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The Revolution Will Be Vocalized

Tonya Maria Matthews' Spoken Word Speaks Louder and Louder

Michael Northrup
Tonya Maria Matthews
Uli Loskot
Matthews performs at the Java Head CafT in College Park with fellow poets Complex (below) and Atif "Tif" Saleem (bottom). "She has the technique of a literary poet and a stage presence that [allows her to] convey literary messages in a performance manner without sacrificing the integrity of her art," Saleem says. "She's a phenomenon."
Uli Loskot
Uli Loskot
Michael Northrup
Matthews at the Library Of Congress, where she read in the invitation-only poetry at noon series.

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 2/20/2002

It's knee-knocking cold outside Gallery 409 on a blustery January night, but inside the swank downtown art venue things are sizzling. In a cavernous back room, a small legion of poets and poetry lovers have gathered for a slam competition, and there are about seven serious contenders for a $100 cash prize.

The crowd of 80-plus breaks into a sweat as (mostly male) poets, with stage names like Righteous and Droopy, deliver rapid-fire word-lyrics about new loves, lost loves, what is love. At slams like this, sponsored almost weekly at various spots around town by the local group Poetology, it's all about pinging the audience, making them holler--or at least "umm-hmm."

"Some of these guys are really good," says Tonya Maria Matthews, a featured guest performer tonight under her stage name, JaHipster. With a newly released book (Still Swinging, on BlackWords Press) and five years on the mid-Atlantic poetry circuit behind her, Matthews doesn't compete in the slams anymore. She has, among her peers, stature.

Off the side of the floodlit stage, wearing hoop earrings, an American-flag T-shirt, and a long denim skirt with a thigh-high slit, Matthews leans against a wall, awaiting her call to the mic. At 5-foot-9 and sporting a giant Afro, she doesn't need boots with five-inch stiletto heels to be seen in a crowd. But the boots are one of her trademarks, she says. With them on, she saunters better. She feels it when she takes the stage.

do you remember when prophets talked to God?
now they talk to vinyl
clairvoyant ones talk with Clive Davis
those who can't get audiences with archangels
make their own Nirvana
just because they are able
Heaven becomes a record label . . .
do you remember when prophets talked to God?
and then to the people
and then for the people . . .
between bullshit of B-side life
some say he sprinkled rhythm true
so upon his death
Nikki G got a Tupac tattoo
but schizophrenia does not a martyr make
i will sing at Dr. Jekyll's funeral
but Mr. Hyde has got to go . . .

She finishes, and the audience leaps to its feet, whistling and whooping and asking for more. Here, Matthews gets props not just because her delivery--body moving, head bobbing, tongue flicking--is sharp, fluid, dramatic. Spoken-word crowds like it when poets take risks. And questioning the martyrdom of Tupac Shakur in a city that was the slain rapper's former stomping grounds--and taking a shot at groundbreaking African-American poet Nikki Giovanni in the process--takes guts.

The poem, "Prophet," is representative of Matthews' writing. She doesn't do love-gone-wrong, ooh-baby poems. (For one thing, she says, if she gets famous, the guy in question "wouldn't deserve a poem" that helped her get there.) She has a rep for penning unsettling verses about social and political turmoil within and without the African-American urban landscape.

"The thing that sets Tonya apart is that she goes beyond the stereotype of the angry black female poet," Poetology founder Atif "Tif" Saleem says. "She has the technique of a literary poet and a stage presence that [allows her to] convey literary messages in a performance manner without sacrificing the integrity of her art. She's a phenomenon."

Matthews isn't phenomenal in terms of doing something rare--performance poetry, if not widely accepted yet as a literary art, has become an urban fixture in recent years, one now developing its own regional and national stars. But she does have phenomenal range. While her calendar stays filled with poetry engagements, she is also working toward a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. She's not sure where either path will lead in terms of something she's yet to acquire--"a j-o-b," she laughs. She jokes with friends about having a science career as a fallback if the poetry doesn't work out. But it's clear the young scholar and bard doesn't really consider failure an option.

"I want to be a household name and an instrument of change," Matthews says. "Some people in the literary community believe that slam poetry is too common and unpoetic. On the slam end, some people won't get near Walt Whitman or Chaucer. I'm hoping to be one of the people to bridge the gap--opening up the possibility that spoken word has literary merit."

Matthews' path to a writing life was a circuitous one, arcing from a childhood as an avid reader and student largely shielded from poverty and racism to a young adulthood in which she had to confront, largely on her own, the issues of racial identity that now shape her work.

She grew up in Fort Washington and Mitchellville in Prince George's County, largely black, upper-middle-class enclaves that she says fostered a pretty idyllic view of the world. "I mean, here I was in one of the wealthiest counties in the country where lots of [successful] African-Americans live--and I thought that was just how it was, how the world was."

The oldest of four kids and the daughter of an educator and a Washington police officer, Matthews grew up in a household where learning and independent thinking were prized. (She dedicates Still Swinging to her mother, Eileen Freeman Matthews, "who constantly told her daughter to 'modulate your voice,' but never [to] shut up.") From early childhood, she was eager to plunge into the world of education. Her mother recalls the first day of preschool for Tonya and another of her kids; while the younger child "held onto my leg for dear life," says Freeman Matthews, now as associate dean at Gallaudet University, "Tonya walked straight forward and never looked back. She barely said goodbye." On trips to museums, she says, it was all she could do to keep her eldest child from grabbing anything within reach.

"Tonya would just stop and read the descriptions," her mother says. "She was always absorbing information."

"Her granddaddy used to call her 'Computer Chip,'" Tonya's father, Thomas Matthews, says. "She always wanted to come out front when it came to her studies. In our family, getting a good education was the kids' job."

Tonya was valedictorian of her 1992 graduating class at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, and she scored nearly 1400 on the SAT. She was accepted at and, in most cases, offered scholarships to numerous colleges, ranging from historically black institutions like North Carolina A&T to Ivy League schools such as Harvard. She settled on Duke University in Durham, N.C., mostly to refute the guidance of a white school counselor who, during Matthews' first year of high school, advised her "to be reasonable and [aim for] the University of Maryland."

Matthews faced similarly low expectation as part of Duke's small black minority. "People were always questioning my integrity, asking me about my SATs and grade-point averages. I remember the surprise in people's faces when we'd compare test scores and mine were higher," she recalls. "Duke taught me that you can't break barriers. I knew I was perceived as an exception to the rule, but I didn't want to be."

Matthews' mother knew Duke would be a radically different experience for her daughter. North Carolina was the real South, spawning ground for ultraconservatives like U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Duke was a bastion of learning, but it wasn't known for progressive race relations or affirmative-action policies. "Tonya had read about racism," Freeman Matthews says. "But knowing something and experiencing it are two different things. But Tonya was confident she could prove herself in any classroom, and she had this sense of self . . . who she was and her qualifications to be there."

"Before I left home, I wasn't very socially aware," Matthews says. "In fact, some of my best friends in high school were white, and I remember calling my mom a racist, like, 'Why are you picking on those poor Republicans?' I didn't get it why Ronald Reagan was so bad for black people. But when I got to Duke and [encountered] prejudice for the first time, it started feeling like, 'Hey, where my people at?'"

Battling culture shock, Matthews pledged the Duke chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African-American sorority; joined a black theater group on campus; and started writing columns for The Chronicle, the campus newspaper. Wanting to be candid about her experience at Duke, she wrote about racial issues. "But," she says, "my editor taught me how to rein my voice in, how to raise confrontational issues without being confrontational."

Matthews also immersed herself in the canon of black literature. (She graduated in 1996 with a certificate in African and African-American studies in addition to a bachelor's in biomedical and electrical engineering.) She never lacked a healthy self-image, but, after reveling in the words of Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison, she says, "I finally figured out that I was beautiful."

And she wanted to write about it. Since her grade-school years, she'd taken pencil to paper, creating garden-variety roses-are-red poems. As a budding woman, she says, she recognized that good writing "has substance, and I took it seriously"--enough to create her future alter ego, JaHipster.

The stage name grew out of "These Hips," a poem written during her junior year at Duke.

These hips are wide as hell.
Curving and growing and bursting
With the tales they tell.
Wide enough to balance heavy chests and square
shoulders into characteristically plump
hour
glass
figures.
Wide enough to stop crap games on
shady ghetto corners.
Wide enough to birth fat black baby boys . . .

Writing the poem, Matthews says, was a landmark in her life. She had managed to succeed in the toughest of academic settings (she just missed cum laude qualification, which she laughingly blames on "doing my Delta thing") and was accepted to Johns Hopkins' doctoral program for biomedical engineering. At the same time, she was beginning to envision herself as a creative, communicative person, using skills she developed growing up bookish (complete with eyeglasses) and full-sized, thinking her only chance of attracting a guy was "if I could engage him in conversation, because I knew how to be witty." (Eventually, she dropped 50 pounds and realized "guys like girls with hips.")

By the summer of 1996, when she moved to Baltimore, Matthews didn't doubt she had literary potential and was determined to make the most of it. "The thing that scares me is not living out my gifts," she says. "Writing isn't just a skill. God gave me this gift, and sometimes I ask myself, 'What if I miss out on it? What if it's the last day and God is like, 'Look at everything I gave you--whyyyy?' Uh-uh, I'm going to do it--or at least be searching."

After settling in Northeast Baltimore, Matthews set out to find the local poetry scene, which basically meant hanging out at restaurants, clubs, and bookstores that catered to writers. In Durham, she had to work to stay connected to the black arts and search out a burgeoning spoken-word movement. In Baltimore, there was already a thriving scene--albeit one not lacking in struggle and debate over the literary merits of the still new, hip-hop-influenced slam scene, a debate often played out in the pages of City Paper.

In 1993, then-CP staff writer Richard Byrne Jr., more recently of Washington City Paper and now with the economics-news Web site The Globalist, wrote a cover story titled "Whores, Bores, and Poetry Wars" on the local open-mic scene and the divide between it and the academic establishment. Byrne's contentious and, to many, inflammatory piece generated weeks of angry letters from poets who accused the paper of willfully misrepresenting them and their work. Those wounds were still fresh when, the following year, a CP critic, acknowledging his "honest scorn" for the spoken-word form, gave a mixed review of a performance by the popular Nuyorican Poets Café at the Baltimore Museum of Art, referring to the Nuyoricans as "bumper-sticker poets."

Years later, the debate still lingers, says Baltimore Writer's Alliance president Linda Joy Burke, a self-described "old school" poet with ties to both the academic tradition and the spoken-word scene.

"Years ago, when the coffeehouse scene first started . . . [performance] poets were at the bottom of literary barrel," Burke says. Many successful writers, even African-American ones, still feel "that the form harms us," she says, "that poets won't be able to go from traditional black venues to library settings unless they learn to use language, while doing interpretive work, that doesn't depend on the same phraseology over and over again."

The challenge to emerging artists is not particular to Baltimore, and is not new, says Nikki Giovanni, who helped spark the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and is now a professor at Virginia Tech and a respected elder statesperson in national poetry circles. Nontraditional poetry by African-Americans has long raised hackles in established academic circles.

"White folks said we were just self-absorbed, that we didn't talk about anything except being black, and why couldn't we be more universal," she says. "But there's nothing wrong with doing love poems or poems about your daddy beating your mama--if you are transmitting truth. You can't let anybody tell you about your art, and that's one you've got to learn early."

Spoken word comes out of its own literary tradition, says Rhonda Williams, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. A native of Northwest Baltimore's Liberty Heights neighborhood, Williams did a paper on oral histories for her Ph.D., and her fieldwork included studying storytelling among activists at East Baltimore's now-demolished Lafayette Courts projects in the mid-'90s. Talking about their lives and communities, she says, these public-housing residents used the sort of vocal inflections and gestures adopted by poets performing for an audience.

"There is that African-American oral tradition of knowing how to draw people in, and get them to pay attention," Williams says. When spoken-word artists marry that tradition to the serious themes and literary qualities of work by prominent poets such as Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, Williams says, "that is what will break down doors."

Matthews' work seems to be breaking down some doors in Baltimore already. Burke, who as head of the Baltimore Writers' Alliance is in the thick of the local literary establishment, gave Still Swinging a rave notice in the January/February 2002 issue of Black Issues Book Review. Matthews' work, Burke wrote, is "laced with irony and a satirical edge that forced me to laugh out loud, nod my head in complete agreement, and catch my breath."

It's an unseasonably warm winter day as Matthews enters the vast but nondescript halls of the Library of Congress in Washington. She is one of three poets invited to read today on the theme of urban life as part of the Library's Poetry at Noon series. In this sedate setting, Matthews drops her Angie Stone-type soulful ensemble in favor of something more demure--crinkled hair tied back with a scarf, dainty earrings, and a two-piece boutique number made of natural woven fabric. Her boots? Three inches, tops.

Inside the quaint auditorium where Matthews will read, there's a small stage and, off to the side, a spotlit podium. About 25 people fill cushy theater chairs; within 10 minutes, one of them is sound asleep.

For 40 minutes or so, it is very much a traditional reading. The first two poets take stacks of books up to the podium, offer a few words by way of introduction, and fill their time with well-enunciated, lyrical words. Matthews, going last, walks past the podium to center stage, empty-handed.

Grandma, get your gun.
The wolves are in the yard.
They have come for the children

You ainĘt really got to shoot at nobody
just aim for the moon
graze Alpha CentauriĘs shoulder
let stardust rain down
knock the devil on his ass
make him think twice
bout comin rounĘ here so quick
sooooo slick.
No more. . . .

Grandma, get your gun shove it down throats
Make them eat their words.
Make them stop eating us for breakfast.

Everyone is awake. Some people lean forward in their seats; others rear back as Matthews, slowly pacing, arms circling in the air, finishes this poem (reprinted in full here) and two others. As is her custom, she takes on "niggas" in general, and "New Age yuppies" whose penchant for cosmetic surgery can, she says, mean only one thing: "White Folks/ain't got enough problems."

The mostly white folks in the auditorium chuckle. "People today aren't quite so stuffy as in the 1950s," says Patricia Gray, director of the Poetry at Noon series. "The thing today with being a poet is, you are who you are. Whatever your talent and whoever it appeals to, you just go with it. You don't arrange something just for the audience."

"You have a lot of symbolism out there [on the poetry scene], a lot of hype," says Kwame Alexander, founder and publisher of BlackWords and a former student of Giovanni. "But with Tonya, you've got substance, a direct descendant of the audacity and boldness of the Black Arts Movement." The Library of Congress readings are not built on a performance-poet model--earning a spot requires an application and writing samples--and Alexander says being invited demonstrates how "Tonya has evolved--is still evolving. She has always wanted to find that balance between the page and the stage and make her words mean something on both fronts."

Matthews is part of the latest wave of African-American challengers to the poetic status quo, following in the 1960s footsteps of Black Arts Movement poets such as Sanchez and Giovanni, and contemporaries such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron--streetwise "rappers" who make liberal use of musical instruments during performances. They paved the way for artists and groups like New York's Nuyorican Poets Café, started in the '70s by a multicultural group of poet/performers, and Marc Smith, who set Chicago ablaze in the mid-'80s by hosting slams at jazz clubs like the Get Me High Lounge and the Green Mill, out of which developed the National Poetry Slam, which would expand through North America and Europe.

Nuyorican's mission, as stated on its Web site, is to "empower the underclass to join the mainstream and reinvigorate the American temper." It became a gateway to success for spoken-word artists eager to "blow up," taking their message of change and cultural revolution worldwide.

"When I started out, I remember wanting to blow people's minds, make them leave [the venue] feeling like, 'Wow, I'm fucking great,' and help them to wake up to themselves," says former Nuyorican slam champion Saul Williams, perhaps the genre's biggest name thanks to his starring role in Slam, a prize winner at the 1998 Sundance and Cannes film festivals.

The success poets such as Matthews openly crave, both individually and for the still-developing spoken-word genre, creates its own set of challenges. Williams says his 2001 CD Amethyst Rock Star, in which he performed with musical accompaniment, put him "at odds with the poetry community because it's not just poetry and with the hip-hop community because I'm not rhyming." And as performance poetry becomes more accessible and acceptable, compromise becomes an inevitable challenge.

"A lot of people involved in this business call it a game, and that [to succeed] you gotta play the game," Williams says. "I'm not playing a game."

Poet jessica Care moore addressed that problem by making the game her own. Moore--a featured author at last year's Baltimore Books Festival--rose to prominence in 1995 when she won Amateur Night at Harlem's Apollo Theatre for five consecutive weeks. She subsequently founded her own publishing company, Moore Black Press, and co-owns an Atlanta club, MoorEpics Café.

"I was trying to tell my story however I could get it out--still am," moore says. "There is always that matter of respect, who takes you seriously and who doesn't. I got my 'Ph.D.' in poetry, but not by going the academic route to find my voice as a writer. I always knew I had to make writing work [as a career] for me. It was never just some frivolous thing I do for kicks."

Following that calling has taken moore from performances in hair salons to nationwide tours and literary conferences. "With the hip-hop movement, in terms of looking at our culture and what goes on with black folks, there's always people trying to dis it. But it ain't coming out of a bubble and it's no joke," she says. "There's no doubt. . . . You can do it all."

It is not JaHipster sitting at the Charles Village Donna's on a Wednesday evening. It's a studious-looking young woman, a Hopkins grad student wearing jeans, a down coat, and--a big JaHipster no-no--eyeglasses. Sipping herbal tea to nurse a cold, Matthews mulls over "chicks," which has something to do with hair cells and channels to the brain from the ear that signal noise overload. "It's actually pretty simple to explain," she says, and loses you from there.

Aside from her scientific research, Matthews is also mulling over her writing career--something that brings a smile to her face. Her February, like preceding months, is filled with appearances, several a week, that show both where she is coming from and where she is going: a slew of slams, some book signings, a slot in the six-hour Spectrum of Poetic Fire poetry marathon at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she shared the bill with Maryland Poet Laureate Michael Collier.

At many such events, Matthews says, there's "a lot of talk about the new 'hip-hop literati.' And while I don't see myself as that in terms of wearing Phat Farm or Timberlands, I do in terms of being a revolutionary--that is, creating more access to poetry and helping people see their own self-worth."

It seems daunting to an onlooker--all these performances wedged in with doctoral work in a complex field of study. But Matthews dreams too large to be daunted.

"I think I was born 40 or 50 years too late," she says. "I mean, during the Harlem Renaissance it was considered the right thing to do to have several careers--and to be able to balance all that. I should be a Gordon Parks, a photographer, writer, movie producer . . ." Her rumination turns into a speech, one not so much rehearsed as regularly reviewed for adequacy.

As the herbal tea is replaced with ice cream and brownies, a stab at "comfort food" to combat her cold, Matthews turns the topic of conversation from ambition back to art, and the way hers became fired by issues of race and class largely absent from her own youth.

"You know, when I got the job writing columns for The Chronicle [at Duke], I was later told it was because they were surprised I could write. If I had never been challenged or questioned because of my color, I might have gone on unaware [of racism]. It was, in a way, the scientist in me saying, 'I need hard evidence--show me prejudice exists.'"

The various forms of proof, reiterated in different, sometimes subtle ways--and the realization of how fortunate she was to have the background and education to withstand them--would become a framework for much of her future work. "With what I was experiencing," she says, "it made me wonder, What are they doing to people who don't have [my] qualifications? It's got to be unreal."

Post-Duke, Matthews forged a writing and performance style built on direct, sometimes lurid, images of social and systemic ills. Emboldened by the enthusiastic reception of her poems at readings, she also began to take more creative risks like "Prophet," a poem she says took years of careful thought and consideration to write.

The piece contradicts the sentiments of many of her peers who still revere Tupac Shakur; moreover, and far weightier for Matthews, it takes on two of his most prominent and outspoken mourners and two of her own literary heroes, poets who represent the pinnacle of success among stewards of both the literary establishment and the avant-garde: "Tell Nikki G. I tattoo her name all over my poetry/ Tell Sonia to write more love poems for me . . ."

Giovanni and Sanchez "are known for their compassion and talent," Matthews says. But their reaction to Shakur's gunshot death in 1996 "gave me a feeling of immense sadness and then fear, like having two grandmother's who think that's the best we can do.

"I wrote the piece as someone who was in Tupac's generation, someone who had the opportunity to choose the same path he chose but didn't. My message to them is, 'Don't worry, the rest of us are coming.'"

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