Mos Def kicked off the second episode of HBO’s Def Poetry with a few rhyming verses set to a backing track. Since the previous episode of this show was a bit of a snoozer, I didn’t think it was a good idea for the host to show up his guests by demonstrating his hiphop skills. Luckily, the poets for episode #2 had much more to offer than the previous set, and easily held up their side.
Al Letson was first up with a physical performance piece about a kid discovering his basketball skills. “One boy one ball one dream one hoop … listen”. It was an earnest, affecting Def Poetry set piece. I’ve heard that LitKicks correspondent Billectric is familiar with this poet, and I’m looking forward to hearing Bill’s take on the performance.
Def Poetry, and the poetry-slam scene from which the show emerges, has always been about representing voices of the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed. But this can easily slip into preachy cliche, and a good sense of humor is needed to prevent that from happening. Oppression can take many shapes in this world, and I like Def Poetry best when it presents a protest poem by a truly forgotten minority. In an earlier season, a poet named Shappy shouted out for nerd pride, yelling the names of his Star Wars action figures with revolutionary passion. Dan Sully and Tim Stafford, two short pasty-skinned guys who vaguely resembled members of Barenaked Ladies, followed in Shappy’s footsteps with a funny but powerful piece about short-people anger.
Next up was Georgia Me, a big woman in a gold lame dress. I liked her raw style, but I didn’t love her subject matter, which was about needing guys to wear condoms before they get busy with her. It’s a good message, sure, but Def Poetry should try to avoid sounding like a public service announcement. I’d like to hear more from this performer, though.
After three performers, I wasn’t too unhappy. One performance piece, one satire, and one public-service announcement, all of it well done. What I hadn’t really heard yet, though — not really — was poetry.
John Legend, batting cleanup, didn’t help. He’s a hot new singer, and he’ll probably win a few Grammys this year, but I don’t love John Legend’s music when it comes on the radio. Too much moaning and groaning, no hook, no beat — who needs it? Yeah, I know he’s talented as hell and they sell his CD at Starbucks, but he reminds me of Lionel Richie. I don’t want to hear Lionel Richie impersonating a slam poet, and I don’t want to hear John Legend doing so either. The first celebrity appearance was the first dud of the night.
Caroline Harvey, on the other hand, contributed a strong set piece about a horrible bout with heroin addiction. It was a brave spot, more prose than poetry, recalling the work of Lou Reed or Herbert Huncke.
Next up, Bounty Killer changed up the style with a musically pleasing, dance-hall flavored rap. I think Elephant Man has better dance-hall flow and Russell Simmons must know this, but maybe Elephant Man didn’t want to be on Def Poetry Jam, and this was pretty good too.
Bassey Ikpi kept the show moving with a slim but effective bit of rhyming erotica, a meditation upon what was obviously one very memorable kiss.
Batting eighth was Will Da Real One Bill, a laid-back performer with a down-south still-tippin’ style. With a great name like that, who even needs a poem? I liked his performance a lot, and at this point I was already very happy with this episode of Def Poetry.
But I was prepared to dislike the final performer and the second celebrity drop-in of the night, the almost sickeningly acclaimed R&B singer Alicia Keys, who showed up in a ripped-up Jim Morrison t-shirt and faded jeans. Well, I love to be surprised, and Alicia Keys’ performance surprised me. She sat in a chair and channeled the anger and self-hatred of a person imprisoned by … government? society? herself? It was a concentrated performance of a killer piece. It was poetry, and for the first time in my life I have liked something Alicia Keys did.
As the second episode of Def Poetry concluded, I could only wonder why they ran that turkey as the season premiere last week, if they had an episode like this one ready to go.
If you watched the show, or if you catch repeat viewings this week, I’d love to hear your reactions as well.