the Tug of War Tour

February 19, 2010

When I was teaching high school, there were one or two times when I said to myself, “OK, this gig is rough, but I do get to rub shoulders with young genius. Take this kid here – I should keep an eye on this kid, because someday her name will be in lights and for once I’ll be ahead of the zeitgeist.” Well, it wasn’t so much a matter of discovery, of painstakingly searching out the diamond in the rough, but of paying some very basic attention. When the kid came along, it really did not require subtle perceptions on my part to know she was going to make a splash. Her name was Tahani Salah, and she was a politically-vibrant, down-to-earth Palestinian-American Muslim slam poet. She had the way with words, but she also had the winsome combination of a profound vulnerability with an urban toughness, and for a WASPy Masshole from Naw-wood like myself, the combination of the hijab and the Brooklyn accent was irresistibly exotic.

Anyway, keeping her on my radar really paid off the other night, when I visited the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for the first time, trudging through LES snow, to catch Tahani in the Tug of War Tour. This is one of those perverse undertakings that supposedly suffuse our miscegnating and cross-pollinating pop culture but, if you take the time to look, are actually pretty rare. In this case, a rap duo called Most Hated, made up of Mazzi (Iranian Persian) and Sneakas (Jewish Israeli), said, “Let’s find another cross-cultural pair of artists and take this show on the road!” They found Vanessa Hidary, aka “The Hebrew Mamita,” and Tahani Salah and the whole crew, with MC Serch as their promoter, took the stage at the Nuyorican this past Tuesday night.

I have to say a word about the opening act. The lights went out, and a drummer named Swiss Chris sat in a metal chair and drummed on a pad on his knee with drumsticks illuminated at their tips by shifting colors of glowing light. Within seconds I was thinking, “This is so simple, and so beautiful, I can’t believe I’ve never seen anyone do this before.” Before long he was drumming on the floor, the chair and every available surface. Eventually he took a seat behind a full set of drums, and when the lights came up he was already fully invested in an extended and dazzling drum solo. When the light show ended, as fantastic as it had been, you didn’t even notice. When it was over, Swiss Chris threw his arms up in victory, then hilariously picked up his entire drum set at once and carried it downstage past the audience.

The rappers alternated with the slam poets throughout the rest of the evening, Ms. Salah and Ms. Hidary opening, and Mazzi and Sneakas closing. The rappers claimed all of the stage, moving restlessly from one end to the other, doing that oddly charming dance necessary in order to keep the mic cords from getting tangled, and all of our eardrums, with a sometimes painfully loud basebeat and sampling accompaniment by DJ Dash Speaks. The poets stood, sometimes side by side, sometimes back to back, and sometimes alone.

As shamelessly biased as I am, I will retain some credibility and not claim that Tahani stole the show. What she did bring to the show was a directness of moral earnestness and passion that could give you the shivers. Even at their most angry (with a remarkable duet called “Tug of War,” narrating the fatal pas de deux of a suicide bomber and an army guard), Most Hated was never less than entertaining. Sometimes Tahani would leave entertainment in the dust as she hurtled headlong to bring her heart as close as possible to your face. Her strongest poem, wisely made the penultimate act, was an extraordinary paean to her father that left me wistful: many fathers are as deeply loved by their daughters, but only a handful in all human history will ever hear that love expressed in so intense a form.

Vanessa Hidary’s great strength, thrown into particularly sharp relief by her juxtaposition against Tahani, was her sense of humor. Poking fun at her own struggles as someone, much like everyone else, for whom the daily stream of life contends with her desire to be well-informed and politically-conscious, she equally spoofed the superficiality of the majority of professions of ‘political consciousness,’ which arouse in people only the hollow affirmation of “That’s what’s up!” She succeeded in painting a complex picture of her own identity, while running the risk of creating a new stereotype (the Jewish-American Poetess?) to replace those she shatters. Greater still the risk, a hazard of identity politics, of political awareness collapsing into self-pity. Two pieces in particular – one about the various acts of harassment and cyber-abuse she has suffered, and another about an anti-Semitic remark, all the more obscene for its being an attempted compliment by an otherwise attractive guy in a flirtatious encounter – skirted this risk, not always smoothly.

If we had to make a rule, we could say: in a context where the Holocaust and the Intifadah cast heavy shadows, you can’t make anything more than trivia out of the comments made on YouTube by your haters, no matter how mean or personally hurtful they may have been to you. The personal may be political, but there’s an art to moving back and forth between the two.

Like Ms. Salah, Ms. Hidary has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and some of her poems in that venue (“Culture Bandit,” say, or “A PhD in Him” – which can both be seen on YouTube) are hilarious and poignant all at once. There was nothing quite like that here. However, like Tahani, she hit her peak with a tribute to a family member: her Aunt Esther, a Sephardic Jew from Syria. Any trace of narcissism was burned away in the purity of her love for this cherished ancestor-sister.

In this way, while the lyricists were all preoccupied (for excellent reasons) with hate, love carried the night. My one lament would have to be that love for God made no appearance whatsoever. Sneakas summed it up. “I’m not religious,” he quipped, “I’m Jew-ish.” What’s so interesting about the tension between Muslims and Jews if neither Allah nor God ever shows up?

At any rate, Most Hated really have a great thing going. The Muslim/Jew, Iranian/Israeli thing could degenerate into gimmickry, but the passion with which they vive la difference made it into more of a dialectic. The wordplay was fabulous. With “Shalom/Salaam” they played a game of tag, handing off the mic with the greeting “Salaam” (from the Jew to the Muslim) or “Shalom” (from the Muslim to the Jew). “Don’t bother us on on Ramadan or Chanukah,” said Sneakas, “I go off the head — like an old guy’s yarmulke. Salaam!” Mazzi ran with it: “Or a kufi loosely on a Sufi – some of our women look like ninjas in the movies. Shalom!” Mazzi’s delivery of his rhymes wasn’t so easy to follow, but he more than made up for that with the dynamism and sexiness of his onstage presence. As great as all the poetry was that night, the highlight may have been the interlude where Mazzi threw aside the mic and just danced. The man can really move – and in a rapper, that has to be considered pure bonus.

1. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

2. Most Hated on Myspace.

3. Swiss Chris.

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