Local poets compete in Hitsville U.S.A.’s Motown Mic

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Around the corner, Berry Gordy once sat on the orange couch in his living room. A few feet above, Michael Jackson once sang in the square echo chamber in the ceiling. Below, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye once recorded hits in Studio A that put Detroit on the music map.

But on Friday night, the poets on the second floor of the Motown Museum weren’t thinking of the legends who once stood in their place. When they grasped the mic, the birthplace of Motown faded away. All that remained was their passion and voice.

The Motown Mic: The Spoken Word competition series, running on Fridays throughout the month, honors the Black Forum label, a division of Motown Records that served as a platform for black thought leaders and orators from 1970 to 1973. The label included Langston Hughes, Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam.”

In June 1963, King repeated refrains from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 25,000 at then-Cobo Hall. After the March on Washington two months later, Gordy Records released a recording of King’s Detroit speech titled “The Great March to Freedom.”

“When that happened, Barry Gordy was inspired to start an entire label for spoken artists,” says Motown Museum spokeswoman Shanel Adams. “... It’s a part of Motown history a lot of people don’t know about, so initiatives like (the open mic nights) are how we highlight it.”

A little respect

The Motown Museum, also known as Hitsville U.S.A, started the open mic series three years ago as a way for contemporary artists to “pay homage to their predecessors,” says program manager and poet Raina Baker.

“This is a continuation of that legacy,” she says, “and our goal is to inspire young artists to use their voices, share their voices or find their voices here.”

Anyone 18 or older can compete. Two finalists are selected each Friday to compete in the finale held in June at the Garden Theatre for a chance to win a $1,000 cash prize.

But as Baker told the roughly 30 people surrounded by black-and-white photos of the young Supremes and Smokey Robinson, the competition is “much bigger than $1,000. You never know who you’re going to inspire.”

The only rules: Stay under three minutes and avoid profanity. On Friday, the nine contestants spoke from their souls — sharing their battle with depression, love for an autistic son, belief in faith and struggles living as black men in Detroit.

Detroit resident Ashley Jones, 22, was first on deck and opened with a fiery poem revealing her struggle with depression. Her “Love Life” T-shirt accentuated her words.

Jones says her poetry is a testimony about her experiences.

“Writing about depression was actually a way for me to get out of depression,” she says. “It helped me through.”

Wearing a backwards Wutang cap and bright red tee with “Detroit” spelled in the shape of a heart, Xavier Lewis entranced the crowd with a song-like poem that evolved into a rap. Syllables flew off his tongue, punctuated by his moving hands.

“I practice nonstop in the living room, on the couch, by the fishes — it don’t really matter,” he says.

Lewis has been rapping since age 9. Now 21, he came to Detroit from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He joined a rap collective of 50 people who perform on Woodward and throughout Michigan every day. All his material is original.

“I got into the Fugees, Slum Villiage, A Tribe Called Quest,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who really influenced my rap style.”

His style impressed the three judges who voted him a wild card pick to advance to the finale. The other two finalists — Caesar Torreano and Nedkeyda Glover — placed in the first-ever tie for first.

Torreano, a finalist from last year and creator of the “Poetry Can Be Anything” series, delivered a powerful poem about his autistic son: “The world may deem my son as a misfit, or crazy. But when I look in his eyes, all I see is my baby.”

Glover, whose stage name is Keebie, closed out the show with a journal entry on her divine purpose.

“When I retire I look forward to my days of rest, while seeking opportunities where I can help the rest — those stuck in areas of their life that I managed to swim out of. I could have drowned many times with the mistakes that I made, but the one thing that I never lost and never let go of was my faith.”

“(Poetry) is my diary,” she says. “It’s a way that I can relate to the things I’m going through and reflect on them as I grow.”

The 31-year-old Redford resident has been writing poetry the past 20 years, and says this was her first open mic in a decade. Her mind wasn’t on the monetary prize though.

“Like I mentioned in the poem, I really want to motivate somebody,” she says.

The finalists’ content, delivery and rhythm helped them beat the competition. Judge Swifty McVay, a member of the hip-hop group D12, started by Eminem, says mastering those three elements creates “one big bowl of greatness.”

“That delivery and presence is what grabs the audience,” he says. “You can be a great writer, but when you’re on stage and you don’t have that presence, (the audience) is not really paying attention to the writing aspect of it. So you have to grab them that way.”

Judge Tamyra Rene, last year’s Motown Mic winner from Detroit, gave high marks for the winners’ energy and passion.

“They related to real things that they’re going through today,” she says, “and that’s basically what Black Forum was all about.”


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Upcoming Motown Mic dates

Friday, April 22

Friday, April 29

Time: 8-10 p.m.

Tickets: General admission $10, performers $5

Location: 2648 West Grand Blvd., Detroit