Every Wednesday night, the Nuyorican Poets Café, located in the East Village, hosts a poetry slam, and for only ten dollars, you can listen to incredibly compelling people share their thoughts on anything. The venue is cozy and relaxed, with a maximum seating capacity of 120 people, creating a very warm and intimate dynamic between the poets and their audience. With the poems ranging from witty, comical, and funny, to dark, somber, and emotional—and everything in between—a sense of empathy is created, and any barriers between the audience and the performer disappear. Poetry creates a safe space, a space to feel welcomed, to feel included, to not feel judged or alone.
This past Wednesday, I attended my first poetry slam. I was nervous about it for a while, because I thought it might just be a place for hipsters to sit around and drink beer while engaging in creative and sophisticated discourse. Reassuringly, as I walked in, I scanned the room and noticed a very eclectic and diverse group of individuals, simply looking to listen and let others be heard.
Throughout the night, there were many beautiful poems shared. One girl spoke about an abusive relationship she had with her boyfriend, and another talked about how it felt being unnoticed and broken. Some were also funny: one poet discussed how he wished he was as smart as the “genius who took Dr. Dre’s name and slapped it onto a pair of mediocre headphones.” Others illustrated the struggles of being a woman in society and the ability to embrace it. Some celebrated black pride and culture, raising awareness of the prevalence of racism. Chris Lilley, who I had the pleasure of speaking with after the event, recited the winning poem of the evening.
Netah Osana: What drives you to write these awe inspiring, thought provoking, beautifully written, and compelling poems?
Chris Lilley: I want to tell people a good story. I want to tell them a story that they’ve never heard.
NO: And have you always written “angry black man poems?”
CL: (laughs) They definitely used to be tamer, but as I got more comfortable, it got easier for me to air my grievances.
NO: Do you think it’s because as society has progressed into being more open about these issues that you were able to get more comfortable?
CL: I think that when people around you want to become more transparent, it becomes easier for you to be transparent as well, so it definitely helped me become more open about these issues.
NO: And how do you find the confidence to open yourself up like that?
CL: Whatever story you have that you’re holding onto, and you share it with a crowd, that’s the first step of the healing process. I realized that when I shared these stories, people would come up to me and tell me that they feel the same way. It’s hard, because who wants to be standing on a stage naked like that? But when you put yourself in a forum where you can bring things like this up, it creates empathy.
Angry Black Man Poem #12
In 2015, back when Trump for president was still funny,
and Rachel Dolezal was still white,
a man slides into my DMs.
Not like that.
He asks me why I write so many black poems.
Tells me that since I’m a Christian,
all I should be writing are Christian poems,
and says, and I quote,
“No one cares about your pretend struggles, homeboy.”
He called me a homeboy.
He didn’t know this homeboy got tongue like a hand grenade,
My skin ain’t the color of gunpowder by coincidence.
He didn’t know my poems are bombs strapped to my waist.
And I’m supposed to pretend like these pens ain’t weapons,
like my words ain’t bullets.
He let homeboy roll off his keyboard,
slither through his message,
not unlike Satan.
Saliva covered Ebonics hit my screen,
like the word was foreign to him,
like the word was three sizes too large that day,
like the word was packed into his Amistad mouth like slave ship,
like middle passage,
like “you people”,
like field nigga,
like house nigga,
like you niggas is all the same,
like I got a black president so it’s okay,
like why ya’ll can’t get past slavery,
like I said it with the ‘-a’ not the ‘-er’, so that must be alright,
why you always write black poems.
He said homeboy.
Like he earned it.
Like he was up the block with me the first time I saw a drug bust.
Like he was with me when I was arrested.
Like he remembered Harlem before the murals and the Starbucks.
He called me homeboy and told me not to be mad,
that I was perpetuating a stereotype
that angry black poems are a dime a dozen
and his tone said that I was lucky that I could count to twelve.
He called me homeboy
and liked it.
Like new spices from old countries,
like new spices from old countries,
so let’s colonize the world in the name of spices!
Like new spices,
like his chicken is still bland
he said homeboy,
and all I can hear was the earthquake in my pen,
the thunder in my mind,
and the lightening in my throat.
I am not your homeboy I tell him.
I’m the child of a king and a savior.
I’m the heritage of Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay.
I’m Bob Marley’s redemption song and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Boy Fly.
I am Brooklyn before the bodegas closed.
I am Harlem before the boutiques opened.
I am melanin,
the thing in my skin makes me absorb light,
And Jesus said ‘Let your light still shine so that men will glorify me’.
So get your shades!
Get your shades because I won’t stop shining.
I got too much hip-hop,
too much reggae,
too much black,
too much Jesus,
too much protest,
and too much pride to ever dip my life for you, homeboy.
Was that another black poem?