When Renea L. Moss took the microphone during Mello Mondays, the District's weekly spoken-word event, there were few men in the room.
The Miami Heat were playing the Detroit Pistons in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. The place was mostly filled with groups of smartly dressed young black women (which is not necessarily a bad thing), many of whom were sitting at dining tables and booths. They began ordering food shortly before the evening's host, Ingrid B., walked up to a microphone in the middle of an encirclement of couches and began the program; and they were eating as a series of poets, both heralded and unheralded, took advantage of the open mike. (Ingrid referred to the aspiring bards as "virgins.") Darryl Supreme performed an angry piece condemning the sexual predator accused of murdering rural Florida girl Jessica Lunsford this past February. Asia, whom Ingrid noted is a member of the Miami Masters slam team, recited a political poem about poverty in America, among other things.
So everyone was well-fed and ready for Moss, the featured poet of the night. She began with "Look into My Eyes," the first piece on her self-released CD, Love Costs. As she recited its lines, DJ Touchtone cued up the instrumental, a moody, ominous beat produced by Black Violin.
"But when I look into your eyes, I see past the smiles and realize you're hurting inside," she said, "Covering your cries with lies/By masking the base of the pain that has etched itself on the outside of your face/By using the base of makeup foundation to cover the evidence on your skin/But no matter how hard you try to hide your face/Your soul still shows."
Sensing her audience was beginning to wander, she called out, "I know the Heat game is on, but I hope we can turn the heat up a little bit." So she addressed everyone's favorite topic: sex. "I just wanna fuck," she announced, sending everyone into dithers and snickers. The ensuing piece was scandalously raunchy; at one point she promised her lover she would give him a blowjob so sweet the next girl would taste her spit. That really got everyone going. "Man, can I get her number?" remarked one young man to his friends.
On the surface, Mello Mondays reflect all the stereotypes of the spoken-word scene: full of earnestness and dedicated to the vagaries of male-female relationships, not heady "Howl"-like (or even "Black Art"-like) broken verse poetry. But Moss says it's not all about Love Jones (to reference the 1997 Larenz Tate vehicle which, like Reality Bites or Coyote Ugly, still holds sway as a generational marker). She says the venues in Miami are all different, and the District usually draws a "laid-back kind of crowd." "But I've been to venues in West Palm Beach where it's so pro-political, I would have never done [the sex poem] there, because they would have looked at me like, öWhat's going on? Spoken-word is about movement; it's not about that.'" So she'll drop a piece like "Ghetto Exodus," her version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," or "Rise, America, Rise."
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A divorced working mother with a two-year-old son, the 32-year-old Moss has been performing poetry since 1999. "I love making people think, and I love to write," she says. In the pop lexicon, her sphere is marked by Def Poetry Jam on HBO and wordsmiths such as Saul Williams and Jill Scott. Moss says she likes Scott, but also cites Sekou tha Misfit, Kirk Nugent, Helena D. Lewis, and Dwayne Morgan among her favorite poets. All of them are well-known entities within the spoken world; their relative anonymity outside it denotes how that scene is still something of a subculture.
Spoken-word hasn't produced many pop personalities, but it's extremely popular. In Miami, weekly events such as the Funk Jazz Lounge (which recently went on hiatus) and Mello Mondays draw a dedicated audience numbering in the hundreds. But Moss is ambitious. She commands up to a few hundred dollars for a fifteen-minute to half-hour set. She opened for Digable Planets during their March concert at I/O Lounge, recently finished a short tour through Georgia and Florida, and is actively campaigning to have a spoken-word category added to the Grammy Awards.
"There are maybe two percent [of us] that have broken over to the commercial side of spoken-word, as far as you hear them on TV, doing commercials and this and that," says Moss. "But I think sometimes, because of the way we market ourselves, that's why a lot of people haven't heard of us.
"I'm trying to cater to that market that will love it, but they just haven't been exposed to it," she continues. "I think there's so many talented individuals down here that could be doing so much more."