Dasan Ahanu
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Dasan Ahanu

Band Spoken Word Hip Hop


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"Putting poetry where his mouth is"

23 JUN 2004 • by Hong-An Truong
When you meet Dasan Ahanu, you won't forget him. Not only will you not forget him, but as educator Daniella Cook put it, "Once you hear him, you want to get to know him. It's a sense of urgency." Ahanu towers over most people at an impressive 6 feet 7 inches. You will most likely have heard him command the stage at any number of spoken word events throughout the Triangle, the state or the United States. It could be argued that Ahanu is the Triangle's most ubiquitous spoken word artist--everywhere and always present.
In fact, present is a meaningful way to describe him. Whether he is hosting open mic events at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh or leading a group of Durham youth through writing activities, the poet, performer, educator and activist is always present. And his presence demands, somewhat pardoxically, your attention. While on stage his flow is vibrant; his energy as a teacher and an activist is subdued, subtle. He is soft-spoken, yet assertive. In any situation, however, his demeanor projects a kind of wisdom one might expect from an 80-year-old grandfather. And when someone like that speaks, you listen.

"For a young man, Dasan is wise beyond his years, as far as his ability to work with and relate to an array of youth who really have legitimate concerns about life itself," says Earl Matlock of P.R.O.U.D., a Durham organization that works with "at-risk teens." Ahanu taught in Matlock's after-school program this spring. "These kids would be considered troubled youth. But these are children that need a chance, and that is one of the things that Dasan gave them," says Matlock.

And perhaps Ahanu knows a thing or two about taking chances. The first poem that he ever performed was one he wrote for a weekly open mic event in Raleigh at the now defunct club Expressions. The poem was appropriately titled "Fear."

Ahanu grew up in Raleigh an only child of a single mother, and started creating poetry as soon as he could write as a way to occupy his time and explore his imagination. Despite urgings from his friends as a young college student, Ahanu felt too shy to perform his poetry. He began attending open mic events at Expressions, where he was inspired, and decided to work himself up to perform. To help him in the process, he discovered a stage name, "Dasan Ahanu," which comes from his grandmother's Cherokee roots and means, quite purposefully, "one who commands with a sense of humor."

After his first performance at Expressions, Ahanu was hooked and came back every week to perform.

"It was a connection to the crowd that hooked me," says Ahanu. "It takes me time to connect with people I meet on an everyday basis, and being able to do that onstage was amazing."

This connection is one that goes both ways. Tracy Evora, a Raleigh-based promoter for arts events, first heard him perform at Expressions and was immediately taken by him. Ahanu began hosting her spoken word event, the Cypher, two years ago. Says Evora, "People love him and totally relate to his work. He speaks of everyday situations. And metaphorically speaking, he just flips it and really challenges people."

Cook tells a story about Ahanu performing as the featured poet at the Supper Club, a restaurant in Raleigh. In a crowd of African Americans, ranging in age from their 20s to late 30s, says Cook, "He completely engaged us all in a conversation about politics, relationships, sex--all of this without being condescending."

Cook tells another story about him hosting a spoken word event at the Berkeley Cafe. "The crowd was getting rowdy and not paying attention. Dasan stopped and spun this intense poem about misogyny. The crowd went silent. And then he tells us that he just freestyled it. I was amazed."

Greensboro-based poet Safiyah Nelson says, "When Dasan performs, the spirit moves him. He believes in what he's saying. He's not just speaking about justice and truth, he's living it. You can see that in his performance. He has integrity that's in him whether he's onstage or offstage. This is why audiences connect with Dasan."

Ahanu speaks truth about a lot of things. He has found a way to infuse his poetry with his activism, and his activism with his poetry, and his ability to communicate well through his art has proven to be a vital asset to the people with whom he works. "I've been lucky to get to be on stage where poets normally don't stand and perform poetry," he says.

As one of the founding members of the activist group Hip Hop Against Racist War, he has hosted and performed at several local hip hop events to raise awareness around the war in Iraq. Speaking about the idea behind the group, Ahanu says, "From its roots, hip hop has always been an art form about resilience and overcoming. You had Black and Latino DJs coming out during a period of serious oppression. They came out to have a voice and say, 'We're going to celebrate each other'."

As an artist, he is serious about his commitment, among other things, to making the connection between rap and poetry. "I have really tried to preserve the art of poetry and spoken word. I've wanted to perform at everything from Earth Day celebrations to labor rallies. I want people to understand how powerful poetry can be--outside the scope of rap."

Although his lyrical flow and background are decidedly hip hop, perhaps one of Ahanu's most valuable qualities is his ability to connect with many different people. "He appeals to all crowd genres, and can grab their attention and keep it," says Evora. "I've seen him turn some pretty crazy crowds."

As a youth educator committed to inspiring creative expression, Ahanu's ability to connect is a crucial element that allows him to go deep with the youth he works with. "Aside from affirming their love of hip hop as an art form, as a political form, he completely flipped the kids who weren't really into it," says Cook. "I saw him take a kid who wasn't into hip hop but liked to sing, and get him so involved by pairing him up with someone writing poetry and coming up with a riff to sing along with it. Now that is amazing. Most educators are always trying to get kids to do things their way. Dasan met this kid where he was and got him to go farther."

Lopa Shah teaches with Ahanu in the Youth Document Durham summer program at the Center for Documentary Studies and says, "One of Dasan's obvious strengths is that he is an African-American male role model. It's so positive for young men to be involved with someone who is thoughtful and really aware of issues of race and gender, and with someone who they respect and can see themselves in."

As an African-American male with NBA-like height and clear identification with hip hop culture, it's also almost too easy to make assumptions about him. "He represents the quintessential mis-represented African-American male," says Cook. "He's tall, which makes him intimidating, right? He's into hip hop, which makes him dangerous, right? But he's this passionately political, powerfully endearing person who gives you a sense of hope. Watching Dasan perform is like watching hope."

Says Ahanu, "Part of it is just asking [the kids] to share and be creative. When you give them positive reinforcement that they are creative, and ask them to tell us what they think and how they're feeling, their faces light up. The same society that makes us forget them, is the same society that just doesn't ask them."

And it is the asking that is so important. It reflects an engagement and selflessness that speaks to Ahanu's commitment to the people and places that surround him.

"People who drop knowledge usually aren't humble," says Cook. "He is humble. He speaks in such a way that you are called to act. You leave his performance thinking to yourself, I gotta start communicating better with the person I'm in a relationship with, or I gotta stop shopping at Wal-Mart. He captures what a community artist is. He values his craft, cares about his community, and uses his gift to express himself, capture what is going on around him, and challenge us to make a difference."
- Independent Weekly

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment"

"Jim Crow reps that new sound of hip hop coming out of NC …somethin' lovely! Boom bap, picket signs, marches, and wordplay filled with struggle and optimism. From the college dorm to grandma's porch, Jim Crow rolls deep with history without sounding like a throwback or text book rappers."

"Jim Crow is an upgrade for those who want and expect more from hip hop in 2007."

"This experiment didn't create a frankenstein monster, instead it skillfully fuses elements of hip hop, poetry, soul and another perspective not often found on commercial radio." - DJ Ohso Kool - WHCR, 90.3 FM (NYC)

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment"

“The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment is a refreshing reprieve from the repetitive, commercial music scene. They are continuing to build the bridge between spoken word and hip-hop music, telling stories of life's struggles while giving messages of self-determination and love in all forms." - Allhiphop.com

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment"

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment contains classic Carolina “swagga" with a new twist of soul and poetry. The spoken word tracks are truly inspirational and push boundaries of conventional down south boom-bap hip hop." - DJ Prizmatik

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment"

"The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment contains classic Carolina “swagga" with a new twist of soul and poetry. The spoken word tracks are truly inspirational and push boundaries of conventional down south boom-bap hip hop." - DJ Prizmatik

"Poets get their own grand slam"

Barry Saunders, Staff Writer
There'll be two teams representing Durham in national competitions in the next few days.

When one, the Little League baseball team, hits a slam, it'll mean something different from when the Bull City slam team hits one.

That team leaves for Austin, Texas, next week to compete against slammers from around the country.

Slamming, Bull City Coach Chris Massenburg said, is "competitive poetry. You get onstage in front of an audience and for three minutes, you try to entertain them."

Massenburg performs and writes under the pseudonym Dasan Ahanu.

If you're anything like me, your idea of poetry readings includes images of beret-wearing beatniks listening impassively, snapping their fingers to show approval because they're too cool to clap.

That's not what slamming is, Ahanu said. When he calls it "an interactive experience for audiences," he isn't kidding.

When people enter the venue of the competition -- often in bars, restaurants or lounges, some are enlisted to be judges.

During the slam, they are asked to rate a poet and the audience shows its approval or disapproval of the score.

"It can get heated if the judges give out scores the audience doesn't like. They can't boo or harass the poet, but they'll boo the judges," he said.

Poetry readings have changed a lot in the past decade. If you saw the movie "Love Jones" during the 1990s you remember that most of the poems were about the moon in June and swooning and love and such mushy stuff.

Slams are different, said Ahanu, who is writer-in-residence at St. Augustine's College. "In team competitions, you have people talking about social issues, relationships and childhood. That's what I love about it. It's a way you can hear perspectives on everything from grandma to daffodils growing in the backyard to global warming."

It would be easy to say that slamming allows talented people to compete onstage, slinging words instead of lead.

That's simplistic and wrong.

Lead-slinging gangbangers are usually young kids. Slammers, Ahanu said, "tend to be adults. They range in age from 18 and up, but most are over 21 because some of the places we perform serve alcohol."

Ahanu is 33 and said team members' ages range from 28 to 38. Team members are Elliot Miley, Massenburg, Keisha "Lady K" Mark, Petrina Bryant and Felicia Albritton.

Ahanu tries to reach the kids who could turn to violence, though.

"In all the programs I do, I try to teach them to express feelings they can't put a voice to and to write about the things they see and do every day."

If he is successful, the stage, not the streets, would be the most dangerous place for kids, and the worst thing they'd have to contend with would be tin-eared judges.

The team has held fundraisers to cover their expenses -- usually performing at events throughout the region -- all summer.

Despite their efforts, Ahanu said the team still needs money for its trip. If you want to help, send or take contributions to the St. Joseph Historical Foundation, 804 Fayetteville St., Durham, 27701.

Barry's column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The N&O and every other Saturday in The Durham News.
- The News and Observer

"Durham is becoming a national hotbed for spoken-word poetry"

25 JUL 2007 • by Carl Kenney

# Local spoken-word events & recommended albums

"Connected to words like Siamese twins": That line from Dasan Ahanu's poem "Deep in Thought" epitomizes the rise of the Triangle's spoken-word community. Metaphors and similes dangle with cadence and intonation. The words—bled from poets who carry pens, pads and bags filled with homemade books and CDs in store-bought cases—entertain and inspire. These poets live in these words, and, symbiotically, those words live off of their poets.

"A lot of people share their story, but I don't sugar coat it," says Monica "Mona" Daye, one of Durham's most successful spoken-word artists and a member of the first Bull City Slam Team back in 2005. "What you hear when you listen to my poetry is what I was going through when I wrote it."

Daye certainly has a story to communicate: At age 11, she was raped by a vendor at the Shirley Caesar Convention at the Marriott Hotel in Durham. Daye became a problem child—school suspensions, middle-school arrests, a conviction for assaulting a fellow student. She was sent to a youth detention center near Asheville. Now, she writes poetry for how she used it in her own life: to heal and to change. She calls her work a ministry and refers to Shairi's Open Mic—the longest-running Durham poetry night, which she co-hosts—as the "open-minded church."

"I don't believe in you getting on my mic doing negative things, playing degrading music and saying things not positive," Daye says. "People often come ask me, 'Can we curse?' My rule is just keep it positive, keep it uplifting."

Daye has been co-hosting Shairi's at Durham's Broad Street Café since December. As owner Jonathan Tagg reckons, it's one of the most important cultural moments in the Triangle when it happens the third Saturday of each month. It's also representative of one of the most vibrant cultural movements in the Triangle: "Shairi's is not an event. Shairi's is an experience: It is passionate like an opera, smooth like jazz, and hard-hitting like a prizefight."

Like a prizefight? At 6 feet 6 inches, Dasan Ahanu certainly looks more like a championship athlete than a spoken-word or hip-hop artist. He's a towering, captivating presence, and he demands respect with his words. Ahanu is the captain of the Bull City Slam Team, a key catalyst for the continual rise of spoken word in the Triangle since its formation in 2005.

After a successful response to the first Spoken Word & Hip-Hop Festival at the Hayti Heritage Center in January 2005, the Hayti decided to expand its programming with poetry and hip hop. Ahanu had been a member of the planning committee for the festival and had successfully organized the Raleigh Slam Team. The summer before, he'd been a member of the Charlotte Slam Team that finished fifth at national competition.

Given the festival's success, St. Joseph's Historic Foundation—the parent foundation of the Hayti Heritage Center—approached Ahanu about hosting the Jambalaya Soul Slam. The Jambalaya Soul Slam has continued every last Friday of the month ever since, and, earlier this year, the center and the slam won their bid to host the 2009 Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam.

The link between the Jambalaya slam and the slam team is a close one: The Bull City Slam Team came together only when St. Joseph's committed to becoming its major sponsor. Ahanu was chosen as the slam team coach because of his Soul Slam participation, and a series of small slams helped select the first team that May. That team ranked as one of the top teams at regional competition later that year, and at a national competition sponsored by Poetry Slam Incorporated—the national governing body of slam poetry—they finished in the top third of the 75 participating teams. In August, the team will return for its second year at the National Poetry Slam Competition in Austin, Texas.

"We have consistently held our own," says Ahanu, adding that he feels the team is finally coming together and is at least capable of surprising a lot of people when they compete in August. "We have very talented poets here. Now we just have to build our body of work and improve on the lessons we have learned from competition. We have to match new ideas with what makes us special here as poets."

Da Poet Tim Jackson stands before an assembly hungry for his words. He leads a radio show with Daye on WXDU every Friday night, and he's a top poetic tongue in Durham. Some have called him crazy. Others have refused to give him the space to share his radically edged rhetoric: "I think the Devil and I be spending time together just a little bit too much," he says. The members of the poetic church know this story all too well— the archetypical struggle between Good and Evil.

"I think I'm still a righteous man because I think I still feel God's touch. I think I be smoking weed too much. Now I'm not saying I think smoking weed is devilish. It's just I been smoking daily and doing it for a long time and ain't no telling when I'ma quit. But I think I'm going to let the weed go."

Jackson is known for his hard-hitting message of life as a black man who's been hindered by racism and personal struggles. The words force an introspective gaze with the crowd. More than entertainment, more than an emotional release, Jackson's words link with ears hoping to find meaning in a world soaked in contradiction. This is the world of the poetic church.

That church is expanding here, but it's been a long rise: Spoken-word poetry started to gain popularity in the Triangle in 1999 at Expressions, a long-gone Raleigh reggae club. The club hosted The Spot, a weekly open mic, and The Cypher, a monthly showcase of the best poets. Ahanu was the host of The Cypher.

"The main change has been the struggle to hold a venue," Ahanu says, detailing the long, nomadic search for a permanent home in the Triangle. "When I first started, we had a home. Since Expressions closed, we have been searching for other venues to call home."

The Vibes Open Mic, originally located at Ideas Coffee House in Durham, was so successful it had to move next door to Montas International Lounge. But The Vibe ended its four-year stint as the premiere poetry night in the Triangle when Montas closed in December.

Broad Street is now carrying on strong with Shairi's Open Mic, though it's just the latest in a series of Triangle venues to delve into spoken word with mixed success: Shairi's Open Mic started at the Marvell Event Center two years ago, and, when Yancey's opened a second location in Durham years ago, The Cypher was hosted there until it closed, too. The Red Onion Restaurant and Blue Coffee, both in Durham, are now hosting regular poetry events, as well as Zydeco, Artspace and a McDonald's on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh.

Poets from across the nation have noticed the good things happening in Durham, too. Shairi's draws crowds from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and New York. "People are calling now and saying, 'Hey, I want to spend a week there," says Daye, who hosts Shairi's and the WXDU radio show with Jackson. "We're getting closer to having places for people to come and make some money every day."

Daye has traveled to South Carolina, New Mexico, Atlanta, Virginia, Maryland, Baltimore, D.C., New York, Alabama and Chicago to perform. Poetry has become her job, and she says that comes tough: "Financially, I don't always make the money. As a single parent, I sacrifice a lot. I'm doing so much but gain very little."

Still, she sees inspiration in Amir Sulaiman, a New York poet who's gotten exposure through magazine covers and the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. His album, Like a Thief in the Night, has approached mainstream success, and his achievements, says Daye, are important in providing hope for those whose words wait to be heard across the country.

The quest for mainstream appeal, though, presents massive internal tension for spoken-word artists. Ahanu says that too often the quest for an audience can make artists struggle with self-identity.

"Some folks let the audience make them believe they are writers, and they are truly performers," he says. "Nothing wrong with either, but you do more damage if you aren't true to who you are. Or if you don't do what it takes to maintain both, if you are both."

Daye doesn't just want to be famous: Part of her mainstream desire is to see the positivity she sees behind the poet's mic translated for more people. She realizes the record industry is, in large part, supported by the big beats and negative lyrics she sees in hip hop. She thinks that hip hop and spoken word were once closer partners, and now she hopes one can make way for the other.

"What I want to see is poetry go mainstream," Daye says. "People are tired of hip-hop music, degrading music. People are going to wake up. Hip hop started with poetry. Somewhere in the early '90s that changed. Now people want to talk about bling-bling and women showing their bodies for money."

Daye and Ahanu attempt to reunite hip hop and spoken word. Both have recorded albums with hot hip-hop beats behind their poetry. Ahanu's The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment delves into the way hip hop is fragmented and pitted against itself and how spoken-word artists aren't regarded as emcees. Jim Crow Jackson also examines how North Carolina history shapes what North Carolina poets write.

"Some of the artists and some of the fans with a more narrow scope find it hard to take us," Ahanu says of poets who make the connection to hip hop. Spoken-word poets still promote social action, something they feel hip hop has lost along the way. "There has to be a place for that. Some folks would rather keep it separate or merge us more with the jazz element. That's part of our history too but is less natural for artists who grew up a part of hip-hop culture." - The Independent Weekly


2001 (self released CD) TPI: Twisted Panoramic Ideology, Dirt Road Entertainment
2004 (self released CD) Dasan and Dr. Mindbenda presents The White Experience: Fall into the Page, Dirt Road Entertainment
2007 (label released CD) The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment, Amp Truth Records

You can sample music and poetry at:



Dasan Ahanu is a public speaker, organizer, workshop facilitator, poet, spoken word performer, songwriter, writer, emcee, and loyal Hip Hop head. Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dasan has used his southern roots to craft his own brand of creative expression. In addition to performing, Dasan is often asked to also host many poetry, jazz, Hip Hop events, and arts festivals across NC. Having performed with a number of notable emcees, poets and writers who are from or have visited North Carolina, he has amazed audiences from the underground scene to the college circuit as well. He has also been a regular in popular venues in cities from St. Louis to Texas. As an actor, Dasan has been a member of the cast of the “hip-hopera”, Right is Right and a Harlem Renaissance production, Images, which was featured at the National Black Theatre Festival. He is currently a member of Black Poetry Theatre and has been a cast member in two productions, Black Poetry and Herstory of Love: A Stronger Daye which he also wrote and co-directed. Since finding a passion for slam poetry Dasan has competed regionally and nationally as a member of the Charlotte Slam Team and started the first ever Bull City Slam Team in Durham, NC. A lyricist with a thirst for being on stage, Dasan is truly an artist with “presence”

Since falling in love with the stage and microphone, Dasan has also used his talents and connections within the arts circuit to aid in developing the community and pushing for change. He has worked as an organizer on such issues as war, social injustice, workers rights, domestic violence and sexual assault; taught with Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies; conducted creative writing and performance workshops for college and high school age artists; promoted Hip Hop as a tool for literacy with SCALE and it’s campaign with the University of North Carolina; and spent time working with at-risk/court-involved youth. A believer in the power of creative expression, he continues to be involved with cultural arts as a creative consultant and artist resident at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, NC and an artist-in-residence at St. Augustine’s College.

Dasan has promoted his own series of shows and collaborated with other promoters to provide some of the best arts and music events in NC. His work is featured often on NPR’s News and Notes with Ed Gordon and in online and print publications. Having signed with NC independent record label Amp Truth Records, he teamed with up and coming music producer Picasso to produce The Jim Crow Jackson Experiment. Their self-titled debut album is an amazing blend of spoken word, rap, soul, reggae, and blues. The album showcases both artists’ unique talents. This is Dasan's first major release, but his third CD. He released TPI: Twisted Panoramic Ideology in 2001 and The White Experience: Fall into the Page in 2004. Dasan also self published his first book of poetry entitled The Innovator in 2005. Following in the footsteps of artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the parks in Brooklyn, Dasan seeks to create art that tells stories that intrigues people’s minds, touches people’s hearts, and captures people’s attention.