In the world of slam poetry, there's no higher distinction than a win at the annual National Poetry Slam -- and over this past weekend, that distinction went to the poets of Denver's Slam Nuba, upstart arrival to the Denver slam scene (and 2011 Westword MasterMind) -- if, having won the biggest prize in the land, you can still be called an upstart. It's an impressive feat to pull off in any case, but Nuba Slam Master Ayinde Russell isn't one for false modesty: "There was no doubt," he remarks, "that the work we did was deserving of the title it earned."
And the competition was no joke: In the final round, Nuba went up (and narrowly won) against the Nuyorican Poets Cafe from New York -- one of the places slam poetry originated -- and well-respected teams from Providence, Rhode Island, and Columbus, Ohio. "I've never seen better poetry on the finals stage than this year," says Russell, who was joined on the team by Theo Wilson, Bran Do, Jovan Mays and Dominique Ashaheed, along with coach Jen Rinaldi and alternate Mikena Richardson. "There was just something about the work we were sharing that really left an indelible impression on people."
One of those poems made an impression by taking the concept of unity in the suffering of slavery and applying it to today: "We had a poem about the history of chain gangs and translated that into a modern-day sort of commentary on unity in the African-American community, and how lamentable it can be to have such a struggle for survival where those who faced those situations were depending on each other to survive, and how today we still have to lean on each other to survive, but we feel a lack of that kind of unity," explains Russell.
Here's Slam Nuba performing that one at their send-off party right before Nationals (page down for more text and video of the poems Nuba won with):
What's next? Since the win, the group's been besieged with requests for interviews and appearances, and a short tour of the East Coast and Texas might not be out of the question. But the real work, says Russell, is at home: "There's a general feeling that the artistic community in Denver is just as much responsible for a win of this kind as the team -- because the community is so rich that art gets pushed to this level. The slams that happen around here, people should frequent them, because they give birth to some of the best poetry in the country/ We're the cream of the crop right where we are."Chain Gang
ALL: They look like good, strong hands....don't they?
Brando: Chain gangs were invented when the South found itself with a lot of rubble and no captive population to clean it up. Turned its head from slave quarters to the penitentiary and saw an opportunity. Prisoners worked from dawn til deep in the night, their chains staying on even as they slept...til death or good behavior did them part.
Singing to keep pace with one another, their bodies were parceled out to railroads. They knew what was at stake. Like being stretched on a torture rack or tied between trees or locked for days in a wooden box too thin to sit down too short to stand up, in the middle of Louisiana summers. Safety was in the songs they sang.
ALL: This ain't no chorus you wanna join.
Ayinde: Mississippi State Pen. Old Parchman Farm.
Ayinde and Dom: We ain't singing these songs cuz we black and musical.
Ayinde: We sing cuz death is waitin' on the offbeat. See these hands? Good hands...they could see it. See it in the way colored folks tend fields and family. Raise crops and children. Them men tore me out my home-widowed my wife and made bastards of my children. The wagon they put me on just a slave ship with wheels and no water to cross...
Theo: I wanna call my woman's name! But i got a railcar in my voicebox. That's why my song sounds like wedding bells dyin'. My nightmares come dressed in bridal gowns and every time i think of runnin'...
Luce and Ayinde: I hear shotguns laughin'.
REFRAIN: (Be my woman girl I'll be your man....)
Dom: Steady now. Don't turn your mind to the woman you lost. Her wet giggle can't do nothin but shimmy and purr behind a life that ain't yours for reclaimin'.
ALL: All we got are these hands.
Dom: The ashy knuckles and bloody teeth of railroad work. Backbone bent to question marks. Today ain't nothin' but another sun burned on top of yesterday...with toil that will never end...
ALL: Can't do it without each other.
Jovan: These chains are nothin' more than umbilical chords made of iron. Linking the life we got left in our veins. Our work is the only thing giving birth to survivin' another day
ALL: Why haven't we seen black men this connected since.
Luce: What is it about this society and forgetting?! We use our bank accounts like riot shields from others' suffering.
ALL: "It's just some singing black prisoners"
Dom: Like you weren't chained to their melodies as you clutch your purse when their great grandsons walk by...
ALL: You better listen to how these links sing connection.
Jovan: Their stolen freedoms were just practice for putting yours on the chopping block.
Brando: Funny how our roads, our cities and our country are best enjoyed if you don't think about who built them.
ALL: And what was at stake if they didn't slam those hammers down.
Theo: So pay more ATTENTION than the debt Amtrak owes their families.
Ayinde: Don't forget the songs they kept in their throats
Jovan: Don't forget the goodbyes composed with lonesome highways
Luce: In Louisiana license plates
Brando: In railroad tracks in Mississippi
Dominique: Men who did not submit to circumstance but rallied their connections
ALL: With their backs and a hymn in their throats.
I go free lawdy....I go free.....
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Dominique: South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim once said
the revolution in South Africa was the only revolution from anywhere in
the world that was done in four part harmony
Ayinde: under the threat of death in their struggle against apartheid
Africans of color met the barbarity of the government's military
with the ammunition of music
D+A: senseni na (sung together) -
what have we done? -
A: they sang
for forty years the people incarnated their defiance in hymns and psalms
D+A: they sang
(De starts singing..)
D: they sang machine gun from steel drum diaphragms
with tongues like mallets striking resistance
they were warriors with gills for music
that carried their enemies into the undertow of song
D+A: we have always fought this way
D: It moves in us even now...
in the bellies of black kids on playgrounds...
we write these songs in utero
when our mothers are stitching us together in the dark wetlands of their bodies
D+A: the ocean in her belly is the first song we ever swallow.
A: we keep it pressed under our tongues
when we come into the world
D+A: we know what this music can do
D: we will put our humanity against every riddle of steel to remind tyrants
D+A: the cleanest journey back to God
A: is the unpaved road that exists on the soft insides of your mouth
D: did the man who put his body in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square have a song
on his lips...
A: did the women of Liberia hum as they blocked doors to maintain peace talks that
would end war...
D: the only thing worth remembering about the civil rights movement
is that there were children
whose voices were louder than the water hoses and biting dogs
D+A: we shall over come we shall not be moved
this little light of mine makes the shadows of oppressors look like music
A: stop they say
what an impossible song
we are empire
your music cannot kill brick
songs that dismantle cement do not exist
D: but we will wear these refrains like combat boots
and stomp our feet until Jericho falls
D+A: come here children.
sing out loud for real.
D: if not for yourself
sing for starshine and rainstorm and foot stomp
A: sing the answers to unfair questions.
D: sing until landmines give themselves
up to wildflowers.
A: tell the barbarians,
the only war cry we intend to shout
D+A: is the song in the back of our throats.
A: we gon' sing til AK's become olive branches.
D: until machetes grow up to be seeds.
D+A: we sing so that we will never become you
our revolution is not made of metal
violence does not equal change
A: the earth has given us weapons stronger than yours
stones from our voices that fly faster than your bullets
we will hurl them until heaven bears witness against you
D+A: we will not lay them down until God riots in our streets
D: we will sing until you cannot hide your injustice anymore
until even the wind becomes your enemy
D+A: it has more hands than we do
more than you can kill.
D: will you fire at then?