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Big Poppa slamming to rights through poetry

BY MELEA ANDRYS | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

Renowned slam poet Eirik Ott loved it when rapper Mos Def called him “Big Poppa” behind the scenes at HBO’s “DEF Poetry Jam.”

“There was this one time backstage, [the performers] were waiting for the show to start, and we can hear the buzz of the audience,” Ott said. “Suddenly, around the corner comes Mos Def, and he’s lookin’ around and just chillin’, and way in the back he sees me and says, ‘Yo, what’s up, Big Poppa?’ and he crosses past everybody to give me a big hug. And I thought, ‘That’s right, bitches.’ ”

Ott, a.k.a. Big Poppa E, is no stranger among rap royalty. The three-time “DEF Poetry Jam” veteran has gained fame throughout the hip-hop community for his charismatic, comedic, and politically charged slam poetry.

“In the past 20 years, I think underground hip-hop has really brought a lot of people to the performance poetry community,” he said. “It also legitimized the writing of a lot of people — especially young people, who write lyrics in a little book or something. It has been able to tell them that, ‘Hey, that’s poetry, too.’ Tupac wrote poetry — it’s just poetry set to a beat.”

Ott described his slam poetry as part dramatic monologue, part standup comedy, and part high-energy rant. This isn’t the traditional mix for most poets.

“What I’m doing is more natural,” he said. “It’s more immediate and more provocative. The poet’s voice is right in your face, and you can smell what they ate that morning … I just talk about the pain and suffering and joy of relationships, how jacked-up politics are, and how we humans are all connected on this lonely little planet. I talk about things like consumerism, feminism, masculinity, and gender — and the whole time you’re laughing too hard to realize you’re learning something.”

Tonight, Ott will brings his celebrated slam poetry to Iowa City to promote a good cause. As both the featured performer and emcee of the [J]amnesty benefit concert — a human-rights fundraiser put on by the UI chapter of Amnesty International — his socially conscious comedy will be an integral part of the evening.

The event will start at 7 p.m. in 1505 Seamans Center. For a suggested admission donation of $5, audience members will see not only Ott’s performance but also musical acts Capes of Lead, and Olivia Rose.

Renugan Raidoo, the event coordinator for the UI chapter of Amnesty International, said he is enthusiastic about the benefit.

“People can expect a very fun performance and a very fun atmosphere, but our primary goal is still awareness,” he said. “We’ll also have letters and petitions to sign and coloring in butterfly cutouts to send to public officials in Mexico [to promote women’s rights]. Big Poppa E is a hilarious character, [and he] knows a lot about selling human rights through his poetry.”

Indeed, Ott has spent the past several years working with Amnesty International, headlining regional concerts and readings as well as holding poetry workshops for high-school and college students.

“I love [Amnesty International’s] goals and energy,” he said. “I love how [the members] get young people off their butts and motivate them to do something with their world. I love how they give them the tools to do that and show them that all it takes is one person to really affect someone’s life.”
He sees slam poetry as an ideal performance and educational method for the global human rights association, he said.

“Poetry slam and Amnesty International want to accomplish the same thing, which is to allow people the freedom to live their lives the way they want without shame,” Ott said. “[Poetry slam is] a really fun way to surround yourself with these important issues and to make it more entertaining, fun, and uplifting.”

In poetic tradition, he is able to narrow his brand of slam poetry into a single metaphor — despite its inherent complexity.

“It’s standup comedy with more meat to it,” he said. “Or maybe more vegetables. That’s it — standup comedy with more vegetables.”


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