Poetry for Southern California
Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available. And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...
CD by Queen Sheba
Oya Xclusive Int’l (www.OyaXclusive.com)
Love poems and political poems are the two types of poetry most likely to make the listener cringe. The problem with both of them is that it is too easy to fall into abstraction and cliche (and abstract cliches). Atlanta GA’s Queen Sheba not only does both love and political poetry, she often blends them, doing political love poems (and/or romantic political poems). But her work is strong and fresh enough to remain interesting.
It also helps that the various pieces on Domino Affect fit together nicely, and play off each other. In fact, the entire CD is a dissertation on the intersection of love, sex and politics, especially as manifested in today’s urban culture. There is a solid progression to this CD, the successive cuts building on what came before, each deepening the exploration of the issues involved. The best way to describe this CD is to take you through it cut by cut.
Domino Affect starts off with “I Am,” an affirmation of identity and power. It kicks things off on a powerful note, acting as an invocation of the personal strength which underlies everything to come.
The second cut, “Natural,” presents an idealized image of love: “I can’t tell you/ how to love me/ it’s got to be natural/ not physical.” That is certainly the hope, but Sheba spends much of the rest of the CD describing how rare and difficult this is, how many other things -- lust, jealousy, gender roles, economics -- get in the way of natural love. “Yes Brother,” with its chorus of “I don’t fear love no more,” continues the idealization of love, although the tension in its musical backing starts to hint at the troubles to come.
“Now I Know” dives straight into the reality of what passes for love, as it outlines the sexual power struggles in an unhealthy relationship. It goes through the insecurities, the domination, the economic conflicts, all through a prism of political responsibility: “I cannot teach empowerment if I let your insecure possessiveness render me helpless/ ... I cannot teach revolution from the passenger side of your SUV.”
The next two cuts examine the sexual politics of popular culture, especially as manifested in hip-hop music and videos. “Next Recipe” studies the actual sexism of that culture: “You’re not supposed to love it/ unless I’m half-nude/ nipples protruding through on the video shoot.” “Writing in Riffles” expands on this, explaining how this superficial entertainment keeps people from realistically tackling their problems: “It’s easier to dream/ than deal with this reality/ I would rather stay asleep than/ work on setting my people free.”
This is followed by the title track, which uses the game of dominoes as a metaphor for the larger picture of oppression and exploitation, although I’m not entirely convinced the metaphor really works. It seems to be a reflection on, again, surface distraction vs. actually tackling one’s problems. (And I have to ask, domino “affect”, not “effect”?)
Then we’re back into the realities of relationships, with the next three cuts focusing on those points when emotion takes over, destroying the idealism of love. “Somewhere in the Darkness” takes us through a relationship, from the seeming perfection (“he carries me over the threshold nightly to reassure our nuptials”) through the imbalance (“women who love the men who love them more than they love themselves”) to the inevitable failures (“I can’t come home/ stuck out here in this storm/ I’m sure he’s moved on”). “Penske” is about not accepting the break-up (“I should wish you well/ but I’m not there yet”), and “It Was” is a graphic description of sex with one man while thinking about another.
“The Bidness” brings together the themes of sexuality, politics and economics by examining the business of stripping from the perspectives of both strippers and their patrons. “You think I’m only strippin’/ but boy/ I’m about my bidness... The light bill’s due/ The gas bill’s due...” The central theme is of women doing what they need to do to survive, but it is certainly not a one-sided presentation. The video version of the song (on a bonus DVD), expands beyond the CD version to include even more angles on the topic. This is followed by “Ike”, which examines the connections between stripping and fertility dances, how the latter honors women while the former degrades them.
“I’s Wide Shut” follows that objectification to its inevitable conclusion, violence against women. This brings the themes of the CD together. The conclusion is that this (violence) is the inescapable result of failing to love naturally.
But Domino Affect refuses to be that pessimistic; it does not end on such a negative note. The final two cuts bring us back to some level of hope. “The Sound” is a soulful reflection on the beautiful melancholy of remembrance. And “It Will Pass” ends things hopefully, reminding us of just that, that no matter how bad things get, every tragedy will pass, and it is always possible to look forward to a better future.
Two other factors, besides this thematic unity, make Domino Affect a successful CD: the musical backing and the collaborations with other poets.
Domino Affect is a music CD as much as spoken word. Most of the backing music is provided by Charles Malone. Malone s a versatile musician, providing hard rock on “Natural”, solid rap on “Domino Affect,” pure hip-hop on “The Bidness,” and neo-soul on “Somewhere in the Darkness” and “The Sound.” In fact, the music is powerful enough that it threatens to overwhelm the poetry at times.
This is a common risk in backing up your poetry with music. The music provides a hook to snare the average listener, to bring them into the performance. But it can also make it easy for the listener to just enjoy the music, and ignore the poetry. The hope is, by giving it a palatable surface, the poetry will almost sneak into the listener’s consciousness. Domino Affect walks this line carefully. The poetry is strong enough to work its way through the surface, but even reviewing it, I often found myself more caught up in the music than the words. Of course, this speaks to the strength of the music. It is both a strength and a weakness. It gets people to listen, but does not guarantee they will listen deeply.
Although Queen Sheba is the primary poet on Domino Affect, it is, in many ways a collaborative effort. Almost every cut features a guest poet, spitting a verse of their own creation within Sheba’s pieces. The CD provides a wide sampling of Atlanta’s spoken word talent. In fact, “I Am” is written and performed by Fisiwe Zwana, and the central poem of the title track is performed by Paul D. The variety of voices is especially effective on “The Bidness” where, as I indicated, the different poets provide different perspectives on the issue of stripping. But it works throughout the CD, giving voice to a variety of talent, and in the process adding depth the discussion.
Finally, there is a bonus DVD of two (or is it three?) videos: “The Bidness” with a coda of “Ike”, and “Natural.” The videos are basic but effective. They show how much can be done with local shoots and basic video technique. This is true of especially “The Bidness” which illustrates nicely (and tastefully) the various perspectives of the piece.
Domino Affect is a powerful CD, operating on many levels. It works as music, poetry and political commentary. You should check it out. — G. Murray Thomas