Urban Roots of Poetic Justice: A Spoken Word Event

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

The Urban Roots Spoken Word poetry event at The Barn continued the month of festivities celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage Month with an event hosted by the Asian Pacific Student Programs (APSP), which featured spoken word artists Jason Chu and Dante Basco.

Spoken word is a popular form of performance art, with groups like the famous Button Poetry circulating content daily and bringing the oldest writing tradition into a completely new light. In some ways, it’s great to see younger people excited about poetry, to know that the love for rhyme and rhythm is very much alive in today’s youth.

I, myself, study in UCR’s creative writing department, and harbor an intimate relationship with contemporary poetry. It may surprise you to learn then, that I am not a fan of this type of poetry — well, up until I had the chance to watch spoken word artists Chu and Basco perform alongside UCR students.

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Critics of spoken word might call the art form didactic, sentimental, overtly political and a type of poetry whose success is measured by the delivery rather than the words. I understand the critique. However, after watching various artists use spoken word as a means of expression and exploring the human condition just as masterfully as those in any other medium could have done, it would be narrow-minded to deny the artistic merit, honesty and bravery that goes into a spoken word performance.

The event opened with an open mic, in which students were given the chance to share their work. One student, Princess Fernandez, a fourth-year creative writing major, read three different pieces from her cell phone while on stage. One of her poems, titled “The Coconut Regulation Act,” spoke on the experience of speaking both Spanish and English while in school. The poem itself was written in both of these languages, and during her time on stage, she wove seamlessly back and forth between the two.

Another reader, Star Bright Lee, a first-year political science and business major, illustrated what living in Riverside, after growing up in south Sacramento, meant to her. Prior to reading, she shared the fact that south Sacramento is one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in California, so when she transitioned to Riverside for school it was a culture shock. The poem was filled with sensory details. The sounds of a helicopter flying above, a flower growing from crumbled concrete as a metaphor for the beauty found within destruction and what it is like walking in her home neighborhood, “feeling safe in a place so wrong,” versus Riverside. And to think, I’m paranoid just walking back to my apartment after a night class. Her piece definitely put Riverside in a different perspective.

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

By the time spoken word and hip-hop artist Jason Chu made his way on stage, The Barn was packed with seated and standing students. After studying philosophy at Yale, Chu made the switch to hip-hop and since then has been touring the country to spread his art. Prior to performing at UCR, Chu had a chance to take the stage at the White House in Washington, D.C., as part of his “Stay Foolish” tour.

A majority of spoken word poetry is very political; however, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After his piece, “Illegal Immigration: America’s First Tradition,” which was structured as a conversation with Donald Trump, he referenced Aristotle’s idea that “everything we do is a political statement.” Overall, his argument was that even our existence has political implications, and that since these implications will have effects regardless, we might as well engage and try to create meaningful change.

For Chu, this means performing spoken word and conscious rap that deals with the Asian-American experience, representation and equality for all. He closed his set with his piece “Free,” which reinforced his message that his intention is “not to empower Asian Americans … (but) to free us.”

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

After Chu, the much-anticipated portion of the evening came: actor and dancer Dante Basco graced the stage. You may know Basco from his work on such projects as “Hook,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “American Dragon: Jake Long.”

Basco shared his humble beginnings of breakdancing in San Francisco, at Pier 39 on broken-down cardboard boxes before the age of 10, to winning numerous dance competitions before making his way to Los Angeles where he started working in the industry and continues to this day. Like Chu, he also spoke of the importance of representation in the film and television industry, and also acknowledged the progress that has been made already.

During his piece, “Where You From,” while the crowd snapped and hummed, Basco prophesied, “there will be a revolution, and the poets will head it, believe it,” a line that received one of the loudest cheers of the night.

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

One audience member, Leah Dawdy, a fourth-year creative writing major, said of her experience, “I love that he encouraged every student to keep fighting for their right to accurate representation in media, especially Hollywood, no matter their roots.”

The event went on well after the scheduled time, and we were all kicked out of The Barn amidst taking photos with Chu and Basco. Afterward, the party continued at the HUB. It was a great show. Not simply some rhyming words with a blunt political message, but a piece of performance art amplified by the passion and intensity of all those involved.

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