by some of the most incredible wordsmiths; whose power of oratory can sometimes defy belief. Trust me, love and art are truly exemplified here.
Before bling entered Hip Hop, before sex wrapped the soul of R&B, you had the love of the art that inspired artists to share their blues, explain their politics and inspire listeners to be all that they could.
After the night finishes, most artists reluctantly leave for home, trying to claim the next few hours sleep before work the next day. Much to their own dismay, they sit among colleagues who have no idea of their underground status. Given the choice, it would be poetry every time. Given the opportunity they would shine on any stage just for the shear love. What is ultimate nirvana for them? To do what they love, get better, but get paid. Which poet would they like to emulate? There is only really one who has led the example for this generation.
Saul Williams, like most poets around the world honed his craft on poetry café’s in his native Brooklyn. New York, around the mid 90’s was a time when conscious political Hip Hop fans had to wave good bye to that strand of rap, and say hello to commercialised gangsta rap. Many a former rapper like Saul Williams began to search for alternatives, and found solace with many other emcee’s at converted café’s, reciting poetry. The fall of Hip Hop had given birth to the resurrection of poetry. ‘Hip Hop wasn’t feeding me’ Williams says, relaxing at the bar, before introducing the expectant London audience to his latest work. Saul Williams found new nourishment in the power of the word, and ever since, this new diet has given him the hunger to keep expanding the art to new dimensions.
‘I decided I wanted to meet more poets,’ Saul begins ‘possibly get published and have more fun, so I went to the Nu Yorican Café and that’s where I first started doing slams.’ Slams, the poetry equivalent of battling, where artists would compete with their art, against a selection of other poets to the scrutiny of the audience who would judge by score cards which poem they liked best. ‘I couldn’t understand why people wanted to compete with poetry. I was finding so much freedom of expression that I wasn’t writing to compete what I wrote with somebody else.’ However, the popularity of this competition held the gate way to a new horizon, and Saul knew it wasn’t an art he could afford to ignore. ‘I consciously subjected myself to that (scrutiny) when I decided that I wanted to create more opportunities for myself as a poet. So that’s when I decided to go to slams, in the spring of 1996.’
His electrifying performances, inter woven with his political undertones, laced in between his love for Hip Hop and his appreciation of philosophy held audiences spell bound. Furthermore, to add into the mix his performing arts background, his study of Shakespeare, and the fact that he’d been raping since 8. ‘I’d spent my entire life on stage,’ Saul says. He indeed attacked the art of performing poetry from a different angle than most other performers showcasing their work at that time. ‘I was extremely comfortable on stage… and I was extremely comfortable as a writer. When you study literature from the perspective of an actor, you learn how to break it down to beats and moments. So as a writer I learnt how to write and create beats and moments, which is very much apart of what poetry is.”
Results? Well, it meant that on stage, he could expel everything he had learnt from the age of 8. Off stage, it meant he was willing to make opportunities in different arenas, such as the ground breaking Slam. He was in acting school when he wrote the script. A story which had some reflections on his life, a tale of a young poet growing up in the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood, who gets caught up in hood politics, and finds himself in a dangerous prison with hardened criminals ready to turn him into a victim. However, in one of the most memorable moments in film, it is only his electrifying ability to perform that keeps him alive. Winner of the 1994 Sundance film festival, there hasn’t been a film like it either before or since.
THE WORLD IS OURS
In fact, it is surprising that with the growth of the international performance scene, that there hasn’t been an explosion of poets walking through the same doors he’s gone through.
‘There has been a nation of poets that have taken up those doors,’ Saul disagrees with as much passion as when performing. ‘But we have to be specific on what those doors are. Like you. You’’re taking up those doors. You write poetry, you recite your poetry don’t you? But my background as a kid from like 8 years old, was being in front of that camera. I knew this microphone was going to be here. I didn’t know I would be writing poetry, but I was definitely training for public arena. That sort of training has nothing to do with poetry. My background has prepared me for where I am. Someone else may have been inspired to write because of me, that’s not the same thing that necessarily prepares them to be in front of a camera. The intent behind slam was to inspire kids to take their writing to the next level. I think that it’s been successful. The next level to me doesn’t mean media. I was in graduate school studying acting when I wrote that film. So I had spent since 8 working on that movie. That was a life long thing.”
In this day and age it’s extremely hard to unearth unique films with original content, but Slam had it all. It shone a light on an underground performance poetry scene, which poets could watch and be proud of as an accurate reflection of their world and lifestyle. It erased the elitist persona around poetry, and put the argument for the case of poetry for the down trodden, poetry for the poor people fighting against the odds. Williams wasn’t the only poet involved Chinese America poet Beau Sia who met Saul after qualifying (along with Williams, Jessica Care Moore and Mums) to represent New York in the national Slams. Jessica Care Moore also had a cameo. And Sonia Sohn, was Saul’s co-star and love interest. She again reflected the lives of many poets who dedicate themselves to the word, while also juggling a full time job. And just like Sohn’s character, many poets are in the community and institutions conducting workshops, striving to make their poems more than just words. For someone who hadn’t been aware of the poetry scene it was riveting and no doubt had people asking where they could find the next open mic spot. It also gave legitimacy to spoken word poetry in the world of Hip Hop.
So even though it can be argued that with the exception of Love Jones, the biggest door, Hollywood hadn’t opened the floodgates to poetry, Saul is correct that many other doors did kick wide open for both individuals and the art form. In America, Poetry is everywhere, from commercials to songs. Common, Mos Def and Kanye West have all used poets to enhance their music. Russell Simmons’ Def poetry Jam on HBO television has given all types of poet’s nationwide exposure and the notion of poetry being boring has all but been erased.
RAPPER VS THE POET
Saul ultimately deserves a lot of credit for that, for he has taken performance poetry through unchartered waters. Not only has he taken it from the page to the stage (and screen.) But he has taken the art form right into the face of his arch nemesis, the commercial rapper. Since it was that genre which squeezed him out of his beloved rapping days and threw him into poetry, he has picked up the word, walked tall with it and looked Commercial, Gangsta, Bling rap squarely in the eye and let them glare back at their reflection. In Saul, they remember the art of the story teller, the politician, the inspirer, the word smith and language innovator, essentially Hip Hop. Knowing the violent stereotypes thrust upon rappers of this day and age, you would think they may respond to him with hostility, for I have heard Saul live on radio critique the current trends of Hip Hop. Though he has infact found the opposite to be true.
‘Every bling rapper that I’ve ever met has said, “I think what you’re doing is important.” It’s never the opposite.” Saul retorts “That’s the thing about America, we have our most famous and prized exports. Coca Cola and The Gangsta rapper. But anyone who’s really from the hood knows that the hood produces a lot more than gangsta’s. Anybody who’s really from the hood knows that the hood produces a lot of cats that are just like me. So these cats recognise me and are like yeah. This is important and I hope my kids listen to you. The real gangsta’s aren’t trying to be gangsta. The real gangstas are usually like “I wish I didn’t have to live this life” and have usually chosen one or two cats who are not gangsta they wanna protect. I was raised by a bunch of cats who all sell drugs who were like “naw don’t fuck with this nigga.’”
PERFORMANCE POET VS THE LITERARY ELITE
In a sense stepping in as a poet, while being a talented actor and entering music via vehicles of rock and pop. He bares a high burden on his shoulders. The poetry community world wide hold him up as a shining light to breakdown barriers that they one day may be able to walk through. For he’s the only poet of this present Hip Hop generation that can currently walk the line previously held by Gill Scott Heron and The Last Poets; as he can be that beacon to show different circles of people throughout the world the dynamism of the modern Hip Hop street poet. Moreover, the fact that he lays claim to the literature title of poet, one is more than a musician, but also an intellectual, which means people from the academic world take note. More than they would if he was a rapper. For as an iconic poet, he sits in the seat of Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer, Maya Angelou. With all these expectations on him, how much pressure does he feel?
‘I actually feel more responsibility to represent for us. For those of us who were born and bread in this generation in connection to Hip Hop. (Though) When I write I do have the academic community in mind and I’m playing with this as I write. But what I’m writing for is for me. And that me I’m writing for is us. The type of shit that you’d be like OOOHHHH! And the way I’m going for that is by not focusing on the me; as in the egocentric me. I’m trying to clear myself of all that and I’m trying to write from the purist point and trusting that the purist point is the universal point.’
Hip Hop means a lot to Saul, as much as poetry, it’s had an impact on him, one in which he doesn’t wish to hide, no matter who is in tune to his poetry. In fact the more distant people are from Hip Hop, the more he feels it necessary that people are aware of Hip Hop’s contribution to music, art and language.
‘Through Hip Hop new forms of media and stanza have been created,’ he says ‘so anybody in their academic right that has not paid attention to what has happened in Hip Hop is no longer on top of their game and this is ideally expressed through the modern day poetry scene.’
IT ALL GOES IN CYCLES
Saul is not only a dedicated performer, but he is dedicated to the art form, to the history of all that came before him. Not just the American poets from the Harlem Renaissance, not just the oral traditions of African America which goes from the blues and stretch back to the West African Griots. But he understands that the oral tradition is a universal tradition and the current interest in spoken word is only an extension of this.
‘First of all we have to acknowledge that the oral tradition of poetry is much longer in history than the written tradition of poetry. So that people want to talk about slam poetry and all that stuff. First of all they have to recognise that they are participating in the eldest art form known to human kind. Homer, even was not known for writing his work he was known for reciting it. My favourite poets are the Sufi poets from the Middle East who were known for reciting their work out loud. Like Rumi or Hafiz whose name means one who remembers, he knew the Quran by heart and his poetry by heart. In India Kabir, in China Lao-Zu, all these people were poets who recited their work out loud way before the written word was popularized or the average person knew how to read poetry. It existed as recited work, so first of all the way in which poetry has evolved is going back to something that has been happening in cycles for well over a millennia. Nowadays, the real shift is the content of poetry. And through the particularities of our story it allows us to have a greater understanding of the past which shifts our understanding of the present and allows us a brighter conception of the future. It changes everything.’
Listening to him is as much a learning experience as it is an entertaining one. As a spoken word artist, I am pleased he has represented the art form the way he has. And as he continues to make giant steps, I only hope his strides creates pathway for the world to hear from the many suppressed poets and thinkers around the earth who are too custodians of the worlds most ancient art.
-by AmeN NoiR
For those who knew & for those who are hearing for the first time, Best Kept Secret completed a mini tour of Canada, performing in Toronto & Ottowa. The team ventured out to spread the word from a Afrikan in the U.K prospective, and to make links with fellow spoken word artists. Tuggs.t.a.r, ShakaRa & OneNess all participated in the T.I.P.S event (Toronto International Poetry Slam) and made a definate major impact on the scene. Mr Gee, host of Brixtongue and a true scientific story telling wordsmith, also made the trip and represented. With all eyes on the stage, OneNess stepped up and managed to claim 3rd place amoungst a field of approx 21 artists. It must be said that as a so called 'Slam artist', the judges and audience respond more to catchphrases and punchlines, more than content; but you need to have it all in the slams. Tuggz, ShakaRa & Mr Gee all came out blazing and presented something that the audience had never seen before, especially on this type of platform. The winner was an excellent brotha by the name of Jamal St John, followed by a blessed sista by the name of Nay-ee-la, & in third place was the brilliantly & blessed OneNess. All Afrikan, all powerful in different ways.
(Check gallery for pics)
The time out in canada was further blessed by meeting an awesome team of Special Spoken Word artists, all differing in presentation, content & delivery, but all addressing the issues which face us as individuals as well as a nation. Remarkably (or maybe not so remarkably), the experiences were very much the same as here in the U.K, and reflected a common trend in the patterns of Afrikan life. With some poets speaking on healthy eating to the tales of the journey of the Afrikan hair, it truly made BEST KEPT feel at home and welcomed.
With artists such as UNBLIND, LADY LOX, SANKOFA, TRAVIS BLACKMAN, EVE, SOL-R, EDDY DA ORIGINAL ONE, LATIATHAN, NTH DEGREE & more, the presentation & representation of the Spoken Word was a joy to be a part of.
As well as numerous performances, we also had several interviews both on the radio and for on-line magazines and promotion companies. Many of them were in Universities and involved the general community and public as well as the local organisations such as Ausar Asset.
With spoken word productions being planned and executed to fund local Afrikan schools, this should clearly display the power and respect of the word. It's only a matter of time before the world realises the impact the Spoken Word artist and values the work being done.
The most powerful thing that I took from the experience, was that it further reinforced to me the global similarities that we face no matter where you are on the planet. In many of these similarities there has been resistance and struggle for all generations, and have been faced with mass media MURDER from entertainment to education, of self and to families. But there is also belief and the ability to look beyond the boundaries of landmass, beyond the boundaries of dialect to see the aspirations left within our genetics of a beautiful future.
INTERVIEW WITH AMANI NAPHTALI
- by Andrew Togobo (New Nation Newspaper)The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of UK Poetry
It is easy to believe whilst developing this new era of spoken word, you are embarking on new terrain. However in arranging an interview with Word Temple director Amani Naphtali I was initially under the notion I was meeting someone utilising the current popularity of the word. However, after my first question, I soon realised there was much to learn and I listened to a man who transcends the whole spectrum of the arts. And much like Obi Wan from the Star Wars series, he was apart of spoken word in the UK when it was at its zenith, when it fell and is currently apart of its re-birth. He said "what is happening now is the rebuilding of all that was taken away." Much like Star Wars and the destruction of the Jedi council, poetry had it’s hey day, and in the original 1970’s Star Wars series, we witness its re-birth. Just as today we are now seeing the rise of a new era of spoken word. And Amani Nepathali, (much like Obi Wan in A New Hope) has been watching its growth, and now believes the time is ripe for poetry to take its rightful place in the arts renaissance.
Back in the 80’s Amani founded Double Edge Sword Theatre Company, which pioneered the introduction of spoken word into the theatre. This was at a time when Benjamin Zepphaniah was common on the circuit, and Jonzi D was seen as the new cat.
"We bridged the word into the theatre scene," Amani begins "in those days the theatre was far different from the cultural arts scene. No one really moved freely between the two bodies." He said passing me brochures and leaflets from this era, I got to see some of the old guard, and ambitious events that were organised starring the performers of their day such as Clare Perkins who starred as the mother of Asher D in Bullet Boy.
Point is they were the original trendsetters, and Amani galvanised different segments of the arts industry to stage multi-faceted shows under an organised body. There may not have been the volume of artists that are on the scene today, but they had the organised structure needed to step up their art. "Double Edge Sword was a pioneering company, The Vibes from the Scribes, was the original production… We were like a pan African team, with an all Black cast, and we made no bones about that. We did a theatre production called The Vibes from the Scribes and when it dropped it didn’t just go over people’s heads, it went under their heads, under their arm pits, through their eyes, over their ears. We had a jazz band on stage, we had performers, poets, artists, actors, dancers and we were dealing with it like it was a performance of futuristic poetry."
On one side of the table was his 80’s and 90’s brochures, on the other side was flyers of the Best Kept Secret, consisting of Amen Noir, shortMAN, OneNess, ShakaRa and myself. A mirror image of two different era’s of artists. He talked with enthusiasm and excitement about the height and impact they had as black cultural artist with the will to represent the best of their culture.
Such creativeness lead to the first run of Raggamuffin, it was a period in time that Black British arts, in all fields were coming to the fore. You had UK soul on the rise with pioneering artists such as Omar and Soul II Soul, (Amani directed videos form both artists) Reggae was the main youth expression and Hip-Hop was only beginning to penetrate the youth culture of the time. Raggamuffin combined the spoken word, and reggae influence, telling the story of young urban rebellion against elder society and the establishment, while interweaving the history of the Haitian Revolution. One wonders how such a powerful collective would have grown if left to flourish.
DEATH & RESSURECTION
However, this Black arts scene didn’t get the chance to blossom and infect this generation. For Margaret Thatcher’s 80’s regime cut back funding to the arts, and the Black arts were on the front line.
"They just wiped out the Black arts industry," Amani said still bitter, but wiser for the experience. "They nearly completely destroyed it, companies went to the wall." And Double Edge was one that crumbled. No more poignant Black theatre productions, no artistic development or refuge for Black artists to harness their talent in a culturally embracing atmosphere. For all intents and purposes the era was over, and it began Amani’s period of exile where he embarked on different freelancing ventures, releasing some films and went back to university where he completed his MA.
In 2001 he felt the time was right to return. "I came back into theatre when the theatre industry was at its knees and said to the arts council ‘this is your last time, you messed up big time, you nearly destroyed the industry, funded those who shouldn’t have been funded and cut those who should’ve been funded. So let’s try to build something that was the most vibrant arts scene at the time.’ He instantly recognised the lack of cultural representation in the theatre "I know there are certain genre’s my people have to have and I told them we’re not starting again." So instead of starting afresh, he resurrected Raggamuffin, and provided for a new generation a glimpse into what was happening almost a decade prior. To many it would’ve seemed like a brand new concept, and if you didn’t have any elders to hand it would’ve been. It was a success then, and it was a success second time round starring Benji Reid. This time it reflected a more Hip Hop influenced youth culture and in turn introducing many to Black theatrical arts.
WHICH WAY NOW?
During his time away and more so since stepping back into arts he kept an eye on the development of the poetry scene and the new names popping up with little knowledge of past achievements. Though some of the old guard had gone on to become national figures such as Benjamin Zepphaniah, Martin Glynn and Lemn Sissay. But in the main a new generation, void of arts council support had been spawned thinking they had to start from scratch, putting on shows to embrace their untapped talent. In university you had students who wanted to represent the wealth of talent on campuses and beyond, consequently shows like Back Pepper and Soul Food came into existence. You had many other shows popping up, some lasting the test of time, others drifting into obscurity. Consequently, Amani has been covertly watching these artists creating names for themselves, but he is also constructively critical about flaws in the poetry game
"The poets are striving for something, but they don’t know how to get there." What he sees are exceptional talents stuck in the realms of poetry. He feels poets need to be more than just wordsmiths but artists, because the industry is crying for their creativity. "You know a song is a poem can be a monologue depending on how you see it, and a poet is a griot is a scribe is an actor is a dancer depending on how they perceive it. I tell the actors you’re dry, I tell the theatre industry you are void of culture the most exciting thing happening now is happening in our music industry and in our poetic industry, so I don’t know what you lot are doing. So let’s go back to the start, let the poets take back their silence, cause art and theatre came from poets. Where are poets in this theatre industry? They ain’t writing nothing about my people and we need to articulate now. Let the poets take back control of this but they don’t know how…
‘They do these little café’s, they sometimes take it to theatre, bad lighting, bad everything, no technical experts, just on their back doing their best, but the audience can relate to it, it just needs an aesthetic… I know what’s going on, I can see the poets doing stuff, I know my Beyonder’s, my OneNess’s and I’m laughing and joking with them too, but… you’re going to be void unless you walk this way… cause that’s the only way to go which is on stage."
He speaks to the heart and mind of every poet, for he is the mind of a poet who has travelled the road longer than most. And many times different collectives of poets and writers have discussed how to take poetry to the next level, with the right idea, but little direction of how to make the necessary impact. Poets are continually asking, how can we secure funding? How can fellow poets support one another? Who can we trust? The reason Amani is so important is he knows all sides of the coin, from the audience to the performer, the heart of the poet, the black community, the funders and wider society.
"My conversation with the arts council was about showing them how to engage with the poets" he continues "these poets are sometimes starving, who do one little gig, and sometimes do very well, but not very much longevity no shows that last for more than one or two days so that can’t work, so funders don’t know how to engage them…its about how different artists can combine together and do this…Its about helping another generation to keep it moving, keep in touch with the play writers… but poets are the play writers, who are the authors, the film makers of the future. When we were at our highest we all worked together as family. I’m the last tribe of that... the last man standing. And the future is about the painters working with the poets, working with the Hip Hop groups working with that eclectic people and of course its gonna kick ass. That’s what the temple is about, it’s just a gift to my hombres who I know are coming along."
POLITICS VS ARTISTICS
Though in this current climate, considering how the government wiped out the Black arts before hand, does he feel the Black arts should trade politics for the safer creative arts option? For many artists believe it is of no interest to the current generation to hub on the Black power tip. He smiles reminiscing on the earlier generation of artists. "We never bowed to nobody, we always gave people the best we could give them, delivered the best politics, typified by productions like Raggamuffin, you can hate the politics, but you had to love the show, started loving the show, you took the politics, and that’s how we gave our people what we gave them. We’re not boring. You can’t bore our people to death, they don’t wanna come to the boring stuff, they wanna come and see stuff that moves them that invigorates them, and you gotta keep yourself relevant to your people. We gave them aesthetic and styles that matched our people and our people are the best performers on earth, you need to give them aesthetic, and once you give them that, you talk about their lives and they will love you… Other people can go where they wanna go, but I gotta live with my ancestry, I gotta live with my people and they require certain things. If you’re gonna come and see a show by Amani Naphtali, one thing they’re gonna know is there’s gonna be fun, you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna cry but you’re always gonna get culture. You will always get the culture, cause that’s the nature of art, but I don’t wanna become void with my people, that’s not the legacy that I’m handing to them…"
Though in his absence there have been shows that have represented particularly for the poets. One of the longest standing productions is Soul Food, who have grown from strength to strength since starting in a small Stratford bar to ending up in Bloomsbury Theatre.
"For organisations like Soul Food ‘upgrade the aesthetic now, lets get our dexterity right so we can do larger stuff, we’ve done our little grade school, now lets move to the higher level, the level of performing theatre arts.’ Looking me dead in the eye he continues, issuing instructions like a general. "I said to the arts council, I ain’t joking, this is the decade of the poet, take control of your asylum, cause the actors and stuff aren’t doing it, they need you, the poet! This is the new wave man, the future’s bright if we just work together they’ll be a whole wave of us, they would’ve seen nothing like it."
Although he is optimistic, he also expresses the need to be wise in engaging with funding, very much conscious on how the Black arts scene was hit as a consequence to their over reliance on funding. "I say dig deep. Make your baby wide, make your foundations deep. So after this little phase of funding goes and they’ve got tired of Africans arts and start reaching into eastern Europeans we have something in place and the poetry circuit has to be in place. I send out the call to the poets where is your union? If you haven’t got an association of leading poets, you need one. It must be organised and controlled by poets, who are pioneers, people with knowledge, so you can get stuff like minimum wage so you can’t charge a poet like ten pounds and have him perform all night."
He has a lot of faith in this current crop of wordsmiths, not only being able to establish themselves in Britain, but the international poetry community, especially America who he believes are crying out for something fresh. But he believes there is still work to be done here before the foundations are strong enough for the artists to conquer different parts of the world. "I’ve been watching you guys covertly under the scenes and you (poets) need the conference whereby the poetic artists start to dictate. I know man like Nii whose been out there and done this, and I’m sure you all wanna see poetic plays at the Lyric Theatre. "
He’s a man with so much achievement and experience; he should be a household name in both the Black community and wider British society. And hopefully his poetry resurrection will be able to utilise the talent of the current crop of poets, and the performers we see week in and week won’t drift into anonymity.
"I’ve been one of the leading directors in this country; have been for years, the people know that, the arts know that, the industry knows that, the funders know that. But I’ve always been loved by my people. Not hailed by the arts council, but they don’t mess with me cause I always deliver can deliver. And at times its like a wine, first of all it’s raw, and then it matures, you appreciate the flavour then ‘IT’s A CLASSIC!’ So those times are happening now, buts it time to open up the doors that were closed."