That Time Poetry Was Def

Sonia Sanchez, Suheir Hammad and Kanye West all appeared on the show.


By Taiia Smart Young

Picture it: New York, 2002. It’s brick outside, probably a single digit or something like that, but you’re warm and cozy on the couch waiting for HBO’s Def Jam Poetry, a new show executive produced by Russell Simmons and directed by Stan Lathan (the same duo who blessed you with Def Comedy Jam) to start. You’re hopeful and skeptical at the same damn time because it’s spoken word on TV.

Def Poetry begins with a tight shot of host Mos Def (before the public knew him as Yasiin Bey) reciting a few lines about brown sugar lassies and peach-skinned girlies as a meditative violin chord plays in the background. He spits 16 barz (coincidence? You think not.) of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Sweeties,” and when he’s done, the Brooklyn wordsmith crowns one of the founding fathers of the Harlem Renaissance as a Def Poet.

You breathe a sigh of relief. But you don’t have any idea about who or what a Def Poet is until folks of all hues, backgrounds, perspectives, stories and flows bless New York City’s Supper Club stage. And to your surprise, each season from 2002 to 2007 is more influential than the last. All of the poets are different, but they, as Mos reminded the multiculti live audience and those watching at home, are united “by the power of words.”

And they didn’t mince words, either. The poets’ affecting observations were either a balm or a bomb that covered love, race, sex, politics, fatherhood, sexuality and feminism. It was clear that these weren’t stale verses teachers forced students to memorize for the sake of fulfilling an English requirement, nor were these perfectly timed sonnets obeying the laws of iambic pentameter. These were the voices of dissent.

Influenced by the slam poetry movement, many of the poets were the daughters and sons of the famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Some were poetry legends like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. Others were singers, actors, comedians and rappers, including Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Jewel, Benjamin Bratt, Dave Chappelle and Kanye West. Ah, Mr. West. Remember the first time the Chi-Town hitter appeared on the show? His “Self-Conscious” poem was really “All Falls Down” from 2004’s College Dropout.  (Fun fact: Three-time Def Poet J. Ivy, whose work is featured on TIDAL this month, earned a Grammy for his performance on Yeezy’s “Never Let Me Down” from that same album.)

Before the phrase “do it for the culture” became your unwritten mantra, these poets exemplified this idea and delivered the art form to the masses without diluting the potency or urgency of the message. Their voices were fearless and the New York Times applauded Def Poetry for being a “daring, fresh series that breaks poetry out of the neat little boxes.”

It was cool that the Times recognized a real one, but you knew Def Poetry was groundbreaking, especially when it graduated from TV to live theater. During the show’s inaugural year, a Broadway spin-off with nine poets and a DJ was born.  It earned a Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event, thanks to the humor, honesty, vulnerability and talent of Staceyann Chin, Mayda del Valle, Black Ice and others.

Probably the biggest recognition Def Poetry received was the coveted Peabody Award, which is a big deal because it honors the most powerful and invigorating stories in media, not the most popular or commercially successful ones. When Lathan accepted the Peabody on behalf of himself and Simmons, he brought Danny Simmons (Russell’s older brother), Deborah Pointer and Bruce George on stage to thank them for “bringing us the idea and opening our eyes to a whole world of new artistic expression.” It was a moment.

After six seasons, all you wanted to do was thank those brave, funny, thoughtful and bold voices for inspiring another generation of poets to pick up a pen, tell their truth and step up to the mic.


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