Over the past five months, I’ve been to VOCAB, a monthly open mic event at White Rabbit Cabaret, three times. Each time was a little different; each time I got a different taste of all the spoken word talent in Indianapolis.
The last time was Wednesday, March 13, which also happened to be the 12-year anniversary of the open mic series. And if you were there that night, you only need to have looked around at the standing room only crowd at VOCAB that night to gauge its success.
Both at the forefront and behind the scenes at VOCAB — billed on its Facebook page as a space where “art, activism, and community meet” — is poet and activist Tatjana Rebelle.
“I started VOCAB in the basement of the Casba,” Rebelle said to applause after she came up to the stage, along with her VOCAB co-host Corey Ewing, to kick off the 12-year anniversary event. “We had a good ass fucking time in the Casba …”
The more Rebelle talked, and the more members of the audience responded with claps, cheers, and shout outs. During the introduction she didn’t neglect to call out Deejay Stylistic, who nodded from behind his table onstage.
While it’s probably not the most important thing about VOCAB, it should nevertheless be said that the series has its own theme song.
After DJ Stylistic played that groovy hip hop inspired theme, the spoken word performances began.
Even for a VOCAB anniversary celebration, this was, according to Corey Ewing, a very special event.
“For the first time in quite a few years that I can remember, there were a lot of other poets that run open mics or who have been heavily involved in the scene all together in one room and we hadn’t had that in a long time,” says Ewing, in retrospect, about the event.
“So to see the community come together for that night and pay homage to Tatjana and what she began was really enriching, to see that support happen and know that it’s still there, it’s still possible, and that we all have support for one another, and have each other’s backs was really really cool to see.”
The featured artists included some of the most successful spoken word artists in the state: Gabrielle Patterson, Tony Styxx, Januarie York, and Too Black — artists who helped contribute to the success of the long-running spoken word series with their appearances.
The Tuesday Xavier Collective, Ariana Cyusa, and Kirei also performed that night.
Each of the featured performers had a different style. That evening, Patterson was a storyteller, departing from her more usual poetic delivery, telling the tale of how she her wife in a country western bar. Tony Styxx gave a performance that shows why he’s often described as a human beat box. He did so with magical wordplay and refrains that were as much a capella song as spoken word.
Januarie York delivered an impassioned performance of her “Kick of the Lamb”, a poem rich in metaphor, the warmth of human connection, and mystery.
“To see how she’s honed her craft and gotten better over the years,” says Ewing about York, who he refers to as JY. “A lot of people are like okay … I’m good at what I do; she doesn’t have that complacency. She can always move a room, always.”
In the middle of these performances co-host Ewing talked about what VOCAB meant to him. He first encountered the spoken word venue, he said, after moving back to Indianapolis in 2008 after a stint in the army reserves and college, (Tuskegee University and SUNY Oneonta, where he pursued poetry) Afterwards, he experienced a bout of depression.
“I stayed in my grandma’s basement for about two years,” he said. “My friend Jenna told me about this spot called VOCAB. Then I went And for about a year it was literally the only reason I would leave the fucking house because of VOCAB. … Tatjana showed me what the city and what hope could mean. She taught me what activism meant, what it meant to work in the community what it meant to give a fuck about other people. She literally saved my life. I don’t know where the fuck I was at. I don’t know what the fuck I’d be doing were it not for VOCAB. It means the world to me.”
Ewing, like Rebelle, is often enough happy while hosting VOCAB not to deliver his own poetic work and to just play host, which he does in a way that is friendly, enthusiastic, playful, and supportive. (Onstage Rebelle and Ewing are so in sync they virtually finish each other’s sentences.) That being said, the former bartender — now beverage director at Hotel Tango — isn’t afraid to egg the audience on if he senses distraction or a lull in enthusiasm.
But, on this night, Rebelle and others cajoled Ewing into performance. So he delivered a spoken word that rose to the level of the work of the featured artists that night; the piece he delivered revolved around the fictional African country of Wakanda:
“When we say Wakanda, it means fuck your dress code. It means do not tell us to be quiet. When we say Wakanda it means Serena Williams winning in whatever the fuck she wants to win in. … When we say Wakanda, it means that you, you, you all of you, and those who came before, are welcome …”
It was a poem that referred to the fictional kingdom in the motion picture Black Panther, of course, but it also made me think of the VOCAB series itself for two interlinked reasons.
While most performers that particular night were African American, VOCAB provides a welcoming environment for everyone no matter what their ethnicity, race, sexuality, or gender. All are welcome to share their stories.
“When I first got on the scene it was very segregated, there were literally spots where minority poets were comfortable and spots where majority poets were comfortable,” says Ewing. “There wasn’t very much crossover. And VOCAB has definitely been at the forefront of bringing everyone to the table and sharing this space. Not only sharing this space, but promoting a space for marginalized voices … A lot of people take the viewpoint that they have to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves and that’s just played out.
“And, one of the things I’m really proud of VOCAB for doing is providing a platform for those voices,” he says. “We know when to step aside.”
But that welcoming atmosphere requires all participants to be respectful of one another.
“Certain terms get muddied over time,” says Ewing, “Be it ‘ally,’ be it ‘safe space’. Who is it for? Not for everybody, not if you’re a bigot; everyone has their line.”
And, sometimes lines get crossed. There’s always the possibility during these events that a performer will come onstage and not show the same respect to the audience that the audience is paying to them.
Such was the case on Wednesday, March 13 when one gentleman came up to the stage and delivered a spoken word piece on the subject of “freestyle love” that started praising loving relationships and devolved into something raw and uncomfortable for many in the audience. His performance generated cries of “whoa”, “Oh my God”, and “What?” and boos.
At the sound of booing, “freestyle” started to heckle his audience.
“Boo because you don’t know what to do, motherfuckers,” he said, “All I’m saying is this. If you know what love is, it’s about pleasing her and not you.”
What he also seemed to saying is that his audience didn’t know how to engage in the acts of the acts of “freestyle love” that he was describing onstage in graphic detail.
It was Ewing who sort of became a superhero at that moment when, at Rebelle’s direction — demonstrating amply that he has her back — the former bouncer aimed a flashlight at the freestyle love dude to let him know his time was up.
In the end, it turned out to be a learning experience for this particular performer, according to Ewing.
“He was able to see it from the angle that we were coming from,” he says.
Too Black finished out the 12-year anniversary VOCAB by delivering a selection of his older works including one called “Fuckstrated.” It’s a very funny spoken word piece that references a Chris Rock routine about an earlier generation of Black men who grew up with racism that was more open than it is nowadays. It was born from his experiences as a pizza delivery driver encountering stingy customers as a student at Ball State University in Muncie.
Expanding outward from VOCAB
In my three VOCAB visits, I’ve seen a great variety of performances. I’ve seen not only spoken word poetry, but singer-songwriters with guitar, as well as rappers rapping to accompaniment by DJ Stylistic. Sometimes people come up on stage and recount personal stories. Many VOCAB performers read from pages, or, more commonly a smartphone, but the featured poets usually have their stuff memorized. For quite a few performers, the experience seems to be a necessary, therapeutic exercise.
One highlight for me was my first visit to Vocab on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 when Mat Davis performed “Still Fucked Up” after famed Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight’s poem “Feeling Fucked Up.” It was a performance that acknowledged the late African American poet’s monumental standing in American poetry. It also demonstrated that Knight’s concerns are just as raw and important now as when his first book was published in 1968.
VOCAB isn’t the longest running spoken word series in Indianapolis. The honor for that goes to Kafe’ Kuumba, celebrating its 30th year. There’s also Iconoclast Slam and Open Mic organized by Devon Ginn and Dante Fratturo, That Peace Open Mic at Central Library run by Mariah Ivey, Localmotion at Fountain Square Arts & Books, and Tea’s the Artist Youth Open Mic Night at Tea’s Me. Spoken word performers also make appearances at Grove Haus, The Point, and Future Friends Holographic Magic Club.
(This is by no means an exhaustive list. If we missed a venue important to you, let us know in the comments section of this article.)
Whatever else can be said about this scene, there’s no lack of places for an aspiring spoken word poet to perform.
But, if there is an epicenter of spoken word in the Circle City, VOCAB must be it, or close to it. Part of that success seems to me, at least, to have to do with the fact that VOCAB is more than a spoken word open mic: it is a spoken word community.
So, I wanted to talk to Tatjana Rebelle about her history with the series.
The History of VOCAB
When Rebelle began performing on a regular basis 12 years ago, it was as a singer/songwriter in Broad Ripple’s Upper Room.
“I’ve always written poetry,” Rebelle told me, on the day we met in December 2018 at Monon Coffee Co. in Broad Ripple, which happens to be her workplace. “Then, I had a moment where I needed to say things out loud, as opposed to just written for myself. So I started doing these singer/songwriter open mics in the Upper Room. “
And through performing at that Broad Ripple bar, Rebelle — who was born in Germany but raised in Indy by her German mother — began to attract a following.
“Then I got an opportunity to do that at the Casba,” she said. “So that’s where it started. It became a place where I was able to do an open mic because I wasn’t very accepted in that…
“I became very intentional about creating a space for everyone so that every form of artistry was accepted. Because I wasn’t accepted in the singer/songwriter scene.”
Usually, during VOCAB night, there’s a featured poet and a featured musician.
“I would do someone who was in the metal scene as a poet and match that up with a singer/songwriter because I wanted to get as many types of people going to share the experience,” said Rebelle, who was born in Germany, but moved to Indianapolis at the age of two and grew up in the city.
But, Rebelle wasn’t able to continue the VOCAB series uninterrupted. As is the case with other spoken word series in the city, much depends on the time commitments of the lead organizers; people with jobs, families, and lives that need tending to.
When Rebelle became a mother for the third time, she took three years off. Her youngest son, now 8, is the only one who lives in her household.
“He’s the first child I’ve raised being out as a queer woman and I’m way more politically active than I was, raising him in a different way than others,” she said.
Ewing, her VOCAB co-host, helped bring VOCAB back after her three-year absence.. “I was able to get him one of his first features in the city,” she said. “And we’ve been doing it since then. So it’s been at the Casba, and we left the Casbah and went to the Wellington and started doing another show called Lingo. At Shoefly. Then we went back to the Casba, and now we’re at White Rabbit, the forever home.”
They started at White Rabbit in January 2017.
Rebelle is as much a political activist as a poet. Her poem, “Outside Myself/Within Myself,” which she performs occasionally at VOCAB, defines her stance as both a poet and an activist. It’s as pointedly political a poem as it is personal, delving into her own mixed race heritage, her life as a queer woman of color, her political activism.
But Rebelle is writing a lot more these days about things happening “outside herself,” in the world, than she used to.
If you were at the reading on Friday, Dec. 7 2018 at Future Friends Holographic Magic Club at the Murphy Art Center, you would have seen her read a speech she gave at the March for our Lives Rally in front of the Indiana Statehouse on Sunday, March 24, that feels like a companion piece to “Outside Myself/Within Myself.”
Her speech was filmed by a family friend, and then shared on a Facebook page.
A white supremacist vlogger, Vincent James of Red Elephants, got a hold of that video clip, and used that video as fodder in a 10-minute racist diatribe, uploaded to YouTube, where he labelled Rebelle as being “anti-white.”
The YouTube video went viral and attracted thousands of posts.
Her reading marked the opening of her art installation at Future Friends, which was largely a reaction to Vincent James’ online abuse. It not only included a screen with that YouTube video on repeat, where you see James expounding on why “Blacks are inherently prone to violence” using skewed statistics, and non-peer reviewed tomes like Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in an attempt to justify the points he was making. The YouTube video gained over 80,000 views and more than 2,000 comments, most of them also bigoted and abusive.
Other parts of the installation included said comments, blown-up large-scale as wall placards, as well as Rebelle’s own artwork. (Too Black and the Tuesday-Xavier Collective performed spoken word that night as well.)
Her exhibition coincided with the release her chapbook, This is America: When they use your words against you. This chapbook contains her speech at the March for Our Lives Rally. It not only documents racist social media responses exchanges inspired by Vincent James’ YouTube video, but it also contains two essays containing Rebelle’s thinking on the wider problem of racism.
In those essays, she calls out those who would defend white privilege and bigotry and those who co-opt indigenous culture for their own ends. It should not be surprising, for those reading these essays, that Rebelle is deeply engaged in the activist community in Indianapolis.
By working with the American Friends Service Committee, she has helped organize pro-Palestinian rallies, in addition to working on issues affecting the African American and LGBTQ communities right here at home.
The space that she created with VOCAB is a place that can be open to such difficult conversations on the topic of race and white privilege while, at the same time, being enormously inclusive.
But she wouldn’t be able to do any of this if she didn’t do it from a platform of self-acceptance.
In an untitled poem that Rebelle read at the Tuesday, Jan. 8 VOCAB, you find the lines … “To the teenager, fight against the anger that will turn you into a demon, you will find the tools to numb the pain … Don’t take the anger out on yourself or others. There are times when you can love yourself as you are and it will be enough.”
Both inside and outside VOCAB, in spoken word and in political activism, Rebelle is working to help people of all backgrounds find self acceptance, and to be accepted.
“So VOCAB is a space where I’m merging those lines into one,” she said. “If one of the main groups in the city like Don’t Sleep or Indy 10 has an event going on or something that they want to do, or call to action, I have them actually come into the show and talk about it.”