by Hannah Gandevia
Last year an Aussie girlfriend told me about The Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in Alphabet City. She claimed it would the best $13 I’d spend in NYC. With such rave reviews, I decided to check it out for myself the very next weekend.
Doors open at 10pm, but their Friday Night Slams are so popular you really need to start lining up at 9.30pm to make sure you make it inside. And if you don’t want to stand for the entire show, or sit on the concrete floor, you’d better get ‘on line’ (see I’m learning American) before 9pm to claim a highly sought-after chair.
Within minutes of the doors opening, the venue is packed. People are sitting and standing everywhere. The bar is bustling and a DJ is plays loud hip hop music. Talk about ambiance.
Not long after we secure a spot, a bubbly MC takes the stage. She’s witty, and funny and fabulous. One by one she walks through the five boroughs of New York. “Is Brooklyn in the house?” Cheers, loud hip hop and borough-specific dance moves ensue. “Is Queens in the house?” Same deal, different moves. “Is Staten Island in the house?”. Silence, then raucous laughter. Eventually she seeks out the foreigners. When she asks if “Australia is in the house” a bunch of Aussies scattered around the room start cheering followed by an impromptu rendition of Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…Oi, Oi, Oi. It was a proud moment of solidarity.
She asks for volunteer judges from the audience and hands out scoring boards. The first poet to take the stage is a professional. A master of his craft. This round of poetry is to be used by judges to gauge the quality of the amateur rounds to follow. And boy did he knock our socks off! It was one of the most impassioned and profound things I have ever experienced.
Following this spectacular opening performance, amateur poets proceeded to battle it out. We enjoyed three rounds of poems with perfectly timed R&B tracks between sets. The pace and passion reminded me a little of the rap battle scene from Eminem’s 8 Mile movie.
After each performance judges assign a score and totals are tallied. I tell you what – the standard for ‘amateurs’ at the Nuyorican is pretty damn high. Over the course of an hour these talented artists explore issues of race, gender, inequality, tragedy, love, with a smattering of comedy. They took me on quite the emotional roller-coaster ride, and I loved every minute of it.
During an interval the MC invites anyone interested in learning “the Wobble” to come forward. Deciding to fully immerse myself in the Nuyorican experience, I join her on stage along with about 30 others. I soon discover that the Wobble is basically an R&B version of the Macarena – a dance that everyone knew the moves to…except for me. I awkwardly two-stepped at first, but then a friendly lady took my hand and guided me through the moves. And Wobble we did. I had so. much. fun!
At around 12.30pm the show draws to a close. A winner was crowned and every participating poet was applauded for their courage and craft.
I danced out the front doors and into the street. What an incredible experience. My friend was right. It really was the best $13 I’ve spent since I arrived in the city two years ago. So what are you doing this Friday? Slamming at Nuyorican I hope!