By the time a poet or any artist for that matter makes it to a big stage and does a powerful performance, there are countless lessons and practices that have taken place. There have even been whole series of productions before the performing artist was born that helped establish the stage and audience and artistic milieu.
I'll spare you the decades and decades history that led to the development of "Showtime at the Apollo" and its history of wonderful performances. I'll also spare you from the long extended histories of African American poetry and black performance. I'll assume, dear reader, that you're aware of all those histories.
That frees us up to begin discussing this one important moment in the history of black poetry in general and spoken word in particular.
It's the mid 1990s, and this young black woman, in her early 20s, walks out on to the stage at the Apollo in Harlem. For the most part, when the sisters are on the stage for "Showtime at the Apollo," they sing. Not this time.
The young woman, Jessica Care Moore, begins reciting a poem. She opens:
I stand still above an island, fist straight in the air
Scar on my face, thick braids in my hair
When she says "fist," she extends her arm to display the Black Power fist, and she points to her own hair when she mentions braids. Her poem is largely a persona poem in the voice of a black woman--a black statue of liberty. In that persona, she notes how powers that be have "shipped my body to this country" and "now that i'm here / your people don't want me."
Moore's critiques of how America has historically treated, mistreated black women have deep roots in black radical and feminist traditions. And her critiques were preserved and known in the conscious circles. When the audience at the Apollo catches on to the reservoir of nationalist ideas that Moore is adapting and reworking, they begin shouting approval.
At one point in the poem, Moore rattles off a list of iconic black women.
"Assata Shakur Barbara Jordan Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis / look it up. / These are the true symbols of liberty," she says. Notably, she elevates a poet, Nikki Giovanni, to that list of path-breaking women.
The movements of Moore's eyes throughout the performance provide a narrative and link to distinct modes of delivery. She makes direct contact with the audience, including folks in the balcony, indicating a communal practice, and, if you can go back this far, griot-storytelling traditions. She closes her eyes at points quickly recalling words and adding effect. She shows flashes of anger, for instance, when she mentions the people who "enslaved us."
Moore is really bringing it in the piece. What she was doing was fierce and militant like certain aspects of rap, stylized in the way of some modes of formal poetry, and simultaneously emphatic in the tradition of black drama. Folks familiar with spoken word poetry circles were somewhat aware of the African American expressive roots of her presentation, but this performance wasn't taking place at a coffee shop. It wasn't at a talent show at a college talent show.
Nah, yo. Jessica Care Moore was performing at the famed Apollo. She won that competition and 4 more consecutive ones. In retrospect, it was a really big national step for the art-form. Just 5 years earlier, the first national poetry slam competition had taken place in 1990.
But that event took place in San Francisco. You know how it is with things that go down on a big stage in NYC though. Gets more attention. [Case in point: Kevin Durant at Harlem's Rucker Parkr]
Moore's win at the Apollo was a big accomplishment for black poetry. Similar to how Elizabeth Alexander's liberating poem "The Venus Hottentot" (1990), told from the perspective of a formerly oppressed black woman, had come to represent a rising tide of a new generation of black poets, Jessica Care Moore's liberating poem "Black Statue of Liberty," told from the perspective of a formerly a oppressed black woman, had come to represent a rising tide of a new generation of black poets.
In 1996, Moore, along with Saul Williams, Beau Sia, and muMs da Schemer, comprised the Nuyorican Poetry Slam team, which competed in the national poetry slam competition; their experiences and performances were chronicled in the documentary SlamNation. The poetry got another boost when Williams played the lead in the award-winning and popular film Slam (1998). Some folks will recall another movie featuring poetry--Love Jones (1997), starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long.
Beyond the movies and big stages, there was quite a bit of activity related to poetry and performance going on at smaller venues all across the country. But still, looking back, Jessica Care Moore's moment at the Apollo was a signal moment in history of black poetry during the 1990s.
Some Volumes of Poetry Published During the 1990s
Books of Collected Works by African American Poets from the 1990s
Notable African American Anthologies Feat. Poetry from the 1990s
African American Poetry During the 1990s: Some notable occurrences