Slam poet Shihan moves students with beats

If we have learned one thing from the past few weeks, the power of words might be the most significant. Whether used in conversation or scrawled upon a wall, certain words can serve to denigrate, separate and propagate hatred; while just as easily, words can also be used to inspire or instigate much-needed change. Last Friday’s Black History Month Keynote Performance by the spoken word artist Shihan emphasized this idea, bringing refreshing verbal innovation with a positive message to an appreciative audience.

Native to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Shihan is the co-founder of Da Poetry Lounge, currently the largest open-mic forum in Los Angeles. He has made appearances on all six seasons of Def Poetry Jam, an HBO television series dedicated to the presentation of slam poetry by both rising and established artists. The 2004 National Poetry Slam champion and three-year finalist, Shihan has been featured on venues such as CNN, Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Network, NBC and Nike and Adidas commercials. Friday night marked the 22nd show of his four-month “Tour of Compilation.” Paresky Performance Space was filled to the brim with expectant listeners – poets and non-poets alike – who had come to hear the words that have made Shihan so widely known.

Apart from four bottles of premium Williams College water and a mic, Shihan stood alone on the stage, dressed comfortably and exuding an aura of confidence and ease. After receiving a warm welcome and connecting with the audience immediately, he proceeded to get right down to business, and as soon as Shihan opened his mouth, the room fell silent.

Every single word packed a punch, investigating and grappling with things like escapism, consumption and vagrancy, all in a fluid conversational manner. Shihan’s manner was eloquent yet simple, and he integrated his whole body into his poetry, using subtle shifts in his hands, as well as volume and pitch to accentuate his style. Looking around, it was stunning to observe the rapt attention focused upon him from every point in the room.

Shihan also spoke of lighter topics, poking fun at technology with a spoof of a television commercial, keeping the audience engaged by asking questions that sometimes segued into humorous stories, sometimes another poem and sometimes absolutely nothing at all. Shihan frequently delved into the topic of family, relating tales of his children and wife, but turned this potentially trite subject into one of substance by cross-referencing religion and his role as a father in his poem “In Response.”

Jokingly referring to poetry as the unwanted step-sister of theater, Shihan discussed the paucity of media opportunities for spoken word artists. “Poetry,” Shihan said, “is a live phenomenon which needs to be seen and experienced.” He explained the roots of slam poetry and the champion-oriented mentality which turns artistry into yet another scramble for fame and glory. Moving on to discuss black stereotypes on television and in the media, Shihan provided first-hand accounts of the deleterious effects of the entertainment industry on other countries’ perceptions of America. He underscored this with a satirical poem, “Negro Auction,” in which he painted a bleak caricature of the racial stereotyping present in the world.

Throughout the whole performance, I could not stop thinking to myself how intelligent this man is. He sees the big picture, analyzes it and relays it to audiences through a confidential and easy manner, never patronizing, guilt-tripping or self-righteous. He kept things light-hearted by telling jokes, and then would suddenly hit us with something so powerful and so original that one couldn’t help but gape wordlessly. My favorite piece, “Flashy Words,” was an intense diatribe on ignorance, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and tangled twists of verbal calisthenics.

Near the end of the show, Shihan answered questions from the audience and then proceeded to finish with one last poem and a couple of jokes, leaving the night where it started – with a hearty laugh. Shihan was an entertainer in every sense of the word – talented, down-to-earth and incredibly versatile.

Shihan’s new album, The Balance, is now out and can be accessed from his Web site. I would highly recommend giving it a listen. As Williams students, much of our success often lies in our ability to craft a satisfactory sentence, but just how often we really stop to think about the content of our words and really listen to the words spoken by others is a different story. In a world where “originality is unappreciated like butterscotch Lifesavers,” gifted individuals such as Shihan stop us in our tracks and make us feel and appreciate the value of a meaningful message.

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