If you want to tap into the underbelly of a culture, I say attend a slam poetry competition.
Last night I attended the open mic event hosted by Hammer & Tongue Hackney at The Book Club in the Shoreditch part of town. So far this year (with the month of it I have experienced), I’ve pushed myself to take a part in all the “culture” circulating around me. During my winter break in the Second City, I tapped into the improv scene and attended many shows at iO Chicago Theater. The night before I started my study abroad experience I attended a slam poetry competition at Octagon Live.
Since being in London I’ve gone on a museum binge. I’ve wandered the corridors of the massive British Museum, packed with all its treasure troves of the world, glided pass the hundreds of paintings and sculptures in the National Portrait Gallery and also marveled at the ornaments in and around Kensington and Buckingham Palace.
Each cultural event or place made me examine society, if only through a brief conversation with my friend afterwards or a quick note jotted down on my iPhone. From Los Angeles to Chicago to London, my journey East has pushed me to take in all displays of human expression.
So last night I continued my artistic acclimation while I sipped my pint of cider on a bar stool in a corner of a full-to-capacity room occupied by hipsters. We were all here for the slam poetry competition. The young Londoners in the room were anxious for it to begin, so I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. I was in the midst of the most diverse crowd I had seen since coming to London. There were Asian women rocking long plaid shirts talking to black women with cleanly shaved heads sitting next to white men with dreads draping down their shoulders.
I took another sip of my cider. British accents were buzzing around me. But they weren’t speaking in the Queen’s English I had grown accustomed to in my classrooms. Instead they used heavy Cockney accents. The accents that have come to characterize residents of East London were unfamiliar to my untrained ear. And I loved it.
I took one more sip of my cider. The show was about to begin.
The night’s headliner flew on the stage. Staceyann Chin, a Jamaican native currently living in NYC and an alum of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam, quickly made her presence known. She stirred up an unparalleled energy in the room as she recounted stories about her sexuality, fears of abandonment and various epiphanies of her marginalization in society, specifically in the U.S.
My friend from USC and I laughed the hardest when she talked about the struggles of being a “brown girl” in the States. The prejudice. The assumptions. The guilty allure that it comes with. She got it. She got us.
As the more amateur slam poets took to the stage, spewing their truths in rhyme and tone, I heard references to doubt, loneliness, shoes, intrepid Tube rides. Poets talked about love lost, love unrequited, lust. Some bemoaned “out-of-touch” politicians and mentions of war were made. The topics were free ranging. People spoke from their heart.
And though most of the people who graced the stage did so in a British accent I understand it all. I knew where they were coming from. I had heard it in other slam poetry competitions. I had talked about these issues time and time again in whispers with my friends.
Each act added color to the image of London I have been painting these past three weeks. So far I have been relying on the London Evening Standard, my lecturers and study abroad coordinators to help create the image of this historic city for me. Yet that night as Tina Turner and the Fugees blasted through the stereos around me, Londoners my age were coloring my perspective of the city I have chosen to adopt for the next five months. They were seamlessly shelling out the issues in London that don’t — won’t — get coverage in the newspaper. Issues that still need to be discussed. Topics that are impacting my life as a young adult, person of color, college student, citizen, expatriate, human.
During the 10-minute break between acts, I leaned back on my bar stool and onto the brick wall behind me. I looked up. Overhead a cluster of densely packed light bulbs lit up the room. It was like a scene taken straight out of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
The world is a possibility if only you’ll discover it, the protagonist in Invisible Man had famously said.
As a writer I tell myself attending slam poetry competitions are a form of research for the articles, short stories and blogs I will write later. But really I know these events are mandatory, required rejuvenation for my soul.
Art is the factor that so far has proven that it has no boundaries. It can touch anyone, regardless of circumstance or background. That night I soaked in the slam poetry. I knew I had walked into a previously unseen part of London and it felt, sounded and for the most part looked like me and what I’m used to. It had been what I was searching for all along.
Connecting to art is crucial. Being able connect with people from different nationalities because of art and culture has been eye-opening for me. Sitting on that bar stool in the basement of The Book Club with my glass of cider and in the company of slam poets, I was confident that I was discovering the world.
And all was possible.
It’s only the beginning. This is just the beginning. This is just the start of adding more strokes to my portrait of London.