Date of Award

Fall 2019

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Cultural Studies, PhD

Program

School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

David Luis-Brown

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Matthew Delmont

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Eve Oishi

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Joshua Goode

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2019 Anthony S Blacksher

Abstract

In December of 2001, Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry (Def Poetry Jam) turned HBO viewers into audience members of a televised poetry reading, featuring spoken word and performance poetry. Over six seasons, actors, rappers, comedians, and the host, Mos Def, joined poets in a unique representation of counter-public open mic poetry readings and poetry slams. This dissertation unpacks the poetry, performances, and the production of Def Poetry Jam to explore how a performative art embodied and confronted racial discourses, including stereotypes and also, addressed the racism, patriotism, and imperialist discourses that circulated after 9/11. Def Poetry Jam contributes to the intellectual capacity of spoken word and performance poetry, and poets as intellectuals, where poets produce and disseminate knowledge, ideas, and data, in the form of narratives, that contribute to critical consciousness. The effectiveness of the series lay in the consistent blurring of entertainment, knowledge, anti-capitalism, and capitalism. This research demonstrates how Def Poetry Jam provided organic intellectuals, through poetry, a space to name the pain of history, demonstrate pleasure amid structural inequality, and to imagine themselves in liberatory ways. The following questions guided this exploration of Def Poetry Jam: from which poetic traditions did Def Poetry Jam originate and thus represent to television audiences; how did the on-screen representation of performers and poetry contribute to the production of cultural consciousnesses; and finally, how did Def Poetry Jam offer an archive of knowledge about the United States, particularly those experiences of African-Americans and people of color, in the early twenty-first century? Following a content analysis of the three hundred ninety-four performances on the series, supplemented by interviews with talent coordinators Shihan Van Clief and Walter Mudu, as well as poets Mayda del Valle, Abyss, Willie Perdomo, Javon Johnson, and Bob Holman who appeared on the show, this research found Def Poetry Jam, as a commercial project, negotiated cultural resistance within the controlling images of Black bodies and people of color on television. Their poetry extended the Black radical poetic tradition, that, in-large part began with the Harlem Renaissance, and continued through jazz poetry, the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, and poetry slams. Building on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, poets on Def Poetry Jam served as organic intellectuals, engaging in the cultural and political struggle for hegemony and the dominant ways of understanding social processes. Whereas poets are typically considered traditional intellectuals who participate in the struggle for hegemony through narration and observation, Def Poets were presented as participants who use spoken word and performance poetry to build critical consciousness among Black communities and communities of color. In performing this intellectual work on television, poets represented themselves and were represented by the television series as easily recognizable members of racial and ethnic groups by invoking the controlling images and stereotypes that their poetry confronted. This research, therefore, builds on Mark Anthony Neal’s work on illegibility, where subjugated bodies challenge the very representation they seem to embody. Neal’s introduction of the ThugNiggaIntellectual, especially captures the representation of Def Poetry Jam, as poets subverted the stereotypes and controlling images to link the imperialism and systemic racism of the United States to the interpersonal relationships, community building, and daily life in the 21st century. As a television series, Def Poetry Jam’s collection of performances serves as an archive of knowledge confronting the ideology of American patriotism and neoliberalism in a post 9/11 United States. In presenting Def Poetry Jam as an archive of knowledge, this research introduces sociopoetix as a method of critical analysis for spoken word and performance poetry. Grounded in Aimé Césaire’s valuing of poetic knowledge and Michel Foucault’s method of problematization, sociopoetix further depicts the poets of Def Poetry Jam as organic intellectuals in the struggle for hegemony. However, like much of Russell Simmons’ “Def” projects, this research finds Def Poetry Jam to be a television show that negotiated political and cultural radicalism with a commercial viability grounded in the multiculturalism of hip-hop. The series’ negotiation of critical consciousness and reproduction of neoliberal ideals, especially where cultural and political radicalism became the commodity, illustrates what Regina Bradley describes as messy intellectualism. As Def Poetry Jam allowed performances, particularly by Black poets, to speak candidly about systemic oppression and to make meaning of their own experiences, identities, and humanity on television, this research explores the series’ role in the context of Black television. Building on Manthia Diawara’s of outline of new Black realism in film, this research offers Def Poetry Jam as a televised successor of that genre, pioneering a narrative technique defined as matter-based narration. While much of this research foregrounds the relationship between performances of poetry and the social contexts to which these poems responded, the mise-enscene and representation of Black bodies, particularly Black women’s bodies, made Def Poetry Jam a significant, if understated, television series in history of Black television.

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