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How and why I started the California poetry gold rush, leading up to this summer’s World’s Fair

July 18, 2012

by Paradise Free Jahlove

1995 was a very auspicious year. My “Entering Oakland” poem, which made fun of Oakland’s ominous border signs that actually read “Entering Oakland,” was a catalyst in getting the city’s signs changed to “Welcome to Oakland.” That year, I conceived the magazine that would eventually be called Street Spirit, a magazine that the homeless could sell to make money and that poets could publish in and gain exposure.

Paradise
Also that year I wrote the underground classic that some call the new international Black Anthem, “I Love Everything About You, But You,” because it validates Black people and exposes those who seem to love everything about Black culture but Black people. And I also started the Afrometropolitan Poetry Series.

In 1995, “poetry” was still a bad word, one associated with the “roses are red, violets are blue” crowd. Back in those days you would go to a poetry reading and poets would be talking about the grass growing on their lawns and their sail boats. What made the AfroMetroPoliTan Poetry Series so unique was that it provided a sorely needed space for young Black voices to be heard and nurtured. Afro meant that this reading was “Black specific,” Metro meant that it was “urban” and PoliTan meant that all ethnicities were welcome.

I wrote the underground classic, “I Love Everything About You, But You,” because it validates Black people and exposes those who seem to love everything about Black culture but Black people.

Also the series was unique because at that time most of the poetry venues were acoustic and a cappella. I was inspired when I saw a McDonald’s commercial on TV where a poet was speaking into a microphone, so I decided to add a microphone and a karaoke machine. Now people could have their voices amplified like Billie Holiday and be a star on stage and on the mic. Plus they could use the tape deck on the karaoke to play their music or beats and sing or rap. Yes, they still had tape decks WAY back then.

And in between performances I would play Afro classical Black music and hip hop. And in 1995 hip hop was in the middle of its golden era. So this was not just another poetry series; it was A HAPPENING.

The Afrometropolitan Poetry Series was a smash hit at Victor’s Cafe, at 1428 Alice St. in downtown Oakland for almost three years. Out of that matrix and spawning ground many great poets and artists would emerge, including the Black Dot Artists Collective, James Cagne, Sprandore Geford, Yusef Najem, Toussaint Haki, Kele Nitoto, Roxanne, David T. Hunt, Mike Smith, Naru and tons more. And later on the youth would upgrade from the karaoke machine and replace it with a live DJ. Woah!

After the Afrometropolitan Poetry Series, I facilitated and/or participated in many other poetry venues, including Dorsey’s Locker, Dwayne Wiggin’s Jahva House, Club Oasis, Joyce Gordon’s Gallery, Poetry Express, La Pena Cultural Center, Shashamane’s Bar and Grill, East Side Arts, Cafe 1428, Egypt Theater, Black Rep Theater, Air Lounge, World Ground Cafe, House of Unity (Eastmont Mall), Laney College, Alameda College, San Francisco State, Berkeley City College, Linen Life Gallery, Do 4 Self Books and Marcus Books.

It should be noted that Marcus Books is the granddaddy of all Black book stores in the country and that the Bay Area alone once had 40 Black book stores, but now there are only 40 Black book stores in the whole country.

Marcus Books is the granddaddy of all Black book stores. The Bay Area alone once had 40 Black book stores, but now there are only 40 Black book stores in the whole country.

I moved on and in 1998 I started the Best in the West Grand Slam Poetry Contest, a $1,000 winner takes all event. At first I wasn’t so enamored of the slam poetry scene – capitali$m in poetry too? Ugh. But then I said to myself, “Hey, if this is what it’s going to take to galvanize the poetry community and help poets get paid, then so be it.

Eighty poets showed up out of the woodwork for that first Grand Slam. Again the scene was poppin’. Some kind of way, with the help of local Black and community friendly businesses, over the next three years I was able to give away over $11,000 in cash and prizes. Also I would compete on the “cinderella” Berkeley Slam Team that finished 12th in the nation at the nationals in Seattle in 2001.

I gave the world’s first Poetry Slam and Poetry Film Festival at the Parkway Theater in Oakland. I started another poetry series at Cafe 1428 in Oakland called “Poet Skool” and gave a huge slam finale at the luxurious Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley, which climaxed with 60 performers on stage at the same time freestyling, reciting and dancing and with me rapping and presenting the world’s first hip hop ballerina.

The big money slam scene petered out for a few reasons, not the least of which was because the cream of the crop of the Bay Area poetry scene rose up and became the upper echelon who would always win and it wasn’t so fun anymore for the upstarts and newcomers who found out they weren’t as good at slamming as they thought they were or might be. Fortunately many of the new slam poets went on to help fill up the rosters of the local poetry slam teams and helped to make the Bay Area slam scene annually one of the best if not the best in the world.

I risked everything on trying to provide nurturing platforms for Black voices, reconnect our elder generations with our youth, raise the consciousness of the community and encourage literacy through poetry and spoken word.

I risked everything on trying to provide nurturing platforms for Black voices, reconnect our elder generations with our youth, raise the consciousness of the community and encourage literacy through poetry and spoken word. Unfortunately, money makes some people crazy; some things happened and didn’t happen and I wound up being homeless. Fortunately, Mayor Ron Dellums and the city of Oakland recognized my work and benefit to the community and honored me with Oct. 6 as “Paradise Day.”

So now I’m back attempting my biggest endeavor ever, a Cultural World’s Fair that will promote and eventually integrate and synchronize all the great summer artistic and entertainment venues in the Bay Area. It will eventually include a Million Dollar Poetry Slam and attract poets from all over the world in something akin to a poetry Olympics.

That being said, I hope you will come out on Sunday, July 22, 3 p.m., 1701 University Ave. in Berkeley, and support and be a part of this historical event and Opening Reception of Paradise’s 2012 Cultural World’s Fair.

For more information about upcoming events, check the website at www.2012worldsfair.wordpress.com.

 

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