When I consider the sounds of spoken word poetry that have remained in my head for over a decade, I think about the work of Mississippi poet, publisher, and organizer C. Liegh McInnis. For the record, he probably defines himself as a "poet" more so than a "a spoken word artist." I'm mainly saying spoken word at the moment as I'm trying to think through a certain line of history with the sound and performance of poetry. So, ummm, bear with me.
I first heard C. Liegh reading at various sets in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was an undergrad at Tougaloo College during the mid 1990s. I didn't recognize the Southern-ness of his sound at the time because I had not yet spent much time outside of the region nor had I been exposed to large numbers of non-Southern poets. What I recognized as notable, though, was the Malcolm-like cadences of his style of delivery.
That cadence was not necessarily invented by Malcolm; instead, it was a blend of multiple black conscious orators whose styles had developed over time and spaces in distinct ways prior to, during, and after Malcolm. That cadence is marked by steady, upbeat paces at times and emphatic, forceful utterances. It's a style of delivery associated, in some ways, with black church preaching, yet it contains secular or street terminology, a streak of militancy, as well as highly politicized ideas that many ministers tend to avoid. And similar to a style of speech that Malcolm helped popularize, the poetry I was hearing from C. Liegh back then spoke directly to black people about themselves and other black people.
When I left the South and began to reflect on and remember styles of speaking and presenting from my home region, I realized the significance of a Malcolm-like sound embodied by a Mississippi poet like C. Liegh. I was hearing C. Liegh and others prior to my exposure to black arts folks who had really quite actively incorporated the spirit of Malcolm and other militant figures into their poetic styles. When I first heard poets Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, Kalamu ya Salaam reading live, I was perhaps already been prepped to understand aspects of their sounds and performances because of the priming I received during those readings/performances by poets such as C. Liegh.
Those open mic sets and spoken word poets receive far too little credit for offering important gateway experiences into broader realms of politics, creativity, and overall knowledge for young people. More than serving as platforms for aspiring and practicing poets to sharpen their skills and for audiences to hear dynamic performances and enjoy themselves, many of those cyphas operate as incubators of black consciousness for countless non-poets.
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