Making (Oral) History in Minneapolis

“Our spoken word started at the time of creation,” the seven indigenous poets who comprise Making Oral History write. The group performs at the Loft in Minneapolis on Saturday, May 5. Shannon Gibney spoke to Bao Phi, the genesis of the show.

bao phi
bill howes
Edye howes
Bobby Wilson
Jim Northrup
Marcie Rendon
Cetan Wanbli Williams

“We draw on this history of oral tradition by writing and speaking our many truths to inspire, heal, and move our communities,” write the poets of Making Oral History. “Much of our work reflects the effects of racism, history, love, grief, our families, and surviving while laughing. The Making Oral History cast of characters spans from the Indianish to old man humor to hip hop, from across our nations, to decolonize this one.”

An ambitious goal? Perhaps. But the Equilibrium spoken word series, or EQ as it is better known, has not shied away from artists who routinely tackle the most difficult issues of our time – from racism to homophobia to poverty to sexism. It is the brainchild of local spoken word poet Bao Phi, who has been curating and organizing the show for the past five years.

“Part of my vision for EQ was my experience as a performer,” says Phi. “Generally speaking, a lot of the shows I was performing at were either out of college or in a bar – which is fine. But I was kind of thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a venue that treated spoken word seriously? Where people were there to listen and to enjoy spoken word: the art and the words, but it wasn’t like a bar, where someone could be talking and just ruin the show?’ But we didn’t want to be stuffy. We wanted people to have fun; we wanted to have a good time.”

Thus inspired, Phi tapped his connections at the Loft, where he had been working as a receptionist, to get the staff interested in this initiative and bring new, younger, and browner audiences, to the venue. A five-year grant from the Lila Wallace Foundation underwrote the project.

“We were looking for participation of 20-30 people per show that first year,” says Phi. “And we exceeded that projection for an entire year in just one show. So, we’ve been really successful; it’s been really great. It’s very community-focused. People come and have a good time, and we get a lot of help from community folks.”

EQ has a particular focus on people of color, which gives the series a distinctive flavor. Says Phi, “The work I was gravitating towards was always by my fellow people of color and marginalized people. And part of it was also that, due to the demise of the Loft’s Inroads Program, there wasn’t a whole lot of that kind of programming going on. And I just felt like because of the work that I was doing in the community anyway, it just kind of evolved organically.

“I think it’s really important to have a space for communities-of-color spoken word artists to have their work taken seriously,” he adds. “Of course, all voices are important, but at the same time, there are a lot of open mics in this town, and there are a lot of different venues. And what we wanted to do was offer something unique.”

And this uniqueness will definitely be on display at the Making Oral History show, when Cetan Wanbli Williams, bill howes, Edye Howes, Sarah Agaton Howes, Jim Northrup, Marcie Rendon, and Bobby Wilson take the stage.

“Especially with the Native American population, even with a kind of art form that’s seemingly as democratic as spoken word, it’s really challenging sometimes to find Native spoken word artists – even in Minnesota,” says Phi. “So, I think it’s really great that they’re doing it together, because it’s going to have a big impact. I think people are hungry for voices from different communities, and I think showcases and events like this are going to help put people on the map.”

Catch “Making Oral History” at the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave. S. in Minneapolis, on Saturday, May 5 at 8 pm.