A nondescript lectern, draped with a single African tapestry, stands in the middle of a basement room. Once a month, this unassuming setting becomes the backdrop for an impassioned community exchange of ideas through song and verse.
Contact, an open-mic night at the Afro-American Cultural Center, is “a venue where people can come and share their words,” said Valerie Idehen ’04, a staff worker at the cultural center. Since its inception two years ago, the program has expanded to welcome Yale students, students from other colleges, and residents of the greater New Haven community. Experienced free-verse poets and first-time readers alike now attend the monthly readings.
“Every time I’ve been it’s been worthwhile, interesting — I’ve learned something new,” Kiana Jamison ’05 said.
This month’s Contact featured “A Tribute to the Sisters,” a collection of poems presented by the brothers of the recently-revived service fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. The brotherhood is the nation’s oldest Greek-letter black fraternity, and the Yale chapter was founded in 1909. “A Tribute to the Sisters” was part of a weeklong Alpha Phi Alpha celebration which included a variety of service projects.
“We wanted to celebrate the sisters since we love them so,” said John K. Johnson ’03, an Alpha brother. The five Alpha brothers were among the newest readers at Contact. Jamal Martin ’03 admitted that Thursday’s reading was his first spoken-word performance, but said the supportive audience relieved his anxieties.
“By the time you get up there, all the tension is gone,” Martin said. He read “Fireworks,” a poem he wrote which draws a parallel between the bright, beautiful explosions and his relationships with women.
When Martin finished his reading, the room erupted in applause, as it did after each performance. Audience members clustered close to the lectern, seated on folding chairs or sofas, settled — legs dangling — on the poll table, or standing farther back in the room.
Jamison said she came to Contact only to support the other performers, but midway through the evening, she was coaxed into delivering an a cappella rendition of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do it for You.”
Jamison was not the only singer that evening. Dexter Upshaw ’06 invited Victor Harris, a visitor from his home near Houston, Texas, to perform a song with him. While Upshaw rapped an original tribute to his departed loved ones, Harris sang a confident, upbeat refrain.
“I know life is hard and we must live on faith,” they recited.
Upshaw said he is disappointed with the themes that pervade current rap music, and added that his music is influenced by his Christian upbringing. Upshaw said he has been rapping since the summer.
“I decided to — on my level — do something that’s positive,” he said.
The themes of Thursday’s poetry ranged from religion and the pressures of being black to a criticism of the war in Iraq. David Smith ’05 read Ava Kenney’s poem, “Black Queen,” which is written from the perspective of a female slave, while Michael Smith ’06 mused on maturing as an black man in his poem, “And Uh.”
Among the presenters was Baub Bidon, a New Haven resident who greeted many students with a smile and a hug. Energized by politics, Bidon waved his arms in firm, symmetrical motion as he read his poem, declaring, “Bush needs to go from the White House to the jail house.”
Bidon has been a frequent contributor to Contact since Taneika Taylor ’02 initiated the program. Now he is among many community members who perform at Contact.
An aspiring actor, Bidon says he writes whenever he gets the chance.
“Poetry is the one thing that brings out your inner self,” he said. “Poetry is something you can’t distort.”