When Ursula Rucker got the call to appear on the third season of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” in New York, she was already a poet on the rise. She had just released her first album of poetry backed up by a band, and she was planning a European tour.
She had the hustle of an artist running headlong into a poetry career that would sustain her for decades to come.
“I was overseas and had to travel from Sweden or Italy or something to just record for one day, then fly back to Europe to continue my tour, with my infant son,” she recalled. “It was wild.”
Fifteen years later, the details about “Def Poetry Jam” are blurry for Rucker. The one shining memory she has is sitting next to Lou Reed during the taping. They talked, and the co-founder of The Velvet Underground liked her stuff.
“That’s the best takeaway,” said Rucker. “Anything else, I have no idea. But Lou Reed dug me.”
“Def Poetry Jam” ran on HBO from 2002-2007, showcasing performance poetry ranging from established figures Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka; prominent poetry slam performers of the day; and readings by celebrities including Jamie Foxx, Erykah Badu, and Dave Chappelle.
It also had a Broadway run, for which it won a Tony.
“Def Poetry Jam” was co-created by Danny Simmons, backed up by his brother Russell Simmons, founder of the hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings.
It wasn’t an easy sell.
Hip-hop without the music
“Nobody believed in spoken word. They believed it existed, but they didn’t believe it had an audience,” said Simmons. “Even Russell. He thought it was a bunch of hippies with backpacks doing poetry.”
Around 2000, Simmons put together a pilot episode, which included Philadelphia poet Sanchez, to shop around to executives at MTV and HBO. A trial performance was staged at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Eventually, the show was sold to HBO with a title referencing another product with which Def Jam found success, “Def Comedy Jam.”
“I knew the messages these young poets were carrying were important to get out there,” said Simmons in his Northern Liberties home crowded with African art. “That was a very crucial time. There was a lot of gangster rap and negativity being attributed to hip-hop. I saw spoken word poetry as a form of hip-hop, just without the music, basically.”
After performing for decades in coffeehouses and college campuses, Sanchez knew there was an audience for spoken word.
“We understood the continuation from Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown, to my generation, to this new generation,” she said. “There is a line there. That is what we saw on television.”
Twelve years after the final season, Sanchez will join the “Def Poetry Jam” reunion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Other guests include Rucker, Vanessa German, Black Ice, and the duo Yellow Rage.
“Brother Danny is continuing to bring these poets to all audiences and new audiences,” said Sanchez. “People have learned how to say their words and wrap them in beauty, and quite often in activism and resistance.”
The Philadelphia connection
The reunion will take place at the art museum because Simmons recently relocated to Philadelphia from Brooklyn, opening an art gallery in the Logan neighborhood, Rush Arts Philadelphia.
In Brooklyn, he was active on the boards of the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Library, and the New York State Foundation of the Art. Ultimately, he sold his house and left it all behind in order to come to Philadelphia to paint and write.
“The initial thought was, ‘Let me go someplace and be an artist,’” he said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
Still, he hasn’t let go of his artistic pursuits. He released a book of poetry last year, has his painting shown in museum and galleries, and is about to release a CD of spoken word accompanied by jazz bassist Ron Carter on Blue Note records.
Running a gallery and education center in Logan have taken up more time than he anticipated. It’s also difficult for a man of his cultural stature to stay under a bushel.
“When you start getting involved in the cultural life of a city, you start to meet people,” he said. “There are lots of people of color who serve on boards, but not many of them are artists. So I have a particular point of view.”
Though he said he’s avoiding boards for now, Simmons has joined art collection committees at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, advising acquisitions.
That’s how the “Def Poetry Jam” reunion came to be at the art museum. Simmons has staged similar reunions in Houston and Brooklyn and at the University of Wisconsin. He is talking about bringing it to Newark, New Jersey, next fall.
“It’s not something I’m out in the world pitching. It’s just something that comes up, and I enjoy doing,” he said. The event on Friday night is sold out, but it will be live-streamed over the museum’s Facebook page.