“Don’t ever apologize for your stuff! Be proud of it.” From the back of the room, Tish Jones was rebuking a young man who performs as Shadow Blue. Shadow, who had just concluded a spoken word performance with a sheepish apology for the “depressing” nature of his piece, nodded and returned to his seat. “You gotta be happy with yourself right here,” continued Jones, stepping up to the mic. “Really, who else matters?”
Every Wednesday evening for the past year, Jones has hosted a spoken-word performance forum known as “The Cutt” at the Bean Scene, a former Burger King (the burger-shaped logos are still embossed on the doors) reclaimed as a coffeehouse in the heart of North Minneapolis. “We’re chillin’ in the Cutt like some Neosporin,” proclaimed Jones by way of declaring the forum open one recent Wednesday night. “Get that? Like some Neosporin?”
Jones, 20, is a black woman with a slight frame, delicate features, and close-cropped hair. That Wednesday night she was dressed in baggy jeans and a loose-fitting gray shirt, accessorized by a single chain around her neck and a woolen winter cap on her head—the cap’s earflaps turned up, all the better to hear the parade of performers who crossed the stage over the course of the evening.
A St. Paul native, Jones was already an accomplished poet and spoken-word performer by the time she graduated from Central High School in 2005. The following year she founded TruArtSpeaks, a non-profit organization dedicated to “empowering and nurturing youth and community voices through the arts.” Jones spends her days working with young people in schools and community centers from Minneapolis to Stillwater, encouraging teenagers to express themselves through poetry and other creative outlets.
Jones founded the Wednesday night open mic series expressly as a venue for young people to take the stage. “A lot of the kids I’ve taught come here,” she notes proudly. “I started it here for people in this neighborhood, but we’ve had people come from all over the place—Marshall, St. Paul, Blaine.” With no age restrictions and a starting time of 7 p.m., the Bean Scene forum is accessible to young performers who come to share pieces they’ve written about family, street life, relationships, and whatever else is occupying their minds.
As Jones called a series of performers from the sign-up sheet, a comfortably full house of audience members watched from the Bean Scene’s tables and couches. A young couple played with their baby, a table of Hmong teens sat with their teacher, and respected community activist Naima Richmond nodded affirmation from a table beside the stage. Lynda Baker, a co-owner of the Bean Scene, watched the performances from behind the counter. She was glad, she said, that Jones approached her looking for a venue to host an open mic night. “It’s a worthwhile project. The youth need a place to gather that’s safe and supervised.”
A wide-eyed 18-year-old named Brittany McCreary eschewed amplification for an original song that she performed unaccompanied in a loud, clear voice, her arms stretched out at her sides. Later, she performed spoken pieces about love and hate. “Haters feed off hate,” she declared, “like crackheads feed off cocaine. Neither one leads to a stable foundation.”
On March 21, McCreary will be taking the stage at In the Heart of the Beast Theatre: she’s a finalist in the Quest for the Voice spoken word competition. McCreary is hoping for a spot on the six-person team of teenagers that Jones will be taking to Washington, D.C. to compete in the National Teen Poetry Slam. “I’m praying everything goes right,” says McCreary, who relocated from Omaha to take a Job Corps placement in Minnesota. “God brought me this far, and I’ve been busting my butt to do my best at this.”
|This article is part of the Daily Planet’s continuing coverage of the Twin Cities spoken word scene. Read Dwight Hobbes on the best local spoken word discs of 2007 and Helen Kinuthia on spoken word performer IBé Kaba. In future weeks, look for articles by Dwight Hobbes on David Daniels and Andrea Myers on Dessa.|
Minnesota teams have done well in recent competitions, says Jones, reaching as high as the national semifinals in 2006. “People underestimate the Minnesota arts scene in every medium that exists. When we come and bring it, it’s crazy. We just represent. It’s beautiful.” The teams’ travel expenses are covered entirely by private donations, which have been generous enough to facilitate the attendance of dozens of supporters beyond the team members themselves. “One of the dopest things that’s ever happened around here was the community support to send our first team, in 2005.” Jones remembers that “we raised thousands of dollars, and over twenty people were able to come and support us.”
Between performances ranging from heartfelt to goofy (one young man offered a cryptic verse that he subsequently explained was about “taking a poop”), Jones offered general advice on topics from concluding a piece effectively to connecting with other performers. She also performed some work of her own, holding the audience rapt as she alternated sung choruses with spoken verses. “Hold up your b-boy stance,” she commanded in one piece, “because this is what hip-hop is.”
“I definitely see the difference this makes in people’s lives,” says Jones, who works in prisons as well as schools. She emphasizes the cathartic power of self-expression. “The most important part is that this is your story. How many times does your story get told? They’re your words. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”