“Sin separated you from seeing the father’s love for his son, so you never knew the type of love a father should have for his son,” Lamar Simms called out. The poet bent over a mic at the head of a makeshift aisle, surrounded by the audience of more than forty that filtered into Woodlawn’s Robust Coffee Lounge on Saturday night.
A sweatshirt on display behind Simms read, “If you’re not drug-free, you can’t hang with me,” and bore an image of a cocktail glass set against the words “vs. God.” The sweatshirt and the event, which featured more than ten rappers, poets, and singers, were both intended to benefit Riah, a grassroots mentoring and substance abuse recovery organization. The night was the third annual fundraiser for the organization’s mentoring initiative–a basketball program for young men.
“____ vs. God” proved a theme of the night, as artists pitted the virtues of faith against the vices of alcohol, violence, lust, and pop culture. Though Riah is not explicitly Christian, its founders are up front about their faith background. The poems and raps indicted a society estranged from morality, in deed if not always in word: rapper Decipha sneered at what he called “today’s popular Christian,” to a murmured, “That’s real,” from an audience member.
In response, some pieces spoke to a need to be a Christian exemplar for the community. Kareem Manuel prefaced his rap, “Minority Report,” with a desire to raise his family in the right, Christian way. “Very few men on my block see a man be married and love his children,” he said, “so I’m there trying to give the gospel and shed light.”
Role models were an oft-evoked topic. Simms’ wordplay on “fathers” divine and mortal connected the night’s unofficial themes, as many artists among the primarily male roster explored the relationship between fatherhood and manhood.
Keven Kharacter King, a spoken word poet and a security guard at Kenwood Academy High School, performed a searing tirade against absentee fathers. After introducing his piece, he abandoned the mic. “You cats that make my job harder,” he bellowed into the crowd, “I’m talking about all you absentee fathers, runaway fathers, no-showing-up-for-nothing fathers who don’t bother taking hold of their sons and raising them til the job is done.”
The night’s brightest depiction of manhood came from LanisÂ Dunn. The 8th grade honor roll student performed a poem given to him by his social studies teacher: “She said that I said it so powerfully that she almost forgot I didn’t write it,” LanisÂ explained.
Setting the mic aside, he called out his lines, a tenor contrasted to King’s baritone. “I am a man, determined, intelligent, and courageous. I am built solid and strong, like the trunk of a tree. No man can bound me, I am free. I am free, I am a man, a black man.”
Applause filled the shop, as one audience member echoed, “I am a black man!”