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Speak Now

Living Word Fest honors the oral tradition with hip-hop flava.

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Years after her emergence as a chronicler of the civil rights and black power movements, Nikki Giovanni still cuts an impressive figure. Often opening her poems on a crescendo (In "Ego Tripping" she wrote: I designed a pyramid so tough that a star/that only glows every one hundred years falls/into the center giving divine perfect light) she easily shifts from sermonic rhythms to slangy, rapperly braggadocio. By the second to last stanza Giovanni sounded swaggeringly self-assured: I am so hip even my errors are correct. Not surprisingly, she's made a lasting impression on the hip-hop generation. While Digable Planets referenced her directly in their 1993 hit "Swoon Units," Giovanni's rhythmic cadence also resonates in the boasts of Lil' Wayne. And spoken-word artists like Oakland's beloved Marc Bamuthi Joseph — who started reading Giovanni as a teenager at his girlfriend's behest, and still carries a copy of Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day with him everywhere — wouldn't hesitate to declare themselves disciples of the elder poet.

As part of this year's YouthSpeaks Living Word Festival — which he directed and curated — Joseph organized a special tribute to Giovanni's 1975 collection The Women and the Men. Held Saturday, October 13 at the Black New World Gallery, this showcase will feature HBO Def Poets Amir Sulaiman, Dahlak Brathwaite, Lauren Whitehead, and Staceyann Chin, whom Joseph characterized as one of the most dynamic poets on the scene. "She's a Jamaican-Chinese lesbian living in Brooklyn, so she speaks to so many different experiences," he explained. "The direct lineage between her and Nikki Giovanni is very apparent in their work." The showcase will also feature 2006 SF poet laureate devorah major and local activist Greg Hodge, whose daughter, Chinaka Hodge, serves as Joseph's associate artistic director (not to mention she's a potent spoken-word artist in her own right). The idea, Joseph said, is to promote dialogue across gender and generation, using a medium that operates mostly in visceral, emotional terms. Nikki Giovanni would approve. The Women and the Men starts at 8 p.m. and costs $5-$10.

Running through October 27 in venues throughout the Bay Area, Living Word also will feature Friday night's Old to New Throwback Concert (9 p.m., $15) at the Shattuck Downlow, during which poet Ise Lyfe, emcee Zion, and hip-hop group the Attik will genuflect to old-school artists like Gil Scott-Heron, and Grandmaster Flash, using the Afro-Latin group Agua Libre as a backup band (singer Destani Wolf will perform a medley by R&B diva Lauryn Hill). The whole hype, Joseph said, is that "It's gonna be a way to honor these traditions as they're in transition — to move from that hip-hop base to this literary event and this tribute to a pioneering elder." Then on Sunday, October 14, Living Word shifts to holistic healing, when Yoga and dance instructor Candida Martinez leads a class on Ashtanga, Hatha, and Vinyasa Movement with musical accompaniment by soul singers Khalil Anthony, Viveca Hawkins, and Jennifer Johns. Devotion: The Live Yoga Series kicks off at 10 a.m. at Malonga Casquelourd Center and costs nothing. YouthSpeaks.org

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