Rappers hit hard
By Sharon Verghis -
Their rhymes touch on topics as varied as Krispy Kreme donuts, sexuality and
Sesame Street. For Def Poetry Jam, the New York-based poetry slam troupe,
everyday life provides the perfect inspiration for their artful wordplay.
Rapper Poetri speaks of an imaginary life as Michael Jackson and compares a
donut empire to "the CIA and the KKK".
Fellow performers rap out raunchy odes in praise of black men, overweight women,
the deliciousness of lust and entrapment by fast food culture.
Watched by toe-tapping Sydney Festival director Brett Sheehy, the group, which
won a Tony Award for best "special theatrical event" last year, also focused on
race politics and global terrorism.
The troupe's left-wing stance, backed by their founder, record company head
Russell Simmons, has attracted the wrath of many on the conservative side of
Their work is an edgy mix that has caused some fallout for Simmons, the head of
Def Jam Records, who was instrumental in turning the show into a cable
television hit, and then a Broadway success.
However, it's not all hardcore politics and earnestness at the mike for the
troupe. Language - especially witty wordplay - is what the show turns on.
Part of a thriving scene that includes the poetry slam-influenced Eminem film 8
Mile and The Bandana Republic - an anthology of poetry "from gang members and
their affiliates" - the troupe members use their own poetry in the show.
It all turns on the slipperiness of language and rhyme, but the group's goal of
presenting marginal voices is also crucial.
Performer Suheir Hammad, 30, says that the criticism from some quarters in the
US of the show's left-wing flavour cannot hide the depth of support among many
Americans for such views.
"Sales for Michael Moore's books have not fallen, the Dixie Chicks have not sold
less records just because they spoke out," she says. "The majority of people
will rally around things they believe in, whether it's health care, or social
welfare, or anything else."
Def Jam's role is crucial in presenting the voices of this often unrecognised
segment, she believes.
"At the [Tony] Awards, all you could see was this sea of black ties and white
faces, so it was fantastic that voices you don't always hear were being