Arts Desk

D.C. Poets and Spoken-Word Heads Reunite at Kennedy Center

IYM poets_winter 1995From February 1994 to August 1996, D.C.'s poetry and spoken-word scene had a home at It's Your Mug Café. Located at 2601 P St. NW in Georgetown, the former café—now an antique store—hosted a weekly Tuesday night open mic that drew some of the best and brightest in the poetry community. Tonight, seven wordslingers and two musicians from the era plan to celebrate that gathering's 20th anniversary with old and new works at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

At tonight's event, the open mic night's founder, Toni Asante Lightfoot, will be joined by Toni Blackman, Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade), Holly Bass, Brandon D. Johnson, Twain Dooley, and Ernesto Mercer. Bassist B.T. Richardson and drummer Daruba Kenyatte will accompany them.

In an email, Bass (a former Washington City Paper writer) says that the It’s Your Mug series (and a related Thursday workshop) had a broad impact: It influenced the establishment of numerous poetry events on U Street NW as well as Blackman's Freestyle Union hip-hop workshops. She says it helped nurture D.C.'s The Poem-cees, poet/photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kamilah Forbes (who later founded the Hip-Hop Theater Festival), and author and columnist (and another former Washington City Paper contributor) Ta-Nehisi Coates.

"I think you'll see two trends in the writers that came out of It's Your Mug: a commitment to community and education, and a commitment to craft," Bass writes. "All of them have maintained a real sense of cultural pride, history, [and] rootedness to community."

The series drew about 100 people each week, Bass writes. "The crowd was mostly black, twenties and thirties, everything from starving artists to creatively inclined lawyers and finance professionals. There were also Asians, Latinos, a handful of whites. But remember this is mid-'90s D.C., so it was very much Chocolate City."

The open mic night enforced rigid quality control. "Lightfoot was very strict about quality," Bass writes. "If someone came to the open mic more than three times with lousy poetry, she would tell them they had to come to the workshop or they wouldn't get on the open-mic list. Most people would just not come back. But some would stay."

Even 20 years later, attendees have fond memories of some of the works they heard at It's Your Mug. "Toni had a poem called 'Jesus Was a Bass Player.' Renegade had a great poem about Miles Davis 'turning his black to the audience,'" Bass writes. "We also read work by other poets, which was called OPP. This first time I heard Etheridge Knight's work was at It's Your Mug."

Like in hip-hop, verbal showdowns sometimes took place. "Renegade and Imani Tolliver created some good work in battle form," Lightfoot says. "Imani had a piece that discussed the shallow glorification of the 'ghetto.' Her poem ended with something like, 'Ghettos are not beautiful.' Renegade took issue and wrote a beautiful homage to his mother and growing up in the Pittsburgh projects. Although I thought his piece was an over-the-top response to Imani's piece, his...was nonetheless wonderful on its own, and I've used it many classes I've taught."

Lightfoot is proud of the occasional hip-hop influences that played a role in the program. "In the early '90s, rap and poetry were really separate scenes, especially in D.C. where rap was not as strongly insinuated into daily culture," she says. "So it was novel to have a regular rap presence at It's Your Mug. But I was from the KRS-1 school and felt like if rap is poetry then rap should be at a poetry reading."

As for the versifiers, Lightfoot says, "We all knew each other's poems and supported five to six poetry readings a week. It was a very ephemeral time. Phat lines always outlasted the flat rhymes. The pieces we loved we recited along with the poet. We were a family that danced, ate, drank, and laughed a lot together."

The “It’s Your Mug” reunion takes place 6 p.m. tonight at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW.  An after-party begins at 8 p.m. at Jin Lounge, 2017 14th St. NW. On Saturday, some participants will speak at 8 p.m. at Busboys & Poets, 14th and V streets NW. Lightfoot started a crowdfunding campaign for the weekend's events. Contribute at fundrazr.com.

Photo courtesy Holly Bass

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