Fingers snapped, banjos plunked, and an audience of about 15 people gathered around small round tables for a journey back to the 1920s. Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI) Speakeasy at the Cabaret brought a taste of African American jazz culture on Thursday night. EBONI kicked off African American Heritage Month with an intimate open mic and a live band.
According to President Chris Hyacinthe, a senior marketing communication major, the Speakeasy was an appendage of last year’s event, “Peace, Love, and Soul” where students sang their favorite songs by African American artists.
“This year, we went the poetry route,” Hyacinthe said, “and renamed it the Speakeasy.”
The night began as the lights dimmed and the air filled with the brass-tinged musical sounds of Made in the Shade, a New Orleans-style jazz band with modern influences and an animated dynamic. The band members, Crick Diefendorf, Dan Fox, and Mike Peipman, were a spirited trio of men in dress shirts and gray vests.
They performed renditions of traditional jazz numbers, including Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” The band met at Berklee College of Music 20 years ago and performed their first shows on Boston Common. Their longtime friendship was apparent in their music, and their upbeat style harmonized well with the theme of the event.
Porsha Olayiwola, a spoken word poet from Chicago stepped up on the stage to deliver a few fiery pieces about race and ethnicity. Olayiwola has been writing poetry for about six years and has performed for civil rights activist Angela Davis and philosopher Cornel West. The young poet, who called herself a “self-identified queer hip-hop artist,” spoke of how she is not an “angry black woman,” but she is angry.
“I’m angry that I only have three minutes for this poem and 10 minutes of angry,” Olayiwola said about how prejudice and poverty makes her feel. In another poem, Olayiwola reiterated her hip-hop identity, declaring herself the “nerdiest gangster you’ll ever meet.”
She recalled the discrimination she faces for being black and queer and proclaimed her intelligence as weapon against this oppression.
She delved further into oppression with a poem entitled “My Contradiction” in which she described her love for rapper Lil Wayne’s music as a “verbally abusive relationship.” She said that his lyrics disparaged women and African Americans: “His words when he spits hit like bullets piercing hearts, and its hard because even though his words be explicit, I’m still infatuated with him, and I listen.”
Olayiwola performed one of her poems over the melancholy jazz of Made in the Shade. A self-proclaimed “history nerd,” Olayiwola’s poem was about the brutality and ignorance surrounding the segregationist Jim Crow laws and the Three-Fifths Compromise, which delcared a slave to be less than a whole person for purposes of congressional representation.
Her voice grew louder and more passionate as the poem developed and the audience snapped and nodded their heads. Olayiwola’s powerful stage presence captivated the crowd as she expressed emotion that seemed to come from deep within.
Students who took the stage frequently tackled how skin has affected their personal relationships. Jessica Joseph, EBONI secretary and a junior marketing communication major, tackled the subject in a poem about a struggle with a boy who “wasn’t into dark-skinned girls.” Ashley Delma, a freshman journalism major, told a story of her relationship with her loving, but irresponsible grandfather. She let the story speak for itself in her poem “A Man of ‘His’ Word”: “You know I might be dead before you see me again, come sit on your granddaddy’s lap.”
Charvelle Holder, an EBONI member and junior broadcast journalism major, offered a contrast to Olayiwola’s dramatic style with a calm, yet serious series of poems about a skin condition that has presented challenges in her relationships. Though she strayed from the theme of race, she still showcased her refusal to let her skin define her life.
“It’s not about Black History Month,” she said, “but it is about skin.”
“Louder Than a Bomb,” the largest team-based youth slam event, will be coming to the MIT campus center March 31. Any group or individual between the ages of 13 and 19 can register to compete.