A Gathering in the Roux
The Makings of a New Orleans Slam Team
When preparing a pot of gumbo, one must start with the roux. Every good Louisianan knows this. The roux is the bone marrow that binds this body of savory goodness together. The rubber glue that cements all of that taste bud bursting flavor to your senses. It’s the cradle that nurses and holds every precious ingredient that makes up the magic that is gumbo. And like most things worth their weight in the world of physical matter, it all starts with the primordial element of water. Add a little bit of nature’s condensed raw materials, flour for consistency, seasoning for taste, stir it with intention and precision, and voilá— you’ve got your roux.
Next we add what is known in Louisiana, what my mother always endearingly refers to as the holy trinity—celery, onions, and green peppers; sliced, diced and ready to go. Drop ‘em in the roux and let ‘em stew. As you can see, there’s a slow winding process that takes place before the main stars of any good bowl of gumbo ever make their grand entrance. And like the roux itself, there’s a brew somewhere in Louisiana seasoning our livestock with all the aromas and very spirit of the swamp long before they ever make their way into the pot or the bowl at your local restaurant or into our salivating mouths for that matter. So yes, consider those crabs, shrimp, oysters, hell even the okra grown from the fertile soil adjacent to the river, twice brewed, stewed, and marinated.
Then it’s all thrown together in one pot and set to simmer atop flame with just the right amount of thyme, bay leaf, and Tony Chachere thrown in fuh good measure. Ooh yeah boi, dat’s what I call cookin’! And when it’s all said and done, you’ve got a party in your mouth with more bounce and pizzazz than a zydeco band playing back up for a gospel choir on a bounce bus bullying its way down Canal Street. Ahh—but it all blends perfectly. Such is the nature of Louisiana living, and the block party, and the crawfish boil, and the hip-hop cipher to a bounce beat drumming off a school lunch table any given school day of the week, and the group of transplant activists or hipsters conjuring their own brand of second line, the table of organizers, all things ensemble in the city of New Orleans, and the bowl of gumbo at ya’ Grandma’s house on a Sunday evening.
When all of the original members of Team SNO first officially met, we were relative strangers. Yet, we jumped into a cipher like a pot of rumbling roux and threw down no questions asked. The year was 2009. The scene unfolded next to an abandoned house in the eighth ward of the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans. I came from one direction flanked by a poet, an MC, and a photographer. Approaching from the other side of the street was another ensemble of poets, one male, two female. When we all gathered together on this anonymous empty lot to “build” as random poets/artists of the hip-hop generation tend to do, we inevitably found ourselves creatures of routine, drawn into a circle by the same inherent force that had brought us all together in the first place. Twas the word, the verve behind it, the ancient hum, the “mmm hmm” and “uh huh,” the primordial boom bap, and gravitational pull of the rhythm within us, the gathering melody between us, that drew us all together.
In circle format, the sounds emerged. Shacondria “iCon” Sibley poured on hums like lubricant for the lyrical flow to dance atop. Kataalyst Alcindor kept time with the snapping of tongue and lip spelling out the bebop backdrop. Tarriona “Tank” Ball evoked embryonic croons (that would only hint at full scale wales later on), and then I dropped the word. “…Lyrical lifer/ so you know I got bars…” Light appetizer to sprinkle in an already simmering stew. My word was followed by the lyrical mastery of a brother named “Addiktion,” the MC from Baton Rouge that had approached the scene with Kataalyst and I. It’s safe to say that Addiktion single-handedly laid down the shrimp and crabs that day while the team itself merely served as roux and seasoning (with a little oysters visa vise Tank and okra courtesy yours truly). Meanwhile, “off set” was the photographer engaged in some kind of planning session with Team SNO’s at the time emerging “Slam Master’”(think: chef), Akeem Martin.
The four minute masterpiece that we evoked that day paved our path towards internet mini-sensation status in the poetry/arts community and we have the homegirl, Christine “C-Freedom” Brown to thank for it—the world may have never known our name without her.
Such became the stuff of legend, Post-Katrina cosmogony if you will. That day marked the genesis of the mighty Team SNO, aka Slam New Orleans, the city’s first slam poetry troupe after Hurricane Katrina. That impromptu cipher marked the gelling of the chemistry, or better yet, the simmering of the brew that would ultimately accrue into a world-class linguistic dish of epic proportions. We were, as I have said, relative strangers who had only met for a brief time the summer prior to perform in Tallahassee, Florida in what was many of our first major slam competition; the 19th annual Southern Fried Regional Slam Poetry Competition. Mostly nascent slam poets in the summer of 2008, we left the second largest Slam Poetry festival in the country floored, amazed, and hungry for more. Twas the hands of fate met by the muscular push and pull of young artist hunger and ambition that funneled us back together to share the same destiny. Five tributaries streamed into one river, settled in the delta poised for new horizons.
“Five Heartbeats, One Mic” became our motto. And like any good pot of gumbo, the flavor that emanated from what we got cooking in the following months caused the community to gather ‘round us. Saturday open mics at the “Pass it On” series hosted by Gian Francisco Smith (who would go on to become a featured poet on HBO series Treme) and co-host Alphonse “Bobby” Smith gave the steady flock of fellow poets, artists, friends, and fans alike a weekly dosage of the “five heartbeats” with “one mic” that was Team SNO. It’s noteworthy to mention that the “Pass it On” series drew its namesake from a famed saying of Bobby & G’s business partner, Ayo Scott’s dad, renowned artist John Scott. It’s basically the New Orleanian way of saying “pay if forward.” And indeed, that was the spirit of 2009. A post-apocalyptic city in disrepair, it’s artist like wounded messiahs looking for the next poem, the next song, the next painting, like the beaks of the Sankofa bird searching for the lost plume of its feathers. Gathering what we could of our pummeled pasts to build links towards our collective future.
Likewise, I find it important to note, that just as the traditions were being passed on, the roots of our poetic/artistic family tree hearkened back through limbs that connected all of us to Pre-Katrina New Orleans like umbilical cord to womb. Pozazz Poetry troupe, for example, was my baptismal poetry community and to this day still sets the tone in my mind for what an “authentic” open mic should be. Both Con and I can attest to this. If “Pass it On” was our Post-Katrina salvation, then Pozazz’s Friday nights at what had been (and shall always be for many of us) known as “True Brew” café, were our Pre-Katrina John the Baptist.
With sensational DJ Dynamite Dave Soul on the ones and twos, and the host of all hosts, Charlie “Uptown’s Finest” Vaughn mastering the ceremonies, True Brew brought me to the first place I got to really see New Orleans. I heard the stories of my folk from all around the city, from the ninth ward to uptown, Westbank to Gentilly. Stories unfiltered by the plastic diction of six pm newscasters and arbiters of division and propaganda. But instead the raw emotions behind the bullets (both released and received), the struggles of the bodies reduced to numbers and blurbs on the evening news, the sensuality and tenderness behind eyes so often jaundiced and far removed from my own, even when directly in front of me. In short, poetry made my people human again. In a city on the brink long before Katrina, infamous for its murder rate and crumbling schools, the gift of the word presented my people to me whole again, even in our brokenness. Words were planted in my young collegiate mind, words that would marinate and simmer in me for years—until it was my turn to speak.
Meanwhile, Akeem and Tank hearkened from an entirely different generation and school of poetry. As mere teens they performed with the successful youth slam group, NOYS (New Orleans Youth Slam) placing as high as tenth in Brave New Voices, one of the most renowned youth slams in the country. So by the time all of these tributaries came together, by the time our lyrical flows gelled into a cohesive river, a brewing roux, we had all experienced years of cultivation in the fertile grounds of the New Orleans community and the poetry community at large.
The year of 2009 found us and we found it like a hidden recipe pasted to the back of your grandma’s cupboard. We had a bit more ingredients and flavor than we even knew what to do with at the time. Sometimes a bit too much cayenne, crab, or ego; sometimes not enough fire, or at others, too much simmer. But as time went on, the magic that we conjured that day in the eighth ward became the stuff of ritual and routine. No happenstance voilà moments anymore. But carefully cultured masterpieces, perfectly tempered and seasoned… and in their season.
Last year, our ensemble soared to its greatest height yet. Sans the presence of the author (I took a year off from Slam to finish my grad degree in education) the original members plus Justin Lamb, a new edition as of 2011, went on to place second in the Southern Fried Regionals for the second time in three years. Then a few months later, Team SNO went on to achieve the unthinkable. They won their second national title, this one for the overall competition (the first was for group pieces), in just as many visits to the National Poetry Slam. Yowza! To think… we started off in an abandoned lot in New Orleans a few years after the greatest storm this country’s ever seen. We told our story. We told our city’s story. And some of the greatest poets in the world crowned us for it.
Of all the moments that Team SNO and I experienced, from performing all over the city and the south to coming back home to honors from Mayor Landrieu himself, there’s one that stays with me the most:
It was in the year 2010, on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when we stood only feet away from the now infamous ninth ward levee that Katrina’s waters swept over in 2005. We were there to commemorate the date and honor those lost in the storm. The team designated me as the one to speak the names of the victims. I’ll never forget the weight of those names in my throat as I tried to get them out of my mouth without a hitch under the glaring lights of TV cameras. It was the first time I really felt the pain of the city, the horrors of Katrina coarse through my body. Having been in Tallahassee when it happened, the closest I had been theretofore were the stories my survivor brother and mom told me, the pictures on CNN, and the hours I had spent rummaging through our devastated home and that of my grandmother’s.
But to speak the names that day, I couldn’t do it without envisioning all of the lost lives adrift in that water. All of those lost bodies that once walked the very streets beneath our feet. I envisioned all those bodies, and all that water, and then they all rose up in my throat and sat stillborn and haunting at the rim of my eyes. Indeed, New Orleans is a swollen city, swollen with passion, pride, and life; a haunted city, haunted by devastation, tragedy, and death. The task of speaking for an entity of such magnitude is a bit much for any one person to bear. But with my Slam family next to me that day, I just barely got the words and the names of the victims out of my mouth.
Before the ceremony, we placed our hands on the levee wall that stood sanctimoniously behind us. We held our hands on it like the saints at church do when praying for a person in need. The following Monday when USA Today published a picture of us on their front page, we once again felt the love of every one in the poetry, New Orleans, and greater artistic community. I’ll never forget the Facebook comment of an elder poet from the NOLA/Baton Rouge poetry community, Chancellor “Xero” Skidmore: “Yeah poets! Y’all are holdin your people up along with that wall.” He was right. But like any good roux, the city was holding us right back— the whole time.