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Spoken-Word Poets Banking on Their Art

Times Staff Writer

Queen says she did not read a book until she was 20 years old. A year later, she decided to become a full-time poet.

Now, at 24, Queen has written two books, released two CDs, copyrighted a personal slogan -- “I will never apologize for who I am” -- and marketed her own fragrance, Secrecy.

A flinty former gang member who wears hot-pink hoop earrings, slashed T-shirts and stilettos, Queen performs at colleges and military bases across the country. She earned $68,000 last year, enough to pay the rent and invest in more merchandising.

Ten years after Southern hip-hop burst onto the commercial music scene, a new generation of performance poets believes they are next in line to succeed. After watching OutKast, Lil Jon and Usher go platinum, they hope to give up their day jobs and make a living with their poems.

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The spoken-word poetry movement, which surged in the 1960s, took on new life in the 1990s -- thriving in cafes and bars where bohemians poured out their souls.

Atlanta has plenty of underground poetry circles. But many spoken-word artists are approaching their art like entrepreneurs, writing for mass consumption and engaging in what could be called brand management.

Queen, whose real name is Shanikra Hankins, calls herself a poet/actress/dancer/writer of slogans.

“I want to be all the slashes,” she said.

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A recent poem, “Scarred 4 Life,” gives a raw account of her initiation into the Crips at 13 and ends with an unflinching description of the slaying of her first love, Wakim. Queen said she hoped students would dissect it in book reports one day.

She earns extra money writing inspirational phrases for gyms and scripts for weddings. She keeps a timeline of goals posted on a bedroom wall.

“You build your wealth and you build your empire, just like the Kennedys,” she said. “Then you can do what you want.”

Her plans do not always work out. After selling more than 100 bottles of Secrecy, she abandoned the product after some of it spilled inside her car.

Today’s spoken-word movement grew out of the black political poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. Like their work in the 1950s and 1960s, it steers clear of meditations on nature and grapples with issues like racism, poverty and sexuality.

Corporate executives have started to pay attention.

In 1998, Nike invited spoken-word poets to write commercials in praise of female athletes.

In 2001, Russell Simmons, a co-founder of Def Jam records, launched his HBO show “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.” The show’s fifth season is scheduled to begin in June.

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The commercial future of the movement was a theme at the second annual Southern Poetry Conference in Atlanta last month.

A number of panelists warned that making money was overriding poets’ messages.

Charles White, a spoken-word artist from Memphis, Tenn., ridiculed poets who wrote liquor and cheeseburger commercials. “Personally, I don’t care if poetry ever gets to be as popular as rap or country music,” he said.

Others were unapologetic about wanting to make a living.

“It gets on my nerves,” said another spoken-word poet, Sista Queen, 19. “If you’re a dancer, people buy tickets. If you’re a singer, people buy tickets. We’re the only genre of art that’s supposed to be broke and happy about it.... We’re supposed to be sitting on a curb writing poetry on toilet paper.”

Maurice Henderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur and founder of the National Black Arts Spoken Word Tour, addressed the issue in a lecture titled “How to Get Paid in Full and Be Almost Famous.” Armed with a low, gravelly voice and an erudite vocabulary, he advised up-and-coming poets to write a mission statement.

“I’m trying to show you how to make $100,000 in one year,” he said. It’s not enough to write poetry, he said: “You need to have ancillary products: T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, buttons. I tell people: ‘Hook it up.’ ”

Henderson cited Queen, who sat on a panel behind him, as a model entrepreneur. “Queen has her marketability down to a science,” he said. “She has all those different income streams.”

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“I’ll sell anything,” Queen said. “I could sell a lock, put my face on it, and say: ‘This is a Queen lock.’ It’s an addiction to me. Once you make a name for yourself, you can sell anything.”

In the audience was Kaleem Shakir, 48, who recently quit his job as a mail clerk at the telephone company BellSouth to launch a one-man show.

After the seminar, Shakir shook his head. Six months of hustling among Atlanta’s cliquish spoken-word scene, he said, had quashed his enthusiasm.

“It’s a slow grind,” Shakir said. “There’s so much ego. Someone like Queen likes hustling, but I hate asking: ‘How much will you give?’ ”

As his bills piled up, Shakir said, he became too overwhelmed to write poems. “I’m about ready to get my old job back,” he said.

It is not easy being a professional poet -- especially in Atlanta, where typically there are about 30 spoken-word shows a week. To make a name, poets have to hustle at urban nightclubs, suburban chicken-wing joints, community libraries and hair salons.

Some have formed business collectives.

In 2000, Chris “Cocktails” Cornell and Derrick “Abyss” Graham co-founded the Live Poets Society, a team of 20 poets with a disc jockey, band and graphic designer. They make a living traveling across the country to perform at colleges and universities; typically, they earn between $1,000 and $1,800 a set.

“We couldn’t have done it without each other,” said Cornell, 29, a former quality controller at General Electric Capital. “We offer a whole, polished, complete package. For us, it’s all about the brand. Like with tissues. You can use tissues, but is it Kleenex? You can hear poetry, but is it the Live Poets Society?”

Gloria Wade-Gayles, a poet, essayist and endowed chair of independent scholarship at Spelman College in Atlanta, said many of today’s spoken-word artists wasted their talent producing poetry more profane than prophetic.

“They’re hungry for immediate success,” she said. “What gives many of the performances their punch is the profanity, not the power of the image.”

Gayles, who began writing poetry during the 1960s civil rights era, said young poets were fooling themselves if they believed they could perfect their messages after they made money.

“A metamorphosis takes place,” she said. “We end up selling our soul.”


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