Niamh Rowe reviews a funny, political and touching evening of up-and-coming spoken word talent.
This was not the first time I had seen Kareem Brown recite his unique blend of biting wit, wordplay and poignant insight on family, race and his city. The previous summer, at a poetry night in north London, I had been taken aback by the pace of his puns and the accuracy of his observations about the changing face of a gentrified London.
The wordsmith had left me pondering – ‘how is someone so funny still not famous?’
When I saw Brown’s name pop up on Blahblahblah’s Bright Young Things lineup, I owed it to not only to my English degree, but also my fellow Bristolians to spread the gospel of his bars.
Tucked away in the intimate space of The Wardrobe Theatre, I was amused, challenged and spoilt by the talent of the bright young things- Brown, Maria Ferguson and Zia Ahmed.
'I was amused, challenged and spoilt by the talent of the bright young things'
Ferguson commenced the night with pieces from her spoken-word show ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’, a triumph at the Edinburgh Fringe. Ferguson’s autobiographical poems frankly discuss her problematic relationship with her body after battling with an eating disorder into her twenties, and the difficult yet essential project of loving oneself. In 2018 self-love and body positivity are by no means new topics on the millennial agenda, but the honesty of Ferguson’s words injects the topic with boldness.
‘Spanx’ and ‘My Body’ avoid pretense as Ferguson strips back her verse to the basics in order to bare her former insecurities naked before us. Yet my favourite piece, ‘Running Water’, is not from her fringe show. An elegy to her friend who passed away, Ferguson uses her late friend’s annoyance at taps left running to reflect on the wastage of prematurely ended life. Whilst Ahmed and Brown may have marginally outshone Ferguson in the sophistication of language, she lit up the room with her candour.
'in 2018 self-love and body positivity are by no means new topics on the millennial agenda, but the honesty of Ferguson’s words injects the topic with boldness'
Up next was Barbican’s Young Poet, Brown, who exceeded my memories of his charisma. My winner of the night, ‘Sunny D or Purple Stuff’, sees Brown playfully yet unapologetically demand for people not to ‘squint like the sun's in your face’ whilst pronouncing his ‘ex-ot-ic’ name. Brown calls out the stereotypes of being black, a man and a black man.
His rhyming flair, synthesized with even stronger wit, delivers a poignant premise: be a Black Sabbath fan when society expects grime from you, simultaneously laugh at and challenge our preconceptions of identity, and embrace our individual ‘grooves like communal butter’. Brown reflects on Pentecostal Christianity, race and toxic masculinity, but his words can resonate with all, surpassing the societal divisions that inspired them. Maybe it’s my Celtic tongue twister of a name or my north London patriotism that Brown speaks to, but I’m not alone in saying he is one to watch.
'Brown calls out the stereotypes of being black, a man and a black man'
Ahmed, another poetic export of north west London, completed the show with his distinct style. Ahmed is a London Laureate, Roundhouse Poetry Slam champion and Channel 4 Playwright in Residence 2016/2017. In other words, our palettes had been moistened for the night’s well-established main course. What’s most striking about Ahmed is his understated style- standing on stage with his head tilted down, speaking in a monosyllabic tone, Ahmed unsettles the expectation that spoken-word artists need to be larger-than-life entertainers to demand authority.
‘Mango’ touches on Ahmed’s experience as an Asian man in Britain, a synthesis of cultural references from Shakespeare’s Banquo to ‘are you gonna bang doe?’. The ‘mango’ rhyme is skillfully threaded through the piece, sewing together his darker moments of ostracization with perceptive wit. Like Brown, Ahmed confronts racial stereotyping, and dismantles what it means to be ‘English’.
'Ahmed unsettles the expectation that spoken-word artists need to be larger-than-life entertainers to demand authority'
Together, Ferguson, Ahmed and Brown defy the often-stigmatised status of ‘spoken-word artist’. They use a canvas of words to offer hard-hitting wit, political insight and emotional frankness, free from pretense.
(Featured image: Unsplash / Jason Rosewell)
Catch Blahblahblah’s upcoming ‘April Fools’ special on April 2nd, for a night of poetic foolery- get your tickets here.
What are your thoughts on these 'bright young things'? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.