To fans of verbal intercourse, the local spoken-word scene has been a godsend. Already in full gear before the films Love Jones and Slam brought slam poetry into the mainstream consciousness in the mid-’90s, spoken word has emerged locally as one of the primary outlets for youthful expression. New wordsmiths are constantly emerging at venues like Youth Speaks’ Oakland Mic, the Starry Plough’s venerable Berkeley Poetry Slam, and Oaklandish’s brand-new Slam Series. The sustained popularity of the form has made celebrities out of Bay Area poets like Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Paul S. Flores, Jason Mateo, Ise Lyfe, and Azeem Ismail — many of whom have parlayed their talents into national recognition. But the undisputed queen of the scene, its vocal heavyweight champion, is Puerto Rican and African-American verse-slinger Aya de León. When not in demand as a host or emcee for local and national poetry events, she can usually be found performing clever and emotionally honest performance art pieces filled with trenchant social commentary and insight, whether the subject is post-hip-hop feminism or undying declarations of self-love. Her annual Valentine’s Day “marriage” ceremonies at Berkeley’s La Peña have gone from an inside joke to an East Bay institution, and her recent show Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop provided the kind of cultural perspective on the popular musical form almost entirely missed by mainstream hacks and commercial flacks — unless you count Sarah Jones. Speaking of which, if de León maintains her present course, she too could find Meryl Streep knocking on her door, development deal in hand. Not that there’s much worry of a sellout situation with de León — her years of hard work at underground events suggest she’ll be keeping it real.
Aya de León