House of PainT: OG 500 Poetry Slam honours roots of hip-hop with spoken word by Tanya Evanson

Spoken Word artist Tanya Evanson. Photo: Don Lee

For Tanya Evanson, hip hop falls under the umbrella of the art form known as spoken word.

The Antiguan-Canadian writer, performer, producer and educator presents her form of spoken word performance internationally, so she knows quite a bit about what she speaks.

Both forms are possessed by “a quality of urgency”that make them art for our ‘in-the-moment’ times.

“Spoken word and hip hop are just nailing it,” she said in an interview before her featured performance at the House of PainT’s annual OG 500 Poetry Slam Friday night at the NAC’s Fourth Stage.

“You can practically be a journalistic artist getting points across really quickly. Today we are telling our stories in a very visual way rather than what is created on the page.”

Evanson discovered her voice through a personal crisis.

“I attempted suicide at 14 and ended up in the hospital. Transitioning from the magic of being a child to becoming this adult and (facing) those concepts of adulthood that are imposed on us such as jobs, mortgages and kids … took me to a dark place.

“Someone from high school came to the hospital to visit me and gave me a journal. I started writing in it. That helped me sort out what was going on inside of me. It naturally came out poetically. It wasn’t a conscious decisions to write poetry or to be a spoken word artist, it was a survival mechanism.”

The writing continued through high school and by the time she was ready for university writing was where she turned.

“I was going to go into science because I was interested in psychiatry but then I found out that I sucked at science. So I changed the question it became ‘What do I do already.’ That was writing every day. So I did creative writing and English literature at Concordia (in Montreal).”

It wasn’t a perfect fit. She felt a bit stifled by the rules of academia. But sho found a complementary outlet in campus radio.

“I had my own show where I would interview musicians, I spoke myself and I also played some spoken word recordings including by William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski.

“In 1996,  someone invited me to share some of my work in a event. I read a few pieces and I had a great response from the audience. After that I just kept on getting invited to perform. It all came about by me saying yes.”

Evanson’s thinking about her art has evolved. In many ways she is not the kind of artist one might find at a poetry slam.

She considers herself to be part of a continuum of storykeepers and tells that travels back in time to when a person in a West African village would be the keeper of the village’s culture. These people are known as Griots.

“They were an important figure in community. They knew all the stories of the community and could sing them back. I would say that I am part of that continuum.” As if to underline the connection, her next book is called Nouveau Griots.

Evanson also prepares recordings of her work. Her most recent is called ZENSHIP, which combines her words with music. 

And her spoken word work has also found her a spot as the director of the Banff Centre’s Spoken Word Program where she leads a biennial residency for up to 15 spoken words artists. 

Evanson will present some of ZENSHIP in her performance at the sixth OG 500 slam.

The event itself is the brainchild of Ottawa’s current English poet laureate and well-known spoken word artist, Jamaal Jackson Rogers.

Six years ago he went to the organizers of House of PainT saying that spoken word should be considered part of the foundations of hip-hop and, therefore, should be included in festival. He made his case well.

The event has evolved into a major date of the annual spoken word calendar. It moves around. This will be the first time in the NAC’s Fourth Stage.

“The first OG 500 was really testing the waters to see if the hip-hop community would accept an art form that is often times seen as a different practice,” Jackson said in an interview.

The first festival had Maestro Fresh-Wes who is one of the most celebrated storytellers and hip hop artists in Canada. That had the desired effect and the slam has grown from there, Jackson said. Subsequent slams have represented different disciplines such as urban storytelling. Last year the man some called the Grandfather of Rap, Jalal “Lightning Rod Nuriddin, one of the members of The Last Poets, was the featured performer.

“We wanted to make this a show that was different from any other spoken word show in Canada,” Jackson said. To that end, the slam pays artists an honorarium to come and compete, he said. In other events, artists are only paid if they win.

“But we wanted to honour spoken world poets and break the cycle of artists not getting out of all that hard work.

“We also ask the audience to judge the competitions. Usually at poetry slams five random audience members will judge each round. But in first two rounds at OG 500 we wanted entire audience voting. So each patron will get a red and white card.” The audience will pick a winner by show of cards.

On Friday night 12 slam poets will battle and just before the final showdown, Evanson will take the stage for her own performance.

Jackson believes that Evanson too will bring something very different to the OG 500 with her performance of ZENSHIP.

“She has an infinite well of artistic inspiration.”

But that’s the OG 500, he said, always introducing something new into the mix. Next year, “who knows what will happen next year, maybe a theatrical piece that would be part of a hip hop theatre project that is starting end of this year.”

OG 500 Poetry Slam
House of PainT festival
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: Aug. 24. Doors at 6 p.m. Showtime: 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.