Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The value of student-run open mics

Dometi Pongo, at a campus reading, was a key open mic organizer before graduating last year.

Over the last couple of years, there have been a lack of regular African American, student-organized 'open mic' poetry readings on campus. The absence of those gatherings could signal some larger challenges among artistic and conscious communities as well as the development of new, younger thinkers. In addition to providing a platform for poetry readings, a typical open mic showcases rap, short declarations about knowledge-building, music, various non-verbal performance, and community interaction.

The open mics are fun and social like other student-organized activities; however, those open mics often promote consciousness -- a politically and culturally distinct awareness of black people's conditions. The 'conscious' participants don't even always make up the majority of the performers and audience. Still, their small presence can have enough of an effect to at least have others consider the importance of being thoughtful about African American experience.
A few years or so ago, a small band of student poets, rappers, and organizers produced the open mics that helped sustain grassroots engagements with African American verbal arts and intellectualism. i frequently collaborated with one of the student artists, Dometi Pongo, and we eventually produced the Malcolm X Mixtape--a project linked to our common interests in black art and thought. Pongo and some of those other leading organizers eventually moved on and graduated, and the new crop of potential open mic organizers are still trying to find their way.

A strength of the open mics is that they are informal and student-run and thus avoid some of the limits and stiffness of activities run by college professors and other university officials. On the other hand, the informal nature of open mics means that when veteran student organizers depart, the newer folks have less peer guidance and training. In addition, students are rarely around long enough to develop a long institutional memory for the rise and fall of open mics and the overall significance of those events/gatherings for the development of consciousness.

I currently serve as the advisor for one of the open mic groups. Without being too intrusive and heavy-handed, I'm trying to nudge them to become a little more active and visible. So much depends on the presence of open mics.

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