This event was held at Zion Arts Centre – a vibrant youth and arts centre just outside of the city centre. The theatre space had been set up with cabaret style seating, creating the feel of a jazz bar rather than a straight performance space.
Young Identity poetry collective kicked off proceedings. This group of poets and performers was founded in 2006 in Moss Side, and has since gone from strength to strength. The performers were confident and engaging: young, honest voices offering poetry and spoken word that was brutal, moving and hilarious. I wasn't sure what to expect from the group, but I’ll definitely be checking them out in the future.
Chuck Perkins took to the stage accompanied by his 'Manchester band': Aid (percussion), Rich (drums), Andy (double bass), and Lawrence (piano). We were treated to two sets with an interval, the first set described by Perkins as “all the pissed off political poems!”. He started with a poem inspired by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, examining the human impact of economic turmoil: "What's the mark-up on a soldiers casket?". The poem, about the unfair distribution of wealth, was accompanied by the frightening statistic that CEOs in the U.S currently earn 821 times more than the lowest paid workers in the company!
Perkins is a master storyteller and performer; his poetry is relevant and beautiful, and has at its heart the people and places he knows well. He grew up in New Orleans and returned there after years of moving around with jobs; its spirit and rich musical history has clearly influenced his work a great deal.
As a performer, Perkins is passionate, entertaining and, well, pretty damn amazing. He also has a natty line in wild and wonderful anecdotes, such as a story about ending up in a crack den after befriending a homeless guy: “I don’t smoke crack and I’m an atheist but hey, it was 6am and there I was reading the bible to them. Don’t try that at home!”.
The jazz-fusion and blues music is part of the poetry, rather than an accompaniment, and the music inspires a new appreciation of the rhythms in the spoken word. Jazz and blues influences, social history in America from the Civil Rights Movement to current economic issues, and the personal history of friends and family all feature in Perkins’ work – you get the impression that he was born to tell these stories.
After the interval, Perkins returned to the stage celebrating the diversity of New Orleans, a city that “had no choice but to be different” – Spanish, French, Haitian, Cuban, African and then American people settled there, creating a truly unique city rich in culture and diverse in terms of its festivities. A poem accompanied by traditional Native American music was about the Mardi Gras custom of African Americans masking themselves as Native Americans. Perkins summed up this beauty and diversity: “African-Americans masked as Native Americans on an Italian-American holiday!”
He went on to tell us about ‘Jazz Funerals’, where the mood starts somber with hymns and slow marching, but develops into celebrations of the person who has passed – “From soft and sad to wild, happy and a little mad”, a true expression of feeling through music and movement. One poet and four musicians painting a picture of the noise, dancing and outpouring of emotion of hundreds.
At one point, a challenge was issued: Perkins said that despite being past the age where you can legitimately rap, he wrote one anyway. In the ‘80s, rap artists like NWA and Public Enemy were political, brave and important, but now rap music is derivative and materialistic. To this, and to new generations, Perkins says: “Tell me something I don’t know!” Members of Young Identity Collective were still in the audience, and it’s safe to say it’s a challenge they rose to.
Chuck Perkins told the audience that if any of us is ever in New Orleans, we should drop him a line as he’d be the best tour guide ever. I don’t doubt that for a second.
by Alex Herod
Alex is Deputy Editor of For Books’ Sake. She has just finished her MA (Performance Works, Leeds Met) and is keen to meet writers, makers and do-ers through her Collaborate Here project.