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"Motown Mic" amplifies the past and present of Detroit's poetry

Apr 4, 2018

April is National Poetry Month, and today marks the birth and death of two figures who proved words could change politics, culture and art: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., respectively. 

The popularity of slam and spoken word poetry is catching fire across the country, but in Detroit, the art form has a deep history. This Friday, the Motown Museum is paying homage to that tradition as it kicks off its fifth annual spoken word competition.

“Motown Mic: The Spoken Word” remembers The Black Forum Label, a spoken word label created in the 1970s by Berry Gordy, the father and executive of Motown. Every Friday this month, the museum will host an open mic for all community members in its gallery. Contestants will compete for a $1,000 dollar prize and a spot to perform a Motown-inspired piece at the program finale at the Garden Theater in May. The winning poem will also be published in the Broadside Lotus Press.

Credit Andre Smith / Andre Smith Photography LLC

The Black Forum Label was dedicated to capturing and promoting Black expression and education. It documented the voices of famed poets, artists, and activists such as Langston Hughes, Stokely Carmichael, Elaine Brown, Ossie Davis, and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech was first recorded on The Black Forum before its historic delivery at the 1963 March on Washington.

Raina Baker is a program manager for the Motown Museum, a native Detroiter, and a poet. A graduate of Howard University, Baker’s poetry and essays are published in various publications, and she’s performed for the NAACP and other organizations and community events.

“For a little while, we’ve had trouble selling this program to people, because people are wondering: ‘Why is Motown doing a poetry competition and not a singing competition?’” she said. “But poetry and songwriting are directly connected.”

For instance, she points to Smokey Robinson, who Bob Dylan once referred to as “America’s greatest living poet” and who, later in his career, started performing spoken-word poetry.

Today, Baker expects standing-room-only 75-person crowds at the museum on Fridays later in the month. She’s had to turn people away as fire hazard precaution.

In addition to memorializing Motown’s impact on poetry and the spoken word, Baker sees the program as an important space for cultivating young, local, and authentic voices.

“I think it’s important as Detroiters that we create these opportunities to celebrate what is uniquely us,” she said. “I think Detroiters have a very specific and special voice. It’s not like New Yorkers, it’s not like someone from L.A. or Chicago, and I think programs like this help us to own what makes us different and celebrates our grit, for lack of a better word.”