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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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Spoken word builds community at Harlem Renaissance Festival and One Madison Jazz Cabaret
The people's art form

Painter Martel Chapman examines the artistic cross-pollination of the Harlem Renaissance.
Credit:Martel Chapman
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With its open mics and audience-judged competitions, spoken-word poetry has a more populist vibe than many other art forms. It can help audience members walk in a stranger's shoes, if only for a few minutes.

Spoken word figures prominently in several local events this month. On Friday, Nov. 8, the Harlem Renaissance Festival will feature a dramatic reading from Jean Toomer's 1923 novel, Cane, and performances from the Urban Spoken Word poetry collective (Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 7 p.m.). And on Friday, Nov. 15, the One Madison Jazz Cabaret, a fundraiser for the Urban League of Greater Madison, will showcase poetry by the Art Brothas (Monona Terrace, 5:30 p.m.).

Spoken word is also putting Madison on the map thanks to the UW's First Wave program, which has partnered with rappers such as MC Lyte to develop scholarships and opportunities for young artists to present their work. Members of the program will also perform at One Madison Jazz Cabaret.

Particularly in competitive settings, known as slams, spoken word allows artists to voice their opinions, blow off steam, and breathe life into their hopes and memories. As in hip-hop music, body language and rhythm are used to add depth and emotion.

Hedi Rudd, events manager at the Urban League, says spoken word isn't just for young poets. She describes Urban League-affiliated slams as "very diverse in terms of race but also age."

She's enjoyed watching spoken word dissolve all sorts of preconceptions.

"I know an elderly white lady who really enjoys the slams by young black men. It gives her a chance to hear their experience, and she says it's caused her to put some stereotypes to rest. And she wrote a poem about it," Rudd says.

The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the 1920s and '30s, and the Harlem Renaissance Festival will celebrate the history of African American arts. It will shed light on how spoken word borrows from and influences other art forms.

"For all kinds of writers and composers, the variance and depth of art, literature and music from [the Harlem Renaissance] opened doors for further experimentation," says UW–Milwaukee professor and festival presenter Peter Brooks.

David Hart, festival co-organizer and host of the monthly Urban Spoken Word slam at Genna's Lounge, is proud the festival has attracted globally recognized talent.

"We have a great group, including [World Slam finalist] J.W. Basilo coming in from Chicago," he says.

The festival addresses concerns raised in a recent report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, like the finding that people of color tend to live on the fringes of the city, where they miss out on the support and identity strong neighborhoods provide.

Brooks says Madison can learn from the Harlem Renaissance, which illustrates how performance arts like spoken word helps build community, especially among marginalized people.

"Our event will show, through multiple forms of performance -- visual, vocal, instrumental -- how the Harlem Renaissance was about battling exclusivity through creativity."

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