Rage against the light

Poetry - Alex McBride charts the rise of rap's bookish little brother

Blow-dried men sit in soft-top Porsches on Doheny Drive. They are there, presumably, for the same reasons as everybody else in Los Angeles: for fame, wealth, to make things happen. Or so I assumed when I lived there. But when I went back and looked more closely, I found that they were gathered for a most unlikely reason - spoken-word poetry.

I watched La Brigada de la Juventud Comunista Revolucionaria group in very small numbers at Pershing Square in downtown LA. Lean Korean punks, with neckerchiefs covering their faces, sold the Communist Manifesto and musings of Chairman Mao. Buttery college girls shouted: "I was born in this sewer called capitalism. Now I am living for the revolution." The LAPD, almost outnumbering the Brigada, looked on bored. The revolutionary leaders knew they could not whip up the crowd, but had brought in a wild-haired spoken-word poet. A poet in LA? LA would embrace the "reds" before any poet.

Slam is competitive poetry. It emphasises performance and energy, and it has given spoken-word poetry polish and attitude. If rap has always had the attraction of being on the outside, slam, with its urban eloquence, has now emerged as rap's bookish little brother.

Slamming works by teams of poets throwing short poems at each other, which are then judged out of ten. They develop strategies, letting their best poets go last or saving up something special for the final round. It is intensely competitive, and the opposing teams can be ferocious.

Later, I caught up with Jerry Quickly, poet for hire, at the spoken-word poetry night at Zinearama, one of the growing number of venues in the city. A guy was spinning records while Quickly riffed off the music's rhythmic structure.

"Poetry Slam Incorporated is a racist white patriarchy," says Quickly (who was until recently the only black vice-president of a Wall Street financial modelling company). He is talking about the organisation that runs the main slam competitions such as the US national championships.

It is odd that there might be a problem, because slam has taken poetry and frogmarched it to the forefront of American youth consciousness. Slam poetry even gets on television. The form's big break came in Slam, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival of 1998. It made stars out of the featured poets, particularly Saul Williams, who can now command thousands of dollars for a performance. Patricia Smith, four times national slam champion, thinks the film is the single most influential event there has ever been in poetry. "It has given poetry back its voice, and taken it from its assigned place on dusty bookshelves. After all, poetry is an aural art - it is meant to be heard." However, Jeffrey McDaniel, although a long-time slam poet himself, thinks that "slam is inherently idiotic. It's gross. So much 'I wanna be a star'. People think they're going to get rich from poetry."

Slam has seen rap, along with hip-hop (the biggest cultural phenomenon in the United States in the past 20 years), take over the youth listening market around the world. Rap has made huge amounts of money and yet, by and large, this has not affected its credibility. Quickly argues that the influential white organisers at Poetry Slam Incorporated resent the success that younger, black poets have achieved. He thinks that PSI has tried to keep control of the organisation to make up for losing both artistic direction and recognition.

The accepted story is that rap gave life to slam poetry. Quickly first performed as a DJ and his work incorporates the rhythm and patterns of rap and hip-hop. Patricia Smith sees it the other way around. She thinks that slam poetry changed rap by showing rap artists how to think of themselves as speaking words rather than music: "Rap reached for greater depth because poets showed them it was all right to do so."

Whichever is true, both mediums have the quality and iridescent energy of rock'n'roll. McDaniel's first performance was at a high-school talent show in 1981. He danced to rap music and read his poetry. "I wore leather trousers, I put on make-up, and I had these long earrings. Afterwards, I did all this coke in the basement. I was like a rock star."

McDaniel now helps kids in high schools develop their poetry and takes them to slam competitions. The day I met him, he was putting up two of his strongest poets at an anaemic community festival on Venice Beach. One was 19-year-old Jorge Monterrosa. He is the new LA. He came with his mother from El Salvador, fleeing civil war and poverty. Growing up dirt poor in South Central and Watts, everyone except him joined a gang. His cousin, a gang member, was shot dead at 15. None of Jorge's friends graduated from high school. For him, there were two options, prison or the army. That is, until poetry.

Monterrosa went with the McDaniel team to a poetry slam in San Francisco and they tied for first place with University of California, Berkeley. He was amazed by his success but, as with Quickly, the real pull was that he could say what he thought on his own terms. He finds it unusual to come across a teenager who does not write. Slam provides a medium for voices that are rarely heard.

Monterrosa seemed awkward as he climbed on to the stage. No more than three people were paying any attention to him. He started to speak, in a punchy hip-hop rhythm. Slowly, passers-by began to stop and soon they were hooked by what he had to say:

And now America is preparing for the 21st century
Tearing down schools and building penitentiary
I live in third world country and the man who controls that is
the man who controls the money
And my question is where did the guns come from
Cause there ain't a ghetto in the world that manufactures AKs.

Quickly takes poetry to Juvenile Hall, and is astonished by the ability and desire that he finds. In California, "three strikes and you're out" laws mean that, on your third felony, you can be locked up for life. Many of the kids at Juvenile are facing very long sentences with no chance of parole. They have never been told that their voice matters and should be heard. As Quickly says, he goes there to give them "tools" to tell their stories before they are swallowed up.

They are not just up against poverty and disillusionment. In Los Angeles, it is said, there are three gangs: the Crips, the Bloods and the LAPD. In 1999, Rafael Perez, an officer in LA's anti-gang unit, admitted to the systematic framing and shooting of suspected gang members by police in the Rampart district of the city. On one officer's testimony, nearly 100 people were freed from jail. These kids, locked up before their time or fearful on the street, write about rage. But it is not hopeless rage: they are shouting back against the din, and doing so with poetry.