From LA to Jakarta: Spoken Word Across the Oceans
“Spoken word is about not feeling ashamed. It is about speaking your truth and how you want to share your experience with the world,” proclaimed writer-performer Khairani Barokka, who produced “So They Say You Hate Poetry! Art Out Loud by Poet-Performers” at the American cultural center, @america, last Saturday night.
Starring Khairani, also known as Okka, herself and three prominent American poet-performers — Beau Sia, Mayda del Valle and Gill Sotu — who were broadcasted live from the US, the event introduced something new for the Jakartan crowd: spoken word.
The audience was in for a treat from the get-go as Okka opened the event effervescently with a piece entitled “Hate =/= Poetry,” through which she challenged the stereotype that poetry was passé.
Before a packed room, she subsequently told the history of spoken word, which was born in the United States from the Harlem Renaissance, a black cultural movement in the early 20th century. This art form was getting more popular in the 1970s and 1980s, what with the creation of various poet communities, including the Nuyorican Poets Café. When HBO broadcasted “Def Poetry,” a poetry slam show where artists like Kanye West and Erykah Badu took the stage, the craft started getting into the mainstream scene.
Okka continued with a personal story on her journey of becoming an artist and writer. “I’ve been a loudmouth my entire life. At five years old, I wrote my first poem.” This took her to Vermont Studio Center, where she was the first Indonesian writer-in-residence. Then, she performed a touching poem, “Leakier Eyes than Thou,” based on her personal experience of fighting a health scare for the past year, after finishing her master’s degree from New York University.
Afterward, it was time for the three spoken word maestros. Live from Los Angeles at 5 a.m., these poet-performers gave impressive performances through Polycom video-conference via ClearSea software, even at such an early hour. Del Valle joked, “When people ask what I did Saturday morning, I will tell them that I performed poetry for the future.”
First to perform was Sotu, who had won various poetry competitions and also made a career as a musician based in San Diego. His heartfelt performance of a love poem “Amazing” made the audience swoon. Meanwhile, through “The Dreamer,” he narrated a story about his father. He said the poem took 28 years to write because it was based on a very personal experience.
Del Valle — a “Def Poetry” alumna, who has performed in many places, including the White House — was the second performer. First, she recounted the story of her life as a Puerto Rican descent in America, and how this identity influenced her works. In “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” she expressed the feelings surrounding a romantic break-up. The other poem, “Mami’s Makin’ Mambo,” was inspired by del Valle’s mother, who was a great cook. She performed this piece in such a vivacious manner, peppered with Spanish words and phrases.
The last performer was Sia, who was also a ”Def Poetry” star and even acted in the movie “Rachel Getting Married.” His act was hilarious and full of witty observations. “Welcome to the Third World” was a critique toward the division of the first and third worlds, while “A Letter to a Young Poet” was dedicated to aspiring poets. And when he performed “I’m So Deep,” the room was instantly full of laughter: “I’m so deep I transcend the word ‘transcend,’” said one verse.
Many spectators were unfamiliar at first with spoken word, and yet amazed by the performances they saw. Amanda Aayusya, a magazine editor, admitted that poetry wasn’t her thing, “but as it turned out, in this event I learned a lot. I didn’t realize that poetry could be enjoyable and performed, instead of just recited.” She especially liked Sotu’s performance. “I was in awe of how he managed to bring out the beauty from simplicity.” Amanda also enjoyed del Valle’s musical quality and Sia’s funny pieces.
For another attendee, Andhyta Firselly Utami, a university student, Okka’s performance is the most moving. “I think it has something to do with both her content and medium. [Her poems] were done in simple words, but because of that, the meaning gets so deep.”
Seeing from the endlessly cheering crowd, the event is received very well. Every single aspect was done seamlessly, even Amanda quipped, “I think there’s nothing to criticize.” No wonder, Okka had been preparing the event since getting the idea in February.
“I’m sleep-deprived, but ecstatic that three months of hard work paid off,” Okka said.
When she asked the audience by the end of the event on whether they still hate poetry, a resounding “No!” reverberated across the auditorium. Mission accomplished.