I've known rivers/ ancient dusky rivers/ my soul has grown deep like the rivers" -- these are words written by an 18-year-old Langston Hughes, performed by a 51-year-old Hughes, and a fitting opening for an immense collection of African-American spoken-word performance spanning nearly a century. Rhino/ Word Beat's latest anthology CD, "Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Works," (Rhino/Word Beat) covers 80 years of verse, running the gamut from a speech by NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois to the rap of Public Enemy. The two-disc set archives recordings from the Library of Congress, radio programs, albums and readings. African-American literati such as Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni are showcased, as are lesser-known voices. "Our Souls" is a tangible chunk of history and a glimpse into the African-American psyche over the last century.
History professors might consider DuBois' excerpt from "The Atlantic Years" for their lesson plans. Literature students should have the chance to hear Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem "We Real Cool," her voice meandering like bebop and capturing the essence of wayward youth in a minimalist 24 lines, or Maya Angelou's honeylike tone on the seductive "To a Man." The Last Poets pump up the set with a 1970s-era, politically charged throw-down that suggests high-energy performance poetry existed long before poetry slams.
The second CD continues chronologically, reflecting the modern struggles and achievements of African-Americans, while proving that poetry is not above pop culture but intertwined with it. In "Poem for Magic," Quincy Troupe offers an ode to Magic Johnson, and Ntozake Shange, author of "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf," infuses a love poem to Bob Marley with a reggae backbeat. Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" is the only piece representing rap and hip-hop as poetry. It's a bit of a sore thumb, as if it were included solely to hook younger audiences. Though a pioneering group, Public Enemy is surely not the first or the only artist to elevate rap to the level of poetry.
The slam poets on the compilation link their work to the oral African-American tradition of poetry with a heavy emphasis on diction. Tracie Morris' voice winds through "Project Princess" like acid jazz, elevating the ghetto-shaped, young female to saint status. In "Ohm," Saul Williams addresses the divine connection of the African-American with the cosmos. He pays homage to rap by emulating turntable scratching and juxtaposing it with the meditative refrain "ohm."
Carl Hancock Rux examines the dilemma of the modern African-American artist, seduced by images of "sold-out" slam poets and million-dollar rappers. In "No Black Male Show," he reads: "You be dreamin' of record deals & winning poetry slams. ... Warning: The slam judges don't know the difference 'tween a sestina & a simile. ... Warning: Publishers aren't buying books 'bout nothing but your tragedy."
"Our Souls" proves that poetry is a craft reaching back to a people's origins, and that it can link disparate pieces of today's cultural puzzle.