Click on any phrase to play the video at that point.Close
"My Air Jordans cost a hundred with tax. My suede Starters jacket says Raiders on the back. I'm stylin', smilin', lookin' real mean, because it ain't about being heard, just being seen. My leather Adidas baseball cap matches my fake Gucci backpack. (Laughter) Ain't nobody who looks as good as me, but this costs money, it sure ain't free, and I gots no job, no money at all, but it's easy to steal all this from the mall. Parents say I shouldn't, but I knows I should. Got to do what I can to make sure I look good, and the reason I have to look real good, well, to tell you the truth, man, I don't know why. Guess it makes me feel special inside. When I'm wearing fresh gear I don't have to hide, and I really must get some new gear soon or my ego will pop like a 10-cent balloon. But security is tight at all the shops. Every day there are more and more cops. My crew is laughing at me because I'm wearing old gear. School's almost over. Summer is near. And I'm sportin' torn Jordans. I need something new. Only one thing left to do. Cut school Friday, catch the subway downtown, check out my victims hangin' around. Maybe I'll get lucky and find easy prey. Got to get some new gear. There's no other way. I'm ready and willing. I'm packing my gun. This is serious business. This ain't no fun. And I can't have my posse laughin' at me. I'mma cop something dope, just wait, you'll see. Come out of the station, West 4th near the park, brothers shooting hoops and someone remarks, 'Hey homes, where you get them Nik's?' I says to myself, 'Yeah. I likes 'em, I likes.' They were Q-tip white, bright and blinding my eyes. The red emblem of Michael looked as if it could fly. Not one spot of dirt. The Airs were brand new. Had my pistol and knew just what to do. Waited until it was just the right time, followed him very closely behind. He made a left turn on Houston, I pulled out my gun, and I said, 'Gimme them Jordans!' And the punk tried to run. Took off fast, didn't get far. I fired,'Pow!' Fool fell between two parked cars. He was coughing, crying, blood spilled on the street. And I snatched them Air Jordans off of his feet. While laying there dying, all he could say was, "Please man, don't take my Air Jordans away." You'd think he'd be worried about staying alive. As I took off with his sneakers, there was tears in his eyes. Very next day, I bopped into school with my brand new Air Jordans, man, I was cool. I killed to get 'em, but hey, I don't care, because now I needs a new jacket to wear."
For the last 15 years that I have been performing, all I ever wanted to do was transcend poetry to the world. See, it wasn't enough for me to write a book. It wasn't enough for me to join a slam competition, and while those things hold weight, it wasn't the driving force that pushes the pen to the pad. The hunger and thirst was, and still remains: How do I get people who hate poetry to love me? Because I'm an extension of my work, and if they love me, then they will love my work, and if they love my work, then they will love poetry, and if they love poetry, then I will have done my job, which is to transcend it to the world.
And in 1996, I found the answer in principles in a master spoken-word artist named Reg E. Gaines, who wrote the famous poem, "Please Don't Take My Air Jordans." And I followed this guy everywhere until I had him in the room, and I read him one of my pieces, and you know what he told me? "Yo' wack. You know what the problem is with you, homie? You don't read other people's poetry, and you don't got any subordination for verbal measures to tonal consideration." (Laughter) Now he kept on rambling about poetry and styles and Nuyorican Friday nights.
So instead of quitting, I followed him everywhere. When he was writing a Broadway show, I would be outside of the door. I would wake him up at, like, 6:30 in the morning to ask him who's the best poet. I remember eating the eyes of a fish right out of the sea because he told me it was brain food.
Then one day I told him, "Reg E., what is subordination for verbal measures to tonal consideration?" (Laughter) And he handed me a black-and-white printed out thesis on a poet named Etheridge Knight and the oral nature of poetry, and from that point, Reggie stopped becoming the best to me, because what Etheridge Knight taught me was that I could make my words sound like music, even my small ones, the monosyllables, the ifs, ands, buts, whats, the gangsta in my slang could fall right on the ear, and from then on, I started chasing Etheridge Knight. I wanted to know which poet he read, and I landed on a poem called ["Dark Prophecy: Sing of Shine"], a toast signifying that got me on the biggest stage a poet could ever be: Broadway, baby. And from that point, I learned how to pull the mic away and attack the poetry with my body.
But that wasn't the biggest lesson I ever learned. The biggest lesson I learned was many years later when I went to Beverly Hills and I ran into a talent agent who looked at me up and down and said I don't look like I have any experience to be working in this business.
And I said to him, "Listen, punk fool, you're a failed actor who became an agent, and you know why you failed as an actor? Because people like me took your job. I've traveled all the way from Cleveland and Essex in East New York, took the local 6 line up to the hookers of Hunt's Point who were in my way on my way to master the art of space, and the one-to-infinite amount of man, woman and child you can fit in there only so I can push them to the back of the wall with my experience. People have bought tickets to my experience and used them as refrigerator magnets to let them know that the revolution is near, so stock up. I'm so experienced that when you went to a privileged school to learn a Shakespearean sonnet, I was getting those beats kicked and shoved into me. I can master shock of "The Crying Game" with the awe of a child being called an AIDS victim by a bully who didn't know that it was his father who gave it to my mother, and that's a double entendre. I'm so experienced that when you went to the Fell School and all the rich little fairy boys decided to sponsor a child in it, that was me, but kicked me out when I was caught teaching the fairy boys how to rob the PATS off a pair of Lee Jeans and bring them to VIM. Let me see Chekhov pull that off. Sanford Meisner was my Uncle Artie yelling silently to himself, "Something's always wrong when nothing's always right." Method acting is nothing but a mixture of multiple personalities, believing your own lies are reality, like in high school cool Kenny telling me he wanted to be a cop. Dude, you go to Riker's Island Academy. I could make David Mamet psychoanalyze my attack on dialogue, Stanislavski be as if he were Bruce Lee kicking your roster of talentless students up and down Crenshaw. So what, your actors studied guerrilla theater at the London Rep? Let me tell you an ancient Chinese Saturday afternoon kung fu secret. Boards don't hit back. You think black entertainers have it hard finding work in this business? I'm a suspicious mulatto, which means I'm too black to be white and too white to be doing it right. Forget the American ghetto. I've cracked stages in Soweto, buried abortion babies in potter's field and still managed to keep a smile on my face, so whatever you curse at me to your caddyshack go-for-this, go-for-that assistant when I walk out that door, whatever slander you send my way, your mother. Thank you. (Applause)
You can share this video by copying this HTML to your clipboard and pasting into your blog or web page.
need to get the latest Flash player.
Got an idea, question, or debate inspired by this talk? Start a TED Conversation.
Would you kill for a pair of Air Jordans? Lemon Andersen spins a tale of someone who did, reciting a poem by Reg E. Gaines. These verses taught Lemon that poetry could be about more than self-expression, and could sound like music when given rhythm and infused with the grit of the New York streets around him.
Lemon Andersen is a wordsmith who thinks deeply about the sounds of syllables. Full bio »