There's a Griot goin' on

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN to hip hop if the beats that surround it like the earth's atmosphere were suddenly ripped from the music's foundation? What you'd be left with is thought--thought that gets verbalized. Call it freestylin' if you can't let it go. Or, check out what's been a burgeoning movement in hip hop for the last 10 years, and learn to call it spoken word.


Hip hop has been in the Twin Cities since the beginning, seen in glimpses since the late '70s and early '80s like UFO sightings--foreign elements among us. From 1980 to '82, The Minneapolis City Breakers based out of the Way Community Center in North Minneapolis faced off against all comers. Wildstyle crews of graffiti artists tagged any flat surface they could find. MC crowns were won and lost in the hallways of North, Henry, and St. Paul Central. For almost 20 years hip hop has been here. And so have the faithful.

Within the last few years the music's scope has expanded. FWUAS (Free Will Urban Art Society), led by Pen Soul (Gail Smaller)--a legend in his own right--is an organization of hip-hop loyalists: break dancers, graffiti artists, B-boys and B-girls. The core group consists of five poets and performance artists (Pen Soul, Amina, Indigo, Black Power, and Eli), DJ Musa, an ex-beat-boxer turned master conga player named Truth Maze, and the additional support of "elders" Malik Delmar (on additional congas) and Phillip Burgess (on sax). "They come in with the congas and saxes to give us that mergence," Soul explains. "You know what I'm sayin', the old school and the new school--so that everyone can feel the energy and how it's all the same."

Their performances offer glimpses into the minds of people who know that the line between hip hop and poetry is dime-thin. The group, now only a year old, dominates a tradition of spoken word in the Twin Cities, a tradition that's as old in them as their first memories of snow. Soul continues: "When I grab the microphone I'm tryin' to let everyone see all the spirits that influence me. It's like, now my culture is hip hop, but what I'm doin' is old. See what I'm doin' is merging the African with the new urban African to give people a new light and wake people up."

Amina, a 19-year-old devout Muslim, often brought recitations straight from mental zones named "Black man come correct" and "black woman command respect and not attention." She's quick to tell people of her junior ol' head status. One of the first local B-girls, Amina can trace her roots back to age 7. "I'm sayin', 'I can go back...I can go back.' I'm baring my words and my thought and askin' [the audience] to accept the innermost part of who I am--the core of who I am."

Spoken-word nights have been surfacing around the Twin Cities. Jitters, a joint in downtown Minneapolis catering to a mainly white, jazzbo/boho clientele was one of the more prominent spots, until the club stopped hosting the events, giving little or no notice to promoters and performers. The reason for the breach between the spoken-word promoters and Jitters remains unclear. Some close to the scene describe the ending of the Tuesday joint as simply a business deal having run its course. Others say such happenings are to be expected in Minneapolis, a town where difference is packaged, exploited, and discarded.

"The reason a lot of people don't like hip hop is the reason they don't like black people," says Soul. "Stereotypes," he says, "inhibit people's ability to see a culture link so broad it has the power to unite classes, races, genders, and religions. We gotta get away from the stereotypes and show old folks, young folks--whatever it is, that they can come down and get with hip hop, because I believe it's going to be what brings the love and unity that saves the world."

Now, that unifying spirit has re-located to another Minneapolis club, the South Beach (323 First Ave. N.), where FWUAS performs every Monday at 8 p.m. The problems at Jitters aren't talked about. They're in the past, and the FWUAS members say they just want to move on and tighten their solidarity, as well as their dedication to one another--and hip hop. (Keke Zulu)

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