In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage. Let me be clear. I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life. I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.
Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam. Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves. They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it. As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.
This is not something that is limited to slam. We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs. The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work. In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.
Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people. When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering. The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other). Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.
An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House. Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago. The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson. He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain. Everyone in the audience has experienced pain. Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological. Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain. Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture. However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience. He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.
Yet, House is a fictional character. Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent. We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain. We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took. We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about. As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.
In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York. He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11. His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone. His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.
Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous. It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle. This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.
Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for. Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton. But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:
Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it
No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references. But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G. Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.
Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell. His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father. Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.
Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer. Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances. Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets. The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.
Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem. A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view. The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder. The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience. But even this can backfire.
In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam. One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister. As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister. It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from. It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.
Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?” McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation. To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself
I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post. Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article. Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.” Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.” DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer
As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis. My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others. We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it. Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence. No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit. It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer. To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist. To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.