Nikki Giovanni was greeted like a rock star when she performed at the “Represent! A Night of Jazz, Hip-Hop and Spoken Word” concert at Prudential Hall of NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 19.
“I’m just a poet,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eye, after taking the stage — to loud applause — at the nearly 3,000-seat venue and reading her 1968 poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” “I’m not used to all these people.”
She was referring, I think, to those who were watching the show. But perhaps she was talking about the large musical cast, led by bassist Christian McBride (the event’s musical director), who shared the stage with her, and provided musical accompaniment for her words.
“Represent!” was the most ambitious show of this year’s 11th edition of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at NJPAC and other Newark locations. And it was everything a festival’s centerpiece concert should be: A once-in-a-lifetime grouping of artists, presented in a unique way. No two numbers were really alike and yet, due to the vocalists’ and the musicians’ skill, everything flowed together seamlessly.
McBride and his Christian McBride Situation band (augmented by percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde of The Last Poets, and others) functioned as the house band, playing with a succession of rappers, singers and spoken word artists who sometimes blurred the lines between the genres. Video and audio segments honored influential artists such as the late Gil Scott-Heron and the late Newark poet Amiri Baraka, as well as the recently deceased Newark rapper Tame One (of the group Artifacts).
Scott-Heron received the evening’s most memorable tribute via a sharp version of his spoken-word landmark “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” performed by Yasiin Bey (previously known as Mos Def), Dupré “DoItAll” Kelly (of the veteran Newark hip-hop group Lords of the Underground), Speech (of Arrested Development), Black Thought (of The Roots) and Jessica Care Moore. Everyone delivered their lines with great forcefulness and precision, leaving no doubt that this song resonates with them deeply.
As a priceless bonus, the concert featured — just moments later — Abiodun Oyewole and Baba Donn Babatunde of The Last Poets, joined by Speech, performing their “When the Revolution Comes,” which was one of the inspirations behind “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with its line, “When the revolution comes, some of us will probably catch it on TV.”
Other highlights of the 2 ½-hour show included Black Thought reciting Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (with its famous line, “I know why the caged bird sings”) with ethereal musical accompaniment; Speech performing buoyant versions of the Arrested Development hits “Tennessee” and “People Everyday”: and Bey’s soul-searching “Umi Says,” with a haunting saxophone part played by Ravi Coltrane.
Moore and singer Apropos also provided a riveting moment with their duet on Apropos’ “Simple,” which blended elements of spoken word and emotionally raw classic soul.
The voice of the late Amiri Baraka was heard, during the show, via a recording of his “Why Is We Americans.” And his son — Newark mayor Ras Baraka, a published poet — performed his own explosive “What We Want” with The Last Poets, who were mentored by Amiri Baraka.
Ras Baraka also opened the show with Kelly (who became a Newark councilman this year). The two verbally gifted elected officials performed their collaborative 2020 song “Keep the Faith” together.
“We made it here by faith,” declared Baraka in his thunderous voice, during this song, over a lush bed of sound created by McBride and his band. “Our ancestors’ hands held the stars up so we can stand tall.”
In addition to reading “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” — and telling a rambling story about an old friend of hers, actor Morgan Freeman, to the crowd’s delight — Giovanni read her down-to-Earth meditation on mortality “Vegetable Soup,” backed by gospel-flavored music, and sang a shaky but heartfelt version of “Night Song,” a melancholy ballad (from the musical “Golden Boy”) that featured a prominent saxophone part by Javon Jackson.
“That was Nina Simone’s favorite song,” said Giovanni, adding, with the timing of a stand-up comedian: “And the reason I love Javon … one of the reasons is, he lets me sing.”
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