In 1998, I was in Atlanta, teaching by day and moonlighting as a journalist by night. The live band/artist/spoken word scene was bubbling and the hottest spot in the city was the Yin Yang Café. Among all the music and creativity, there was a strong buzz about an indie film called Slam. Hearing that a fellow Morehouse grad, Saul Williams, starred was enough to put it on the radar. That Slam featured poetry just made it more intriguing.
Directed and produced by Marc Levin, Slam tells the story of Raymond Joshua, an MC in the nation’s capital caught up in the penal system, dealing with those circumstances and his existential redemption. Slam is set in Washington D.C. and features former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, poet Jessica care Moore and others. Last week in Harlem, Maysles Cinema celebrated Slam’s 15th anniversary with a screening and panel discussion with Levin, producer Richard Stratton, co-writers/actors Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bönz Malone, Liza Jessie Peterson and Bob Holman.
DJ Spooky moderated the Slam panel, in an auditorium full of African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites aged from teenagers to fifty-plus. “The film changed our lives,” said veteran hip-hop journalist, author (Hip-Hop Immortals) and screenwriter (Brooklyn Babylon) Bönz Malone. He wondered how relevant the work was 15 years later, knowing a whole new generation has come of age since its release.
Saul Williams (who’s put out Afropunk hip-hop albums like Volcanic Sunlight and The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! since starring in the film) took the microphone next. “I haven’t watched the film in ages,” he admitted. “What got me is that the references aren’t even old. What got me was that it’s still relevant.”
Drugs, gang rivalry, a biased prison industrial complex system and the perpetuity of this cycle for inner-city Americans are all now well-known topics because of documentaries like The Corner or HBO’s The Wire. But Slam was 1998. Slam definitely influenced pushing all those issues to the forefront.
Writer/activist Liza Jesse Peterson summed up that reflection. “We influenced a lot,” said Peterson. “I think that we didn’t know the magnitude of what we influenced at that time, because we were in it. We were a part of this explosive movement. I think it was a counter-response to a lot of the hip-hop we were not feeling. We had something to say so we created this scene.
“A lot of artists that are now mainstream came out of that,” she continued. “They were influenced or inspired by what we were doing. The Mos Defs, the Erykah Badus, the Pharoahe Monchs, the Talib Kwelis—they were all in that scene, and we were all breaking bread together, creating together and spinning together.”
Yet poet Bob Holman had an eerily strong point to note. “Ninety-seven-’98 when we were making this film, believe it or not, this was the height of prosperity in American history.” Indeed. Many of the panelists and the crowd agreed about the film’s relevance. One young woman said she was 9 years old when it came out, and was just seeing for the first time long after embracing poetry as one of her own forms of artistic expression.
Someone asked what politicians had seen the movie; someone else in the back of the room rambled on with a five-part final question about the relevance of Slam’s apparent influence.
But to answer Bönz Malone’s question, Slam is still clearly relevant. To cement the film’s impact, Saul Williams said it best. “I know that we were all consciously thinking of poetry as spells,” he said. “We want to cast spells that affect the mentality of our generation. And maybe it will spawn out into something where young kids around the world will wake up and start reciting poems. That was the intention that went into this film. Cut to 40 countries and a million poetry readings later, Slam’s in a billion countries with people going, ‘I started reading poetry as a result of…’ Okay. Spells work.”
Brook Stephenson is a cultural critic hailing from Detroit, Michigan, currently based in Brooklyn, New York. He’s polishing up his first novel. Follow him on Twitter at @brooklife.