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Jamaal St. John Addresses Social Issues With ‘Spoken Word’ at ASM

On Wednesday, members of the Phillips Academy community watched as Jamaal St. John, a spoken word artist from West Orange, New Jersey, performed four poems for the All-School Meeting audience. Each poem dealt with controversial social issues and addressed serious topics mostly concerning African Americans. St. John was asked to speak for All-School Meeting by Dean of Community and Multi-cultural Development (CAMD) Linda Carter-Griffith for Black History Month. He was one of five men who performed “The Male Ego,” a show held on campus during this year’s Latin Arts Weekend and was so well received that CAMD asked St. John to come back. Jamaal St. John is the author of a chapbook by the title of “Horror and the Hype,” and has produced two spoken word albums called “Enterlightenment” and “Won’t Catch Me Runnin’.” As Eddie Diaz ’07 stated in his introduction, the purpose of this week’s All School Meeting speaker Jamaal St. John’s poetry was to “deliver insight to every person in sight.” In a meeting with students in CAMD after All-School, Jamaal St. John said that he wants his poetry to be not just a form of entertainment but a way to convey serious messages that can provoke dialogue. St. John said that he wrote the first poem he read, entitled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” in response to a theory he heard on television—that African Americans and minorities can only excel in sports, because they are mentally inferior, but physically superior. Beginning with “Dear Michael Jordan,” St. John began a series of American social injustices, couching his observations in common sports terms. “The Yankees,” he said, “always beat the Indians, both in baseball and in history.” He made the metaphor of police officers using their sticks as a way to hit other people around like little black pucks. In essence, he explained, sports are metaphors for our lives. The second poem Jamaal St. John read, entitled “Then What?”, was meant “for anyone who watches too much BET [Black Entertainment Television].” The poem quoted from many popular hip-hop and rap songs and argued that hip-hop has become “industry more than artistry,” as it portrays “girls with big breasts, big butts and thongs who’ve got nothing to do with the songs.” Much contemporary music, St. John said, has become too commercialized, and no longer contains substance. “Songs to live by,” he declared, have become “songs to drive by.” St. John’s third poem was written in response to a friend who was evicted from his apartment because he was living beyond his means and could not pay his rent. Called “Material Living,” the poem dealt with the issue of African Americans “spending every dime we’ve ever made on Escalades while we live in our mother’s basements.” The poem talked about people who care only about how they look, and not how they contribute to society or even how their materialism contributes to wars over diamonds in Africa. He pointed to “allowing what we have to define who we are” as a method of holding back African Americans; they will be “stuck in the Projects forever because all of our money goes from the ghetto to the mall.” St. John wrote the fourth and final poem he performed, “Beautiful,” after he was harassed by airport security. He attributed the incident to the striking combination of his Arabic first name, Jamaal, and Christian surname, St. John. The poem spoke of America’s obsession with and compartmentalization of terrorism; in ignorance, everything strange becomes Arabic, and everything Arabic becomes suspicious. People “think I was named by Osama and not by my mama,” claimed St. John, though the name “Jamaal” simply means “beautiful” in Arabic. “Beautiful” made a political statement as it stated that “Bush is chillin’, Cheney’s chillin’, what more can I say…oil drillin’.” He ended, “Even nuclear arms are too short to box with God,” restating his message of tolerance. Okyeraa Ohene-Asah ’09 said, “The purpose of Jamaal as the speaker was to expose the student body to things they are not usually exposed to.”