The word on the rooftops

The Middle East’s longest-running poetry open mic event celebrates its fifth anniversary on Friday 24 March. The 47th Rooftop Rhythms includes a Spoken Word slam (the audience rates the performances) as well as a non-competitive open mic. And as for the previous 46, your host will be Dorian ‘Paul D’ Rogers – poet, entrepreneur, lecturer, teacher, and all round enthusiast for Abu Dhabi, spoken word and hip hop.

“My life was changed by poetry,” says Dorian. Back in 2000, a first year student at Florida State University, he was taken by a friend to a poetry open mic show in Tallahassee; it was revelatory. “I was blown away to find a positive outlet where young people could be hip and positive at the same time. From that day, I took poetry and organising poetry shows with me wherever I went.”

One of those places was Abu Dhabi. He moved to the UAE to teach in 2011, and almost immediately he started Rooftop Rhythms. It was (and is) an open mic night based on Spoken Word, poetry intended for onstage performance rather than for the page.

Dorian expected to find an audience among Western expatriates familiar with this contemporary twist on performance poetry, but Rooftop Rhythms turned out to have an international appeal – “I had no idea that locals and expatriates from Arab, Asian, and African backgrounds would latch on to it as well”.

Those early shows in 2012 attracted enthusiastic audiences of 80 to100; “we average 250 people per show now”.

So what’s appeal? What can Spoken Word do that other art forms can’t?

Poetry in performance celebrates language, and more generally it celebrates communication – words are the most obvious form of communication, the content of Spoken Word performances is usually personal, the non-verbal communication of actually seeing the performer perform is incalculable.

Spoken Word allows performers and attendees to relate at a personal level. Says Dorian: “At any given open mic show, people are inundated with personal stories, life applications, creative perspectives, and artistic masterpieces that resonate on some level with every one. In one show, you can laugh, cry, and even be challenged to think differently about a topic.”

And it’s infectious. “The audience quickly learns the techniques so that they themselves can share their own work. Regardless of their talent level, they feel that they are in an inclusive and welcoming environment which allows them to feel free to express themselves positively.

Dorian also came to understand just how important poetry is to the Emirati culture, especially because it allowed Bedouin people to pass down heritage, tradition, and stories. “When I moved here, I was blown away that there were different TV stations dedicated solely to Arabic poetry. This art form is popular with the older generations. Young people were primed to adopt Spoken Word as it is a more modern movement that pays respect to these traditions.”

The Rooftop Rhythms event is an open mic night, so there’s no pre-selection of performers. If you’re interested, just ask to be added to the performers’ list for the night – there’s usually a link on the event page, but it’s better to join the Rooftop Rhythms Facebook group page and get your application in from there when the next event is announced. The list always fills up pretty quickly, but even so you could still attend and might be able to perform if time permits.

All poets are informed in advance about the legal and social constraints – no promoting religions others than Islam, no cursing, no exclusive language, no reference to UAE politics – but there’s no previewing, so as with any open mic performance there’s guaranteed to be a variety of styles (and sometimes of quality).

“There are absolutely no qualifications required to perform,” says Dorian. “Newcomers may get up to the stage and read a Cat in the Hat-style piece that is more simplistic and nature and it will still be received well.”

These aren’t poetry slams, where performers are judged by the audience on their work. “The Rooftop Rhythms crowd has been groomed to support newcomers with love and applause – we were all in those same shoes once.

“Personally, I love to hear poetry that is strong in conceptual approach and imagery. Memorisation is also poignant because it shows the crowd that the poet invested a lot of time in to their craft. It also allows the performer to connect more to the crowd.”

Dorian testifies that he has gained so much since he first started doing Rooftop Rhythms events five years ago. “We have done close to 300 events – including live music, hip hop parties, and specialty shows as well as the Spoken Words open mics. With this many events, you learn that curators with longevity are those that focus on the attendee experience. You have to be open to criticism and also have to be open to growth and change. We’ve moved between more than ten venues over the years in an attempt to find the best cultural space where performers and attendees alike feel welcomed and appreciated.

“I have learned so much over the years. And there have been too many highlights to count – like co-organising the Abu Dhabi International Poetry Festival in 2015. And helping to bring Patricia Smith, National Book Award finalist and multiple National Poetry Slam champion, to the UAE.

“More than anything, the biggest sense of achievement comes from witnessing the growth of so many poets over the years. Poets in the UAE are actually making poetry in to a profession by making commercials for brands like Lenovo, traveling internationally, and facilitating writing workshops.

“It has been an honour to help a local movement get started. There are now close to ten other poetry shows in the UAE. There are even shows now in Qatar, Kuwait, and the Seychelles that have been influenced by the UAE.

Rooftop Rhythms is fun; “you should come along to witness the wonderful diversity, creativity, and inclusiveness of the UAE,” says Dorian. But you can get that in other ways and in other places; Rooftop Rhythms has a definite USP, and that lies partly in the energy generated. “There’s often an electric atmosphere in the room. This vibe is created through the crowd engagement, the talented variety of performers, and even the soulful tunes played by DJ A.L.L.A.D.”

The smooth sounds of DJ A.L.L.A.D. keep the crowd moving and grooving between performances. The DJ/poet is a standard feature of a Rooftop Rhythms night now – “DJing a poetry set allows me to make you reminisce on times of your life where music created a memory,” he said once

So what’s next? More of the same?

“I hope to continue to help build the poetry scene here. I still write, perform, lecture, and facilitate writing workshops. My third poetry album and second poetry book will be released some time in 2018.

“And there is definitely an educational quality to curating poetry. Writing workshops to the community directly educate those that want to work on their writing. Poetry shows take on an educational value each time an attendee learns something new.”

Poetry can illuminate ideas and emotions. The best Spoken Word makes for a direct communication between one person and another. It’s immediate, direct and low-tech. And in a weird way, it becomes yours. As Kate Tempest put it: “The minute you finish a piece of writing it doesn’t belong to you. You don’t write it any more, it belongs to you, the reader, the listener, the audience. So the less you know about whether or not this is me talking about my life or this is me talking about your life, I think the better. Then it can belong to you and it can live outside of the moment in which it was conceived.”

Now that’s human contact, and that’s why Rooftop Rhythms is so good.

Rooftop Rhythms #47 is at The Marketplace, NYU Abu Dhabi, on Friday 24 March at 8pm (doors open 7pm). There’s free entrance all night, but seats are limited and you’re advised to preregister for a ticket on this link. DJ A.L.L.A.D. supports; food and (non-alcoholic) drink will be available for purchase.

Photo credits: Nikith Nath




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