Andru Defeye stands on a chair and cups his hands around his mouth, his voice piercing the murmur of diner conversations inside Hot Italian restaurant in midtown. His captive audience is suddenly silent.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he yells, “some of you guys know what’s going on right now. And some of you guys have no idea.”
“Welcome to the most open mike in the city of Sacramento!”
Over the next two hours on this Monday night, Defeye and a diverse group of students, teachers and poets take turns showing off their skills in the middle of the restaurant’s dining room.
On the surface, the impromptu performance resembles a flash mob – where large groups descend on a predetermined location and perform unannounced – but this event is different, the organizers say. It’s a touring experiment in how people react to poetry, rap, music and one another.
“It’s taking poetry and hip-hop to the people for free,” says Luke Tailor, a 20-year-old Sacramento City College student, whose sly smile and quick prose make him a popular performer. “It’s music meets a social network, a physical form of Twitter.”
These open mikes have been popping up once a week around midtown this year. The week before they took over Hot Italian, a group of more than 100 performers and viewers filled the La Garnacha Mexican restaurant on 16th Street.
This past Monday, a crowd of nearly 200 gathered on the patio outside LowBrau, the German-style sausage and beer place on 20th Street.
Clay Nutting, an owner of LowBrau, said the restaurant staff was “totally caught off guard” by the sudden performance, but that he was impressed by the event. Nutting and Defeye said they began talking about a future scheduled performance inside the restaurant.
“To see all these artists from every corner of the city come together sends a message that, ‘We’re here, even if you don’t see us all the time,’ and that resonated with me,” Nutting said. “There are venues in Sacramento, but there are definitely a small number of venues that can put on an event like what they’re doing. I think it’s very powerful for them to make any place their venue and gather a lot of like-minded people.”
Defeye, 29, said the group’s next event won’t be a surprise: The performance is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday at the Press Club bar at 21st and P streets. The Element Brass Band is expected to take part.
After one more event in February – Defeye said he doesn’t know where it will be – the group will settle into the Brickhouse art gallery in Oak Park for the month of March. After that, the movement will go “guerrilla” again, pushing into spaces where people gather naturally – light-rail stations, farmers markets, grocery stores.
Many of the young artists drawn to these events attend because they’re turned off by the reputation built over the years by larger hip-hop venues and performances.
Sitting at this open mike event, you won’t hear anyone brag about drug dealing, money or guns. The crowd boos when someone uses a derogatory term for gay people – terms used often in commercial rap music.
Instead, you’ll hear young people delivering very real, sometimes painful messages. Tailor raps about the “Sallie Mae Blues,” a reference to the mounting student loan debt that he and many of his counterparts carry.
Defeye’s music is, in large part, inspired by a tough childhood during which he had 50 surgeries for a stomach disorder, was told by doctors he wouldn’t be able to have children and contemplated suicide.
“We draw a lot of young people where this is the outlet for their struggle,” Defeye says. “And my message for anyone listening is, those are the stripes on your uniform and you’re going to need those to get through life.”
Matt Canty performed for the first time at the Hot Italian event. He does legislative and political work for a labor union during the day. On this night, the 26-year-old was ready to step out of that role for a few minutes.
He was one of the first to perform, bowing his head slightly under a black L.A. Dodgers hat. His poem was quick, drawing cheers with its final line:
“Life can only be what you make of it.”
To see a video of the recent open mike event at Hot Italian, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd3nHnumnnc.