Five years from now, we’ll say we were there. We’ll say we saw someone who “made it”- accept an award on the Varsity stage, or perform on the Varsity stage, or even just sit at our table as we watched the Urban Griots Spoken Word Awards happen for the first time. We’ll talk about not knowing what we were going to wear, having never been to one of these things- we’ll talk about how amazing the Varsity looked- tablecloths and mood lights, everyone looking amazing, the room filled with familiar faces, and faces that were going to eventually become familiar. We might remember the slick graphics on stage (we’ll say we thought we were at the MTV Music awards, or the Oscars), the antics of the hosts, the amazing performances. We will definitely remember coming together as a community, and beginning to understand how many of us there are.
Presented by Tiyo Siyolo and e.g. bailey, the awards were as much a celebration of Minnesota’s spoken word scene as they were a recognition of individual accomplishments. “We’re giving awards to EVERYBODY, just for showin’ up!” sang Tiyo, as the event got underway. As long as Minnesota’s history of spoken word has been, e.g. pointed out, it’s been a long time coming for some kind of recognition of the scene and its accomplishments. “Good things come,” he smiled, “to those who wait.”
The awards covered 32 different categories, and included judges awards and peoples’ choice awards for all but the Hall of Fame categories. Nominees were selected by ballots sent to representatives and leaders from different parts of the Minnesota Spoken Word community, and then voted on by judges who representatives of the most appropriate communities for each category, and by the world at large via an internet ballot, one per ip address. I’ve heard a few complaints about names that should have made ballots, but ultimately, that weight lays on the shoulders of the community, and am personally impressed by the amount of work done in such a short amount of time, by so few, and so elegantly for a first time.
(For the complete list of award winners, please visit http://minnesotamicrophone.com/2009/04/04/griots-results-short-version/.)
Performances included Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MNSWA) youth, and University of Minnesota Voices Merging representatives. Other performers were distributed throughout the evening, between awards.
If there was a Minnesota spoken word performer who embodied Rockstardom while also being all of the things we know and love about Minnesota and literature, it’s Ed Bok Lee. His performance sparked some of the unconscious verbal feedback that spoken word elicits from its audiences, the sort of sighs and shouts that would be heard throughout the evening.
Mike Mlekoday performed “Appalachia”, as a representative of Saint Paul’s 2008 Soapboxing slam team. A new favorite poem, the piece addresses the spiritual intelligences often looked down on by academics- a piece performed with so much heart and spirit, the audience was audibly with him. “We each got a story rattling in our mason jar bellies/but you don’t got the time to ask.”
Mlekoday was followed by special surprise guest Patricia Smith. A four time Individual National Poetry Slam Champion (no small feat) and winner of numerous literary awards (the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, the National Poetry Series award, the Patterson poetry award, the Pushcart prize, and in 2006, she was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent), she performed “Sixth Grade Class”, a haunting piece about the presence of death in childhoods in Dade County Miami, telling the room that the children there know she’s performing this poem for us.
“When I read a poem about my own hard-eyed teenager, Jeffery asks “Is he dead yet?”. It cannot be comprehended, an eighteen year old still pushing and pulling his own breath.”
“Remember Nicole, she knows that we are here now, and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.”
Loft-supported group Palabristas brought Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria and Lorena Duarte to the stage, performing a piece about identity and borders- specifically the issues with immigration and opportunity, families split by borders, the desperate fearless and fearful struggle.
A wonderful reminder that spoken word need not be heady and heavy 24/7, the 2008 Minneapolis SlamMN! team brought group piece “Bowling for Orgasms” to the stage, inspiring an entire theater full of laughter when peformers Wonder Dave, Tom Reed, and Sam Cook formed a larger-than-life-sized labia and clitoris around Cynthia French.
When J. Otis Powell! and Autumn Compton began their collaborative pieces, I was mildly unconvinced. Were Autumn’s shimmies something for a spoken word show? J. Otis’s playful accompanying piece, about the dance of autumn/Autumn was my assurance that once again, there were different ways for spoken word to be collaborative and playful, and then Autumn followed with her own words, to demonstrate that her talents were not restricted to white fringe.
Bao Phi brought to the stage a persona poem, from the perspective of a young Asian American soldier, surrounded by racist peers, with a palpable rage. “Let me not pull the trigger on his story, but let everyone know I could have.”
Kyle “El Guante” Myhre came at the audience with “Jackie”, a familiar piece which will form the cornerstone of a one-man show about working people. The poem addresses “menial” labor and the issues with being a cog in the greater machine, and Guante’s performance escalated the crowd response to great shouts and uproar, before the final awards of the evening were conferred to their winners.
The award recipients were instructed to keep their speeches to a one sentence minimum, enforced by DJ Mix.well, so the night ran fairly smoothly. Mix.well pointed out, in a comic cocky tone, that there was no one to enforce his minimum when he received his peoples’ choice award. Many languages graced the microphone in recipient speeches, and a lot of love was expressed for the community. El Guante suggested that he won in Khary “6 is 9” Jackson’s absence. Bao Phi, upon winning the peoples’ choice award for Spoken Word Artist of the Year (MN, male) joked that when he began his journey, “Back then it wasn’t spoken word, I was just a dude who couldn’t rap.” The inimitable Tish Jones accepted awards on behalf of Desdemona via text message, as well as her own awards, with her trademark style. As a relative newcomer to the scene, the only missing faces I noticed were those of the twin cities storytelling communities- the Rockstar Storytellers and the Northstar storytellers, who I intend to get in on this beautiful riot as soon as I can. The room was as pregnant with talent as the elegant and talented Shá Cage.
So many thanks go out to those who made the event happen, and also to the community for being such an amazing place for spoken word performers. Huge thanks go to my volunteer photographers, Abra Staffin Wiebe and Michael Tran. More photographs can be found in their flickr sets. Check them out, give them some love.