When I think of a spoken word gig, I think of visceral, lyrical and impassioned performances, where you can almost touch every word. When I think of a Hip-Hop club night, I imagine my euphoric state as the pulsating subwoofer sends rhythmic currents from my feet to my head.
I think it is fair to admit then, as we entered our third week of lock-down 2.0 where the only outings in my diary were the weekly shop, I may have been convinced that R.A.P Party’s 10 year anniversary celebration would not carry so well on Zoom.
How wrong I was. The event was a complete success, if not a little raw in its production; but for me this is exactly what made it feel like a true live performance.
Neither a club night nor literary event, the R.A.P Party is “like a lowkey house party where a few errant guests make beautiful speeches about why the DJ’s selection is the shit”. Previous parties have been thrown at the Southbank Centre, Rich Mix, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival; but tonight, as is de rigueur at this moment in time, the artists were broadcasting from their living rooms.
Aside from being the 10th anniversary party, the event was put on as a fundraiser for Deptford’s key cultural hub The Albany (where the first ever R.A.P Party was staged).
Founder Inua Ellams was our host for the evening. Kicking off the event was dynamic rapper and founder of Students of Life Ltd, BREIS. Performing an A Cappella version of the title track from his latest EP Arise and Shine, BREIS’ positive and motivational delivery was only emphasised by the occasional transition from spoken word into soulful lyrical melodies.
Then came DJ, poet and founder of Run Dem Crew, Charlie Dark. Dark presented us with “When the Beat Drops”, a joyous and nostalgic trip down memory lane that was dedicated to the adults who still appreciate Hip-Hop. Sentimental references were made to queueing in the cold for the Jazz Cafe, and old-school legends such as Rakim, MC Lyte and Big Daddy Kane. An ode, perhaps, to partying at the turn of the century; but for everyone listening that evening in the depths of lockdown, Dark’s poem was simply an ode to far more recent precious times.
The reminiscing continued with Steven Camden’s (aka Polarbear) performance of “Shut up Biggie”, where he talked us through an awkward teenage memory that became the root of his disdain for Biggie Smalls (which of course ignited a restless call to arms in the Zoom chat). Poet Zena Edwards treated us to a riveting celebration of the work of Missy Elliot, where it was made known that without the legacy of the legend there would today be no Beyonce or Lizzo. I for one can wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Edwards also made reference to Elliot’s Afrofuturistic aesthetic and vision, describing her as “the Octavia Butler of the genre”. One thing’s for sure, after Edward’s performance you were left in no doubt that women are at the forefront of the future of Hip-Hop.
Musa Okwonga recited his poem “Perfect World”, a poignant and arresting message about the devastating impact of climate change and Islamophobia. For me, the most painful aspect of this piece of work was that is was written thirteen years ago, yet felt more pertinent now than ever. After a slight technical difficulty and impressive gap-filling improv from Inua about the time they spent together in Ghana, we heard “A Question of Definition” by poet and children’s author Nii Parks. Equally as fitting as Okwonga’s piece, Parks highlighted how it was time to address the way we discuss slavery and colonialism, and its undeniable impact on the history of modern Britain; somehow this critical topic of discussion seems to bring on a ubiquitous amnesia in those writing our history books.
One of my highlights of the evening was 2019 Young People’s Laureate Theresa Rose, who presented a hopeful and inventive reworking of the tragic Clement Gomwalk incident. On 15th November 1969, Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk was arrested outside Desmond’s Hip City record store in Brixton as the police didn’t believe he was a diplomat and wrongfully thought his car was stolen. Legendary activist and Black Nationalist Olive Morris was quick to arrive at the scene and tried to break up the police and Gomwalk, which resulted in her also being severely beaten.
Rose acted out an alternate reality titled “Olive and Clement”, where Morris and Gomwalk peacefully entered the first Black record store in Brixton, relaxed, talked and listened to music. A serene imagination that so easily could have been a reality, “Olive and Clement” not only touched on the therapeutic healing qualities of listening to music, but highlighted how the racially motivated ill-judgement of officers has an immeasurably grave effect on the lives of Black people around the world; something that has barely changed today.
There were equally impressive appearances from Kae Tempest, who discussed their dissatisfaction with the banality of life and the present, Gemma Weekes and Jacob Sam-La Rose. However for me, the biggest highlight of the event was Joshua Idehen. A member of the alternative dance group Benin City, Idehen has also worked prolifically with jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings on two of his projects, Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming. Yet for the R.A.P Party, Idehen left his musical accolades behind in favour of a paired-down, painfully raw poem about the End SARS movement in Nigeria titled “Nothing Go Happen”.
End SARS is a social movement and series of mass protests against police brutality, that ultimately calls for the dismantling of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Rising to prominence in 2017, the movement was revitalised earlier this year after new records of abuse from the notorious unit of the Nigerian Police made it into the public domain. The title of Idehen’s piece is taken from a Tweet by a female protester who stated she was approached during a protest by a police officer stating “I go kill you, and nothing go happen”.
Idehen’s deliverance was utterly sobering, stunning everyone into silence for the poem’s duration. Swelling and growing in immediacy as the performance went on, lines such as “we are all Nigerians so even pain is competition” rang in the ears of listeners long after the reading ended. Idehen also referenced the shocking 1978 police raid on Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic in Lagos, which resulted in his mother Funmilayo being thrown from a second-storey window and later dying in hospital. The reference was an act of distressing realism, highlighting the evident lack of progression in Nigeria’s oppressive and corrupt police force since the 1970s. At times, Idehen was even reminiscent of Kuti himself, effortlessly flitting between English and Pidgin, and continuing a tradition of using the arts as a platform to fight oppression.
Our host Inua Ellams was the last to perform, rounding off the evening with a blend of classical music, Hip-Hop and poetry. Ellams brought the evening to a calm and resolved close, with one listener even asking for him to recite lullabies on Zoom every week. Ultimately, the R.A.P Party’s 10th anniversary party was a resounding success; a momentary vacuum of escapism where we could listen, reflect and dance all from the comfort of our sofas.
Playlist from the evening
- OutKast – So Fresh, So Clean
- Mobb Deep – Shook Ones
- Missy Elliot – Pass That Dutch
- Falz – This is Nigeria
- JID – 151 Rum
- Goldlink – Zulu Screams
- Eric B. & Rakim – I Ain’t No Joke
- Little Simz – Offence
- Madvillain (MF Doom + Madlib) – Rhinestone Cowboy
- Ms Dynamite – Neva Soft
- Nas – I Can