“People always say words are powerful, and it sounds so cliché,” Shihan said to a crowd of approximately 100 people in the Afro-American Cultural Center last night.
But this is a belief Shihan, the renowned slam poet, said he holds strongly and is the subject of much of his work. “You’re only worth your weight in words. So how heavy is what you say?” he asked in his poem “Flashy Words.” Speaking about race, family, society, and the power of words to change and teach, Shihan performed for an audience of Yale students Wednesday night at an event hosted by Jook Songs, the Asian-American writing workshop and performance group.
Shihan, a native of New York City’s Lower East Side, launched his career after he received a scholarship in 1989 to study creative writing at the Williston North Hampton School in Massachusetts. But Shihan said his love of slam poetry developed outside the classroom.
“I began going to open mikes not just to read, but to hear other people tell their stories,” Shihan said. “For some people church isn’t an option, so open mikes become the place where they can hear testimonies and testify. And that’s where I found my comfort zone.”
Presenting his own poems, such as “Flashy Words,” “Father’s Day” and “Wings,” and recounting humorous anecdotes about his family and experiences in the world of slam poetry, Shihan used his performance to share his views on identity, race and family. At one point, he recalled notes jotted down while sitting in the Hartford Airport where he reflected upon the influence of family in shaping his performance art. Then, spontaneously, Shihan began to slam — sharing this particular poem with the crowd.
“My father was a superhero that I in some ways had to live up to,” Shihan said. “My mother was a DJ — she cut in and out of my life.”
Though he slammed about societal problems and negative racial stereotypes, Shihan said, “I’m a believer in people.” He said in his poem “Father’s Day,” “You’ll never hear me say I’m only human, because that makes it seem like it’s a bad thing. And I’m not a mistake.”
Kayla Vinson ’11 said she was struck by the significance of his words: “He’s amazing. There’s so much truth. His poems are packed with truth.”
Another audience member, Moses Balian ’13, said Shihan was able to engage the audience in a discussion through his performance.
“Shihan’s contagious enthusiasm and colloquial delivery were such a breath of fresh air,” Balian said. “[He] made the evening feel like a conversation rather than a performance. His poems are a testimony to his belief in the power of words as meaningful entertainment.”
Named the 2005 National Poetry Slam Champion, Shihan has been featured on the HBO show “Def Poetry,” Oprah’s Oxygen Network, Al Gore’s Current TV and CNN. He is YouTube’s most-viewed poet and the first poet on iTunes to have a “download of the week.”