Café au lait-colored Toni Lightfoot and ebony-hued Toni Blackman share a strange set of coincidences. Besides their first names and color-coordinated surnames, both are 26. Both are poets. And, last year, each started successful open reading series.
Their greatest difference, says Lightfoot, is “the music we’ve chosen to govern our style.” Lightfoot calls herself a jazz poet, while Blackman’s poetry is hiphop-influenced. The two will come together this Monday to celebrate the first anniversaries of their respective reading series.
Lightfoot hosts the Tuesday night open poetry readings at It’s Your Mug, a black-owned gallery/cafe in Georgetown. Blackman hosts the Freestyle Union, an improvisational, hiphop session every other Monday at the 8Rock Cultural Arts Center in Anacostia.
Both series are free of charge and among the most popular regular open readings in D.C.—consistently filled to capacity with young, urban literati looking to improve their skills or simply vent about love lost or a bad day at work.
Lightfoot describes the scene at both spots as “a young, mostly black crowd of people who have found their voices as poets and their expression in groups where they feel comfortable and accepted.”
This summer, attendance at the Freestyle Union doubled after a visit from the New York-based hiphop magazine, The Source. Blackman described the scene as “chaotic.” (Imagine 80 rappers in your living room, all trying to rock the house.) Around the same time, the upstairs area at It’s Your Mug regularly maxed its limit of 45 people, while downstairs another 30 to 40 people waited to get in, spilling out onto the street.
Lightfoot believes that much of the readings’ popularity stems from the lack of outlets that allow people to talk about and deal with important issues. “It’s the defiance of silence,” she says of the readings, “the defiance of the idea that we all must think alike, be alike, act alike.” While the poetry runs the gamut, Lightfoot believes that the readings are themselves a political act. “Everything in life is your politics, even though not everything can be voted on,” she explains.
It all began at a little joint called Soul Brothers Pizza. Lightfoot used to host open mike there for performers of all persuasions—actresses, poets, rappers. Blackman would often perform or just hang out. When the restaurant closed, both women were thinking about starting a new series. Since Lightfoot wanted to do poetry, Blackman decided to do hiphop “ciphers”—events at which a group of MC’s come together to kick lyrics or rhyme. The friends chose separate days so that artists and aficionados wouldn’t have to choose one venue over the other.
Blackman describes her event as a jam session for rappers. “Freestyle Union is an underground haven for freestyle rappers looking for an event that catered totally to hiphop. Not to the media, not to the industry, but to rappers.”
The name reflects the come-together vibe Blackman tries to foster. There are no crews, no battling, and unless otherwise stated, no written rhymes.
Every Monday, Blackman moves some of the folding chairs—painted red, black, and green—from the risers in the small theater to form a semicircle in front of the stage. Then she writes random words on index cards to be used later as topics. The rappers, mostly males ranging in age from 14 to 28, trickle in, giving dap to their homeboys and greeting everyone present.
On a recent Monday, 20-year-old “Da-Smoov” happens to start coughing as he enters the circle. But his cough quickly turns into a rough rhythm track that 18-year-old “Brainchilde” (“the extra E stands for MC”) catches onto, beat-boxing and clapping in time. Blackman adds sporadic musical notes, like a jazz scat. Da-Smoov starts rapping. And so begins the cipher.
“There’s a spiritual aspect to the cipher that people neglect,” says Blackman. “Many of them find their higher self, their higher power here. They’re just as loyal to the cipher as some of our elderly are to church.”
The next day in Georgetown, a different group of believers files upstairs at It’s Your Mug, waiting to give testimony to what’s on their minds. Others are here just to hear the sultry host speak—Lightfoot’s voice sounds something like a cross between Mae West and Ruth Brown.
The reading is structured like the sets at a jazz club, with three hour-long intervals of poetry. Patrons sit at glass-covered tables filled with coffee beans. Art by local painters and sculptors adds color to the room’s white walls. With so many bodies packed in tight, there’s no need for heat, even in the winter. And in the summer, they do the best they can without air conditioning.
When Lightfoot calls a name from her list, the poet heads to the front of the room. First-timers, affectionately called “virgins,” are given lots of applause to boost their morale. Regulars joke and tease. When one guy ends his poem with, “Et tu, Brute,” local performance poet DJ Renegade calls out, “Why you gotta talk about my cologne, man?”
Both women are working to get their fellow artists to move away from the sort of confessional diatribes that are recorded in clothbound journals as well as clichéd, misogynistic, and violence-filled lyrics.
Lightfoot assigns a theme to the second set—one week it may be a specific form, such as haiku or the sonnet; the next week it may be lust poetry.
Blackman often pulls words out of the dictionary to use as freestyle topics. The freestylers are encouraged by Blackman to think of themselves as poets, and to see poetry along with music as the foundation for hiphop. Says Blackman, “Our credo is “Poetry is to rap as sun is to light.’ ”
Each place has its own set of literary terms. At 8Rock, “breaking and entering” means that anyone can cut in on your rhyme or pick up your flow. At It’s Your Mug, “O.P.P.” is a set in which you read other people’s poetry and, when time starts to run out, there might be a “drive-by”—when several participants in succession stand and quickly read a short poem.
Next month, Blackman is taking some of her freestylers to George Mason University, where they will give a lecture/presentation as part of a freshman seminar called “Violence in the Arts.” Right now, she’s looking for a space for her next project, “Writing as Healing,” a writing workshop for women.
Lightfoot has initiated a poetry-critiquing session on Thursdays at It’s Your Mug. Later this month, under the auspices of the SHE Company, a collective of women artists, she’ll travel to Trinidad to perform and network with Caribbean poets.
Both Lightfoot and Blackman are working on CDs and books, as well as holding down several jobs. Though they lament the difficulty of being “professional artists,” neither seems ready to give it up.
“Being a writer and a performing artist has given me peace of mind,” says Blackman. As she speaks, Lightfoot intones, “Mmhm” and “yeah,” softly in the background.
“If you’re working a 9-to-5 job and secretly you want to paint, or write or own your own business and you’re not doing that, you are in prison,” she continues. “Walk downtown and look at the expression on people’s faces, white or black. You don’t see a lot of smiling.
“Once I committed to doing what I wanted to do, I felt a burden was lifted. It’s a struggle, especially financially, but I still feel free. Everyone should feel that freedom.”
The anniversary celebration for the Freestyle Union and the IYM series will take place Monday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. at Takoma Station Tavern. The next Freestyle Union meeting is Monday, Feb. 20.