Bethsheba “Queen Sheba” Rem is throwing down the gauntlet this weekend.
If you’re a hip-hop artist, and you think your rhymes have what it takes, come down to Modern Studio in Downtown North Knoxville on Saturday night. Rem is the host of a traveling performance concept known as “Poetry vs. Hip-Hop,” a one-on-one battle that will pit five poets against five emcees, she told The Daily Times this week.
“Hugs are a part of the rules, because it’s to promote peace and positivity and love in our community,” Rem said. “It’s just a fun way to showcase poets and hip-hop artists in each city. What we’re saying is in the title — I’m going to your city, and I’m calling you out. You think you’re better than we are? Let’s see. You say hip-hop is worth listening to? If that’s the case, show us.”
Rem also serves as the “captain” of the poetry team, and she’s partnering with East Tennessee resident, hip-hop artist and spoken word champion Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods, who will commandeer Team Hip-Hop. The concept itself dates back roughly a decade, when a friend of Rem’s did a similar show in Jacksonville, Fla.; a couple of years later at her home club in Atlanta, she was asked to book an empty date and called up the originator of the idea, who gave his blessing. It was so successful that it became a regular event, and Rem eventually obtained a trademark for the name; she started taking it on the road to showcase talent in other cities and has seen it take off in those places, too.
Each team alternates, and the artists direct their art at the audience rather than the other side; it’s not a rap battle or a contest of insults, and the audience ultimately decides the winner. To get it started, Rem works with a local contact to generate interest among poets and hip-hop artists in the cities on the tour; although anything can happen on any given night, Team Poetry is the clear winner 90 percent of the time, she said.
“I’ve found that the more vulnerable either artist is, the more response and feedback they get from the audience,” she said. “What I look for in an artist is their ability to be vulnerable and be specific. Even a lot of spoken word artists dance around a subject and use metaphors, because they won’t take the risk of revealing the specifics of their experience. It’s scary, feeling like people are judging you — and they do, but you’ve got got to know that you’re doing it for yourself first, and that the bravery comes from sharing.
“I find that in any genre, when that happens, people are in your favor. The audience is typically tipped toward hip-hop or poetry when they walk in the door, but I’ve seen hip-hop artists win over the entire room. We’ve only had one show in 2017, in Nashville, and hip-hop won. Ironically, they had a former slam poet on their team who’s now a hip-hop artist, and he had that experience — being vulnerable, being specific, giving details and bringing people through the experience with him.”
Rem herself isn’t afraid to get vulnerable; she’s been doing it for years as a spoken word artist, comedian, motivational speaker and rock singer. She’s performed with and opened for everyone from Alicia Keys to Kanye West to The Roots to Floetry, and she’s a two-time NAACP Image Award nominee with six albums and hundreds of tour appearances to her credit. Despite the efforts of artists like herself and Woods, who shares similar credentials, there’s still a threshold of recognition for spoken word poetry that she hopes to expand with the “Poetry vs. Hip-Hop” concept.
“There’s beauty in both, and it surprises people,” she said. “I’ve been doing spoken word almost 16 years, and people are still discovering it for the first time. People come up to me at the end of the show and say things like, ‘I’ve never been to anything like this before!’ My job as a producer of this show is to make sure they are getting the best of both worlds and not just the spoken word.
“We’re trying our best to find and ask questions and find out who the poets and the hip-hop artists making noise are for each city and try to get those. Sometimes it’s a miss, but when you get the best of both worlds out of that city, they’re going to come and put on a good show. It’s about saying, ‘Let’s get the best of your people to come show you what you’re missing.’”