NeoSoul and Hip Hop lovers are used to not having their live entertainment needs met in this town. Week after week they flip through the first few pages of CityBeat in vain, hoping to be surprised by a Bogart's ad announcing a performance by Me'shell Ndegeocello, Jill Scott or dead prez. Once in a while the black music gods throw us a bone, but more often those pages are filled with long lists of indistinguishable Jam bands and the occasional Pink Floyd laser light show.
Which is why Ra Fuzion Unplugged, the spoken word and music showcase at Art's Billiard's in Corryville, has such a consistent following. Society's Tongue, the collective that hosts the series, gives seekers of soulful art their live entertainment fix and local talent an opportunity to shine. They are the latest group of young Cincinnatians to ride the wave of popularity that performance poetry has enjoyed since Love Jones, Sarah Jones and Saul Williams reinvigorated black folks' reverence for the griot.
The event's name is a nod to the collective's former incarnation as the Ra Poets Society, which was part of the Hip Hop production company founded by the now Atlanta-based Roc Bivens. While Bivens played a large role in initially pulling the group together, he no longer manages the collective
Over the past two years, the showcase has moved from The Greenwich to Shaker's in Town and now to Art's. The bar's managers asked the collective to be the featured act at their three-year anniversary party in October. Art's regulars liked their set, and Society's Tongue found a new home.
Duwaup, Rewop and Black Budda'Fly are members of Society's Tongue and the event's main organizers. Throughout the evening they multitask. They whirl like dervishes, from working the door to videotaping the show to checking in with the Andy Pratt Trio, the CCM students who play behind any act that doesn't bring their own music. The three women take a break from their duties when it's their turn at the mic.
Black Budda'Fly gives a nod to all the environmentalists and doomsday predictors with her poem written from the perspective of a devastated Mother Earth. "Whose fault is it," she asks the audience, "San Andreas' or yours?"
Duwaup slides easily from a poem about how hustlers' dirty dealings affect the women who love them to her "Erotica Chronicles." The latter is rife with references to "cinnamon hips," "caramel nipples" and her "coochie's jacuzzi." Heads get thrown back in unison and the crowd howls, applauding her paradoxical ability to be a classy freak.
Rewop, "power" spelled backwards, follows Duwaup's lead with a poem called "Penis Envy." Then she channels The Color Purple's Shug and turns Art's into a jook joint. She whispers to the trio to play something bluesy and then starts a poem with a hook that she sings in a clear and unadorned voice.
I hear my ancestors calling/ telling me to burn this bitch down.
The audience lets the weight of her words sink in. This is a community of people who shout each other out as they approach the stage and who fill in the other's poems at critical moments for emphasis.
They've heard each other's poems before. It's the expression of shared frustrations and desires that keeps them coming back.
Teach, a high school history teacher from Hamilton moonlighting as the evening's host, reclaims his center stage position.
"Niggas came in here in jeans and left in dashikis," he quips, capitalizing on the militancy and suppressed rage that Rewop's piece brought.
Minister Mayhem gives his testimony over a track with a pounding bassline and whiny synth. The Andy Pratt Trio sits this one out.
I used to be a crack smoking, drug abusing convict/ Christ came into my life and took me from that nonsense.
Sticks of incense burn in tabletop candleholders. Some in the audience put down apple martinis to snap their fingers '50s and '60s coffehouse style.
But this isn't your usual gathering of the self-proclaimed conscious set.
Relaxers and naturals coexist alongside Che T-shirts and Baby Phat. An R&B quartet called Prosodee, a Boys II Men for the 21st century, follows two poets named Elements and Divine Prince Hakim who plan to "rewire the matrix." And it's all good.
There's no sense that the played-out struggle between consciousness and bling will jump off or that intraracial class warfare is brewing.
The flier for Ra Fuzion Unplugged reads: "There was a spirit. There was a dream. There was a movement." The showcase is a good time, a beacon in a sea of culturally irrelevant entertainment. But a movement?
"It's a holistic movement," Black Budda'Fly explains. "You can't separate the spiritual from the political. We're validating people's experiences through our writing."
RA FUZION UNPLUGGED is 9 p.m.-2 a.m. every Thursday at Art's Billiards, 2617 Vine St., Corryville.