Fifteen years ago, Keith Rodgers held a get together in the living room of his Tallahassee, FL apartment. People sat on the sectional couch under dim lighting, hunched knees-to-chin on the staircase, or stood behind the kitchen counter and waited. Finally, Keith stood up the in middle of the living room with his back to the television and spoke a movement into existence.
What started in 1998 became Black on Black Rhyme Poetry Troupe, a collective of artists and poets. Keith started a poetry show in his apartment and branched out to an open mic at Mt. Zion Calypso cafe when his sectional became too crowded. More than just an event, the organization extends feature opportunities, networking placements, product sales, and mentoring to members. Many of our members have branched off to write books and do other great things. (You can catch my friend Reggie Eldridge on this season of tvOne’s Verses and Flow!)
When I met Black on Black Rhyme (BOBR) in 2004, it had spread to Tampa. I was green then, afraid of my own shadow, and certainly not brave enough to step onto a stage and spit poetry. But the encouragement and inspiration I received from the talented poets emboldened me; my voice and paper still shook when I read for the first time.
It’s been almost 10 years since I joined BOBR. It’s grown to having active poetry shows in Atlanta, Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Tallahassee, and Tampa. Over time, my relationship to the collective has morphed from a weekly pastime to that of family. We break bread together. We have attended each others’ weddings and loved on unborn children as if they were blood. Words brought us together, but we are worth more than even the weight of words to each other.
Because of BOBR, I am a more confident woman. Learning from the poets who have become my friends enabled me to stand up on a stage with people like Jeff Johnson and Jamaica Kincaid and rock it. I used poems to break the ice on my nervous teaching days. I created a two-woman show with a fellow poet and held my own.
One of the things I love most about my troupe is that they put poetry to work. Many poets are educators and employ spoken word as a teaching tool to engage kids in literacy. We do our best to put heart in the art of spoken word. We have done benefit shows for Haitian relief, gotten our hands dirty cleaning public parks, brought hugs to sick children at hospitals, done prison outreach, and hosted local radio shows.
My mentor also started a nonprofit organization, Heard Em Say Teen Poetry, to specifically cater to the needs of youth poets.
Black on Black Rhyme subverts the much-maligned phrase “black on black crime” and transforms it into a positive force for change.
I’m not a perfect performer by a long stretch. But Black on Black Rhyme has stretched me. From doing pop up poetry at barber shops and street corners, to traveling the country on the strength of spoken word–I am a testament that poetry can change a life one rhyme at a time.
We have a saying at Black on Black Rhyme: When life gives you back talk, don’t be afraid…to Talk Back!
So if you see me onstage or on the street, call out BACK TALK! Help me wish a happy 15th Anniversary to my poetry family; because of them, I will always respond: TALK BACK!