Dana Bryant

Park West, November 2

By Ben Kim

In the last decade poetry has seized the only means of survival in our entertainment-dominated culture: it has become entertainment. Rap suggested an emerging generation’s interest in words, albeit only those spoken to it; writer and reader became performer and spectator. The poetry slam, which recast verse as stand-up comedy and competitive sport, was born at Chicago’s Green Mill, gained national prominence at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and became a viable nightlife option. And upon its absorption by Lollapalooza, MTV, and Levi’s (remember denim-clad bard “Max Blagg”) poetry was poised to birth its first stars since the Beats.

But somehow the stars never came out. A few of the slam scene’s leading lights put out albums on major labels and toured rock clubs. The record store’s Spoken Word section, and later the cut-out racks, swelled slightly with the likes of Nuyorican vets Maggie Estep and Reg E. Gaines. Though she missed its buzz-bin days, Dana Bryant’s Wishing From the Top (Warner Brothers) is the best recording of the spoken-word renaissance, a brilliant fusion of poetry and music that qualifies as the real thing on both counts. She’s the movement’s first diva, and everyone knows you don’t tell a diva she’s late.

Like a rapper, the 31-year-old Brooklyn native gives props to her influences. In fact she name checks Ntozake Shange, author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf at every opportunity, allowing that For Colored Girls awakened her muse and that she began her career “covering” Shange. In “Heat,” recalling summers spent in the south, watching ladies at church–“Though sweat pooled in the ample armpits of Jett Thunderbird / And soaked her dress into the crack of her ass she never acknowledged any discomfort / But rocked back and forth / in / it / Hallelujah / Amen”–she strides into Alice Walker territory.

But another influence entirely accounts for her status as a diva: On “Ode to Chaka Khan (Canis Rufus),” the album’s emotional climax, Bryant recalls how Khan also shook her young spirit: “Her stomach stripped of all but bronze blue flesh / Beaded rings of baby peacock feathers / Her hips swayin’ chains / of lilies laced wid sense-amelia / MARRY DOOJAH WANNA FUNK WID ME? / Her crotch / explodin’ light / Mound of venus rainin’ salt n flame on / open lifted stadium faces she bodacious.” Bryant’s ability to craft vivid personae echos Shange; her power to fill a room with them conjures Khan.

Poets generally have stronger instincts about the musicality of the language than about the music itself, and Bryant leaves the grooves to her able producers, Marco Nelson and Brendan Lynch, late of the Young Disciples collective, and Mick Talbot, formerly of the Style Council. (Other collaborators include P.M. Dawn, Speech, and Zap Mama.) It’s only right to expect the poetry to stand on its own, and it does in Song of the Siren (Boulevard Books, 1995), from which half of Wishing is drawn. But most of the musical tracks stand on their own as well–you can’t say that about Maggie Estep’s record. Bryant signed with Warner Brothers in 1993; the long wait for Wishing is owed at least partly to the logistics of working with the London-based Nelson, Lynch, and Talbot. The time they took to deliver the funk and soul was well worth it. Bryant has said she envisions Wishing as a heavy mellow companion to D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar; it’s not an idle wish.

Bryant’s ease with the vernacular of black women’s storytelling brings to mind a more recent literary forebear, Waiting to Exhale author Terry McMillan. The girl-let-me-tell-you selections are Wishing’s funniest, sassiest passages. “Cat Daddy (at the Sugah Shack)” finds a sister with her dander up over the advances of a small-time mack: “Can u believe the audacity / the unmitigated gall of this / jive-talkin’ Staggolee in a jumpsuit / wearing can’t get a job / cause he too busy dodgin’ / bullets n ropes in dat / Batman-ish made for television movie / he livin’ in… / okay / OKAY / I thought he wuz kinda cute.” And in “Dominican Girdles,” the 1992 single that stoked the hype machine, a desperate, skinny 13-year-old pads her “deficit assets”: “What I really / coveted / were those / extra-special / sashaying double-seaters / my cousin / Big Gal / sported shamelessly / thirty four / twenty four / FORTY FOUR / I’m talking depth and width.” The Wishing version adds a chorus of girlfriends egging the reminiscence on with hoots and mmm-hmms–you can almost see the wine glass in Whitney Houston’s manicured fingers.

In this mode Bryant could easily connect with the middle-class black female audience of McMillan, Benilde Little, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Faye McDonald Smith. But she is also tied to a tradition of social protest that the new black literary aesthetic finds tired and corny–a stance still fundamental in performance poetry and hip-hop. One of Bryant’s regular showstoppers is a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which she recorded for the Giant Steps Volume One compilation. The big political statement on Wishing is the morally unassailable Rodney King redux “Electric Skies,” in which Bryant mimics Scott-Heron’s declamatory natter: “I am Ten million voices Raised In a collective Scream of disbelief Outraged That your token Gesture of justice Would Be Tolerated Supported Believed N called due process.” You can almost see the pint glasses in white slamgoers’ guilt-dampened palms.

Bryant is the infrequently visiting boho sister of Exhale’s buppies, who welcomed her home somewhat stiffly during her too-brief 20-minute warm-up for smooth-jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan last weekend. “Three wishes is all you get,” she greeted them. “All things are possible. Ain’t no magician gonna make you white; this is black magic we’re talking about. You’re gonna be colored all your life, colored and loving it.” Her unaccompanied reading was revelatory, in literary terms–unfettered by the rhythmic imperatives of the beat, her poetry assumed its organic groove. “Heat” was all languid cadenzas, with plenty of room for audience response–the sweat soaking into the crack of Jett Thunderbird’s “aaasss” earned Bryant the evening’s first laugh. “Religion,” also from Wishing, drew some surprised, assenting groans: “You tasted the meat of me / and found me good.”

Amid the leather-and-mirrors opulence of the Park West, before a largely middle-class black crowd for many members of which the $100-plus evening for two represented the rewards of working within the system, of course Bryant just had to finish with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Her mostly rote cover updates the fine points. “There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay” becomes “There will be no pictures of LA pigs hardballing heads on the instant replay,” and Whitney Young and Roy Woods become Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Her final twist: the revolution will not be “just for the taste of it,” referring maybe to Diet Coke’s singing shill Whitney Houston.

Unlike Houston, the diva who can be everything to everyone, or even Khan, who proclaimed herself “every woman,” Bryant is best as herself. Her sharpest politics are personal, gleaned from her ideas about what she wants from life. “Heavy Mellow,” which seems to be her credo, finds her in her bed, a “stinking cesspool / of well worn / day old chicken / of backlash books / of bell hooks,” telling a would-be lover that “if my ears unwittingly / fill with wax / the minute you / whisper you love no other…if I inadvertently decide / to be deliberately / unladylike provocatively / tangibly / free / It does not necessarily follow / though you / understandably / may not agree / that I am less of a Woman / when I’m enjoyin’ more of me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christopher Griffith.