When spoken word artist Staceyann Chin is hungry, she feeds on a prolific harvest. Some of her verses are tender vittles, some exposing a pink inside. All of them have a hint of her Jamaican roots flavored with her lesbian identity. When her appetite flares, she takes her concoction of experience and expression and heaves it at the world to be licked, swallowed, and digested. As if two chapbooks, two one-woman shows, and countless performances weren’t filling, Chin has recently added Def Poetry Jam to her plate.
Since its debut on HBO, Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam has played host to ravenous wordsmiths like Chin. Debuting Def Poetry on Broadway this past year made this feast of fastidious word-players available to a much larger audience, garnering Simmons and his urban word dicers a Tony Award for best theatrical event.
Chin calls Def Poetry, “an upsurge of young people looking for new hip hop.” She is not comfortable aligning herself with the present-day hip hop buffet brimming with “controversial images of black people and misogyny.” By “new hip hop,” Chin says, “I am referring to Russell’s mission to counter the anti-image of what hip hop started as. Russell wanted to find the voice that he started with [as co-founder of Def Jam Records in 1983] and that voice is what poetry is … a more authentic, underground voice.”
Notwithstanding the double-consciousness of Simmons’ motivations, Def Poetry Jam has encouraged a resurgence of pen and pad (or nowadays, laptop and coffee shop). The Def Poetry Jam Tour is an offspring of Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam that soapboxes young lyricists and veteran poets alike. From the more than 200 poets and spoken word artists Def Poetry host Mos Def (one-half of hip-hop duo Black Star) has welcomed to the stage, nine were chosen to represent the diversity of the TV show on tour. The Broadway cast ranged from Chin to Georgia Mae, who is a self-described “Ghettobelle,” to Beau Sia, a Chinese-American from Oklahoma City, to an imaginable in-between. Chin, who spews a swift-tongued procession of patois and politics, sees herself as a representation of “the immigrant voice.”
Even cloaked in her eloquent awareness and appreciation of difference, she admits to having to shed her own prejudices when monologuing amongst an antithesis of approaches and reproaches. “I thought I was such an actualized being,” Chin says. “After six weeks of rehearsals, I realized I was the biggest bigot. More than the Tony, more than HBO, the thing that has meant most to me is learning to always reassess [my] fucking bigotry.” Chin passed up the opportunity to join her Def cast mates in Sweden in fall 2001 because “there were more pressing issues here and I missed being an independent artist.”
From this desire to refuel her appetite, Chin began collaborating with self-affirmed “independent, black lesbian folk singer,” Doria Roberts. “Staceyann and I met about a year and a half, two years ago,” says Roberts as she prepares to head to Indiana before visiting UNC-Chapel Hill (along with Chin, and poets Roger Bonair Agard and Ishle Yi Park). Chin and Roberts have combined their artistic ingredients to concoct a new recipe called Black-Eyed Susan, which will be available for taste-testing on Oct. 9.
“It’s time for another version of women’s alternative voices to step up,” says Roberts, who is a seasoned songstress stewing a plentiful course of socially relevant, folk-funky tunes. After a stint on the Lilith Fair Tour in 1999 (and major label courtships), she and her guitar returned to their independent beginnings. As a sovereign artist, Roberts proudly adorns multiple hats and runs ’em down like a grocery list. “I own my own label [Hurricane Doria Records], I’m my own booking agent, tour manager, producer, I’ve been doing Queerstock for eight years, and I’m organizing Jezebel Jam this year.” Jezebel Jam is an offshoot of Ladyfest–a festival celebrating women in music that has pockets across the globe, including Ladyfest South held in Atlanta in October 2002.
As she prepares to release her sixth CD entitled, Simple Life (her “biggest project yet”) as well as Radio Doria II (scheduled to be released on Election Day 2004), Roberts is excited about the opportunity to offer North Carolina a taste of Black-Eyed Susan before heading overseas in early 2004. Black-Eyed Susan is a collaborative ensemble of black alternative female voices. It feeds the energy of our work just to get out there, be on the ledge,” says Roberts of her work with Chin.
Before the UNC-CH show with Agard and Park, Chin will host a Curtain Talk at Hill Hall in conjunction with student performance group Ebony Readers Onyx Theater, an organization that is part of UNC’s Black Student Movement. Her goal, says Roberts, “is to be universal without being mediocre. It’s a community gathering, an opportunity for folks to have fun, lament about the world, and do something about it.” If your appetite is serious, check out this installment of Carolina Union’s Performing Arts Series. Def Poetry plus Black-Eyed Susan guarantees a passionate stew of mutiny, melody and muse.