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Lining up across from the kaleidoscopic dollar store inside the old bright Gallery—now the Fashion District—augured a milky dystopia. But nothing seemed artificial as the videographer said to an open-mic performer, “Act natural, I ain’t even here, aight?” and the neon sign reading “VOICES IN POWER” glowed behind the mic-stand. A painter was working at an easel at the side of the stage as DJ G33k laid down a sonic welcome.
If you were looking for a legit poetry scene in PHL, you found it: the older generation bringing its familiarity, the younger its familiar curiosity; the energy of 300 coolly smiling, beautiful people gathering to celebrate a thriving diffusion of ego.
Luis Marrero founded Voices in Power, a Philly-based poetry open-mic experience, 12 years ago. It’s now expanding into Houston, Miami, and the Bronx, but its January 7 event landed at its monthly home at the Fashion District’s REC Philly. REC, a shared workspace for creatives that manages to feel both upscale and down-to-earth, boasts a well-tuned sound and lighting system in its modest-but-mighty performance space.
Modest, loose, and well-prepared
Before officially handing over hosting duties to the remarkably affable, effortlessly comical, and verdantly energetic Jovan McKoy, Marrero spoke of humble beginnings: at some of the first open mics he held, he was sitting around "with like 13 people," before growing the audience into the hundreds. There's an easy modesty about Marrero, and this event, that can't be faked.
Video recaps and filmed performances on the Voices In Power YouTube channel now garner tens of thousands of views, but the priority here is the real-life experience. The atmosphere, the people, being together, are the thing. And someone next to me was eating baked ziti that looked as good as my great-grandmother used to make.
This monthly event has wonderful food vendors, but no alcohol, which does not prevent the crowd from staying completely loose. Everyone did the Cupid Shuffle together during an intermission, and a call of “new shit!” went up in unison every time a poet said they were about to offer up something previously unheard. With McKoy’s help, the conversation between those who were receiving and those who were performing poetry stayed fresh.
The performances explored self-love and mental health and challenged chauvinism: the poetry was as intelligent and electric as it was affirming and inclusive. Anyone can perform, but be ready: the event requires you to be well-prepared, in the best, most organic way possible.
From Houston to Philly
Poets and listeners from Jersey, Baltimore, DC, New York, and even Atlanta all made their way to take in something, I’d say, close to the sacred contemporary. This event is kinda dope, and kinda important (especially given its growing national reach), with all the trappings of a high-line production, but none of the affectation. It runs on a relaxed but eager pride, a persuasive, hard-earned humility. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of its home city.
The January 7 show opened with an extensive open mic that made room for some less-experienced artists, but everyone who took the stage did so in earnest. Whether through humor or parable, metaphor or soliloquy, the open mic ranged from an almost-too-cute, perfect epigram to a delicious, nearly endless stream-of-consciousness. A highlight from Scott Smith, who left the audience shaking its head in near-absurd disbelief, required two recitations, the second of which revealed that he had hidden the name of almost every US state in his lines (“pen so vain, yeah” revealed as “Pennsylvania”).
The headliners—Houston poets Courtney Lynn, Scott Free, and Sunny CeLight—all turned in affecting and heartfelt performances. Lynn and Free are a real-life married couple, and I thought I would be turned off by poems about how much they mean to each other, but it was a candid, strong, and guileless message and it carried well. CeLight adroitly balanced sexuality with religion. And Free really took the crowd to church by talk-singing lines in the manner of a southern preacher, almost forgetting himself, in a kind of transcendence.
Washed in poetry
My only criticism is that welcoming as many open-mic participants as humanly possible made for a four-hour runtime—a little ambitious for any poetry event.
But the night was an opportunity to give in and really listen, the self disintegrating in favor of the community, even as it insists on an integral, living individuality. That may seem philosophical, but as I left the old Gallery through the after-hours exit, I was washed in poetry: the kind of sharing that children take for granted but that some adults, like Marrero, make it their job to cultivate.
Catch the next Voices In Power event, the Poet's Pit, in the Lounge at World Café Live on January 17, 2023. It’s also an open mic, with featured performer Poetic Will.
Next up, the flagship Poetry Open Mic Experience is back at REC Philly for its February show, featuring Mello Jones, on February 4, 2023.
What, When, Where
Voices In Power: A Poetry Open Mic Experience. Held monthly at REC Philly inside the Fashion District, 901 Market Street, Philadelphia. imsuperdope.com.
There were no Covid-19 precautions for this event.
REC Philly is an ADA-compliant, wheelchair-accessible space.
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