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Poetry in Motion

Arab-American and Def Poetry Jam performer Suheir Hammad speaks up.

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Electric, inspiring, fiercely passionate -- all of these words have been used to describe the raw hip-hop energy of Def Poetry Jam, a collection of soulful young poets presenting (sometimes shouting) their commentary on American society.

Def Poetry Jam comes to The Orpheum on December 3rd.

One of the poets performing is Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American born in Jordan and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Hammad, 31, was first discovered by hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons, producer of Def Poetry Jam, and director Stan Lathan, after one of Hammad's poems gained popularity through the Internet. It was only a month after the September 11th attacks, and the original date for the HBO special Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam had to be rescheduled for October.

"I had written a poem called 'first writing since,' which was a long response to the week of September 11th from my very specific, local vantage point," Hammad says. "I was speaking to my particular fear of being a New Yorker and being an Arab-American and having a brother in the military and what all of this was going to mean to my life."

Lathan contacted Hammad about reciting her poem on the HBO special. Hammad's been with the show ever since, performing on Broadway, where the show won a 2003 Tony award, and traveling with the touring group for two seasons.

Hammad says her relationship with Def Poetry Jam has been uncensored, allowing her to create poems that ask difficult questions. Born to refugee immigrants who came to New York when she was 5 years old, Hammad sees herself as a Brooklyn girl but emphasizes her heritage in order to offset negative stereotypes of Arab-Americans.

"My parents always taught me that the Koran and scripture are poetry," she says. "And all around me young people were testifying to their own life stories with poetry. They just put it over a beat. Very early on all of it was synthesized out of me. It's the way I think, it's the way I dress, it's the way I look at the world.

"When I travel, I'm perceived as American," Hammad says. "I'm always trying to tell people there are so many types of Americans. The rest of the world is now looking at America and thinking, 'Well, Condoleezza Rice is going to be in such an amazing position. This must mean that all African-American women are liberated to the point where they are the president's right-hand person.' You never know what the label actually represents and what the label actually means."

Hammad uses her stage time to promote civic responsibility and to examine the bigger social

picture.

"I really believe that life is worth living to the fullest and part of that means being engaged in civic activities in your neighborhood and with people all the way across this world because we share this planet," Hammad says.

"I think in every situation where I see social injustice or people being oppressed -- as deflating and destructive as humanity can be toward itself -- there's always hope and perseverance against our worst selves."

Hammad says the poet's voice often comes from the margins of society and reflects on how society can learn from the past.

"Through the tension you create art," she continues. "If there is tension and imbalance, in the balancing out, you've created movement and art," she says.

Performing with Hammad through Def Poetry Jam are Black Ice, the first spoken word artist signed to Def Jam Records, and Lemon, who's appeared in Spike Lee's film She Hate Me.

"I don't think there's another show that offers all these different perspectives on a particular generation, the hip-hop generation," Hammad says. "With all these different aesthetics and ideas on one stage, in 90 minutes you're really taken on a roller-coaster ride." n

Def Poetry Jam will be at The Orpheum Friday, December 3rd at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $45. Call 525-3000 or visit Orpheum-Memphis.com. For more information on the Def Poetry Jam tour, visit DefPoetryJamOnTour.com.

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