September 2, 2004

Through the Ether

Print More

Jerry Mondesire, the loquacious, Stetson totting president of the Philadelphia NAACP said in an interview once that, unlike his own generation who had the likes of Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and Stokely Carmichael, this new, ‘Hip-Hop’ generation of young African Americans has no role models to look up to. That is, except one — Russell Simmons.

I could only imagine that Mondesire”s estimation was made in the last four years. Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, set out on an experiment four years ago when, in association with HBO, started Russell Simmon”s Presents Def Poetry Jam. With an ecumenical but largely minority cast, the show”s stated premise remains to give voice to America”s unheard urban poets.

To approach Def Poetry, one must cast aside any prejudices of what poetry should be. It is a show whose artists would list with equal weight Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes among their primary influences as they would Chuck D., Rakim, and KRS One. That is to say, the performers don”t speak, they rap.

It”s funny that Simmons should be seen as patron of the arts. In it”s history, his Def Jam label has never been synonymous with pushing the artistic envelope. It is, after all, a label that boasts such poetic wordsmiths as DMX, deodorant salesmen Redman and Method Man, Ghostface, the seemingly ageless and brainless LL Cool J, Ludacris, and Shyne. Method Man and Redman haven”t been legitimate artists since they were content to reside in gritty, underground chambers on Loud. The only one I”ll lend any credibility to is fellow Wu-Tang refugee Ghostface. But his latest offering, The Pretty Toney Album, seemed to run at a high velocity into a brick wall of mediocrity, and has been in decline since his stunning debut, Ironman. As far as helping to develop Hip-Hop into an art form, Def Jam can”t hold a candle to avant-garde labels like Def Jux and the late Rawkus.

Simmons has gift wrapped his show in all the right trappings. He has a Hip-Hop icon as a host in Mos Def, the support of HBO which has become the last bastion of artistic integrity on television, and has inserted ‘poetry’ in between his Def and Jam, effectively disarming any premature critics.

But this is Simmons trick. Behind the veil of its exterior and the dense collages of it”s rhetorical devices, Def Poetry sounds rather hollow. Posturing Mos Def in front of the camera to provide introductions and a few lines of verse every Sunday doesn”t bring much legitimacy. While it”s true that he”s an icon, his status as such has been falling at the rate of gravity. After releasing two seminal albums, Blackstar with Talib Kweli and Black on Both Sides, he pulled a Salingeresque retreat only to reappear, proclaiming himself an actor, but landing only throwaway roles in films like Brown Sugar, Monster”s Ball, and The Italian Job. Mos Def is laughable now, a shell of what he once was.

Worse than that, the show has become numbingly redundant and simplistic. With few exceptions, the artists whom Simmons selects (assuming it is he who does the selecting) have become increasingly formulaic in their approach to spoken word. Usually, it involves an animated stage presence with a delivery that is loud, fast, and rhythmically cogent. Actually, it is so fast sometimes that we can scarcely understand what they are saying. This is all part of the illusion, though, because more often than not, they are saying nothing. Def Poets usually provide an amateur indictment of one of three topics — women”s rights, George Bush, or race. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. But viewing only one show will be sufficient for anyone to see that poets become clones of one another, and after the dust settles from their stomping, spitting, and rapped deliveries, the artistic value of the verse is hard to find outside of the fact that it rhymes and is usually loud and angry.

There have been some bright spots this season, like Julian Curry, who offered the best criticism of using the word ‘nigger’ since Q-Tip, Kelly Tsai, who tossed venom at urban sophisticates and her fellow, wannabe revolutionary poets with ‘Mao,’ and neo-Black Panther Will Bell, whose ‘So I Run’ was easily the best poem the show has ever used. Inexplicably, the show has felt it necessary to bring on Hip-Hop celebrities who really have no qualifications as poets, such as Kanye West, Floetry, Dead Prez, Common, and Talib Kweli. Really, all that each of them did were awful a cappela versions of their own songs. Perhaps to balance this, the show brings actual poets, like Mark Eric Dyson, Nikky Finney, and Oscar Brown Jr. But their performances have seemed half-hearted at best. It”s sad, because as people who have the talent to say something, they wasted a chance to say it to a generation in need.

It would be unfair and obnoxious to deny the value in Simmon”s Def Poetry. It does, after all, demand creativity from our generation. That should be admired. But what it”s artists say is something else. For Mondesire”s claim to hold weight, Def Poetry needs to work harder to find artists who speak in metaphor, not just rhyme. Otherwise, it”s in danger of sending what was a great idea into the mores of novelty.

Archived article by Zach Jones