Poetry has not exactly always been at the heart of American consciousness. It’s often thought of as an art form for lonely, depressed individuals or pretentious hipsters in East Village coffee shops. However, Azizi Jasper (or simply, “Z” to most who know him), is a Grand Rapids-based poet, activist and man about town. With the support of many local people and businesses, he is doing more than most to bring spoken-word poetry to the forefront of art and music culture in this region.
A key element to understanding Jasper’s artistic output is to recognize you’re not likely to read his poetry in a book. His work is meant to be heard. At times it can be difficult to decide whether to classify him as a poet or a rapper, who just happens to not have a beat behind him.
“Putting something to a beat and saying it rhythmically doesn’t make it not a poem. I think rap and hip hop are poetry,” Jasper said. “I don’t separate the two ... I’m not much of a visual artist and I leave singing to singers.”
Jasper traces his history in poetry, and his ability to memorize written works, all the way back to elementary school.
“I was given an assignment by Sister Karen at St. Andrews to memorize a poem called ‘Bed In Summer’ [by Robert Louis Stevenson] ... How was I gonna remember this?” Jasper said.
Jasper said he took the poem home and worked at it, and the next day he found he was able to recite the poem from memory.
“That was when I realized I had the ability to memorize things that were rhythmical.”
However, Jasper also gives plenty of credit to an early interest in jazz, rap and hip hop music, citing artists such as Nas and Wu-Tang Clan as early influences.
“You had a lot of hip hop that was extraordinarily lyrical and acrobatically fashioned, but they were actually saying something at the time.”
Upon hearing Jasper recite nearly any of his works, it is clear that politics and social justice are a major part of his life, and make it heavily into his work. He is also hardly afraid to be controversial.
“If the politics are incorrect there is no sense in being politically correct,” Jasper stated.
While Jasper is not afraid to speak his mind or talk truth to power, he is hardly being shut out of venues or having a platform to speak that truth.
“Grand Rapids has been really supportive,” he said. “I’ve had a show for ten years.”
On the show front, Jasper currently hosts the “Smokin’ Spoken Word” open mic night each Wednesday night at the Eastown Hookah Lounge on Wealthy Street. He also just began the “Monkey Bar Presents Underground Poetry,” a monthly event in the basement of The B.O.B. on Tuesday nights.
Mitch Burns, whom Jasper refers to as his manager, as well as being a good friend, is Jasper’s liaison to The B.O.B. He says the two of them, along with Monkey Bar general manager, Brad Birkholz, have worked together to create a unique event in Grand Rapids.
“[Birkholz] has given us full creative control,” Burns said. “[The three of us] have created a very comfortable and intimate setting for the audience and ourselves to enjoy spoken word poetry ... and it’s only $5. I can say with great pride that there is not a better show in this city.”
Brent Hermiz, owner of the Eastown Hookah Lounge echoes Burns’ comments on Jasper.
“Azizi is the perfect host because his range is diverse and most people can relate to at least one of his pieces ... It wouldn’t be the same without his talents and energy.”
Aside from hosting regular shows, Jasper has also worked as Master of Ceremony for some high-profile events. Most recently he handled MC duties for T Rex Fest, held outside of The Pyramid Scheme in downtown Grand Rapids in late June. He also was approached by the local chapter of the Nation of Islam to introduce the controversial Minister Louis Farrakahn during his appearance at Fountain Street Church in early March. An invitation he was happy to jump on.
“[Farrakahn is] one of the most misunderstood people in modern media. Especially to be as well-spoken as he is.”
But Jasper doesn’t just use his spoken-word talents for unique events or even for fun. Like the political and social activism within his work, he has a deeper message for the community.
“I want to empower the people that have no clue as to where they’re going.”