A humble memo to the fans of spoken word poetry: Don't disrespect the Asians.
When questioning the legitimacy of today's "postracial" America, it's easy to color critiques in shades of black and white. How much progress has been made since the civil rights struggles? Is the movement ongoing? What does the election of the first non-white president say about who we have become? Not much, if the murmur of marginalized ethnic groups is silenced, reminds Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, on her new album Further She Wrote, a collection of penetrating rhymes voiced over an ubercharged electropop background.
Tsai sets her tone from the album's first cut, "Real Women I Know," which demolishes myths about what women can or should be. Less feminist creed than personal manifesto, the track auscultates the myriad manifestations of constructed and self-destructed gender, emphasizing, a la Eve Ensler, that womanhood is an expression that no single locus can claim. Social multiplicity is explored again in "Self-Centered," whose verses illuminate the perils of reducing identity politics to a zero-sum game of "us" versus "them."
Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood takes center stage in "The Ballad of a Maybe Gentrifier," and it is with these lines that Tsai's offering truly takes flight. A resident of Bed-Stuy, as the district has come to be called, Tsai channels the historical shifts that have impacted the neighborhood—including African-American migration after World War II, race riots and gerrymandering in the 1960s and 1970s, and, more recently, economic polarization—into an urban biography, one that grafts "Bed-Stuy and Proud of It" on both the ghetto and the brownstones, the old and the new.
Few, if any, poetry compilations come without a touch of eros, it seems, and this one doesn't disappoint. Summoning her inner Ginsberg, Tsai, in "The Confessions of Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai," bemoans the oppressive sexual fantasies still circulating in our culture, particularly the notion of the masculine sexual savior. Enunciated squarely within the confessional genre, Tsai's intimate revelations exhibit the existential angst inherent in sexual power relations. For the poet, existence turns inward, however, seeking visibility and companionship, not penile affirmation.
Bump ahead three clips to "Black, White, Whatever...," the recording's unquestioned climax. Vanquishing the vox populi that represents racial discourse as a D.W. Griffith montage, the Chinese-Taiwanese-American poet bum rushes potential presidential aspirants with a plea to elide reductionist essentializations about pedigree when speechifying about our national melting pot. Asian is not a dangling modifier, Tsai believes, and shouldn't be casually discarded as the other 'Other', in addition to countless people whose heritage wasn't a clear cause of the Civil War. Though probably not her assumed audience, Tea Party types, who have turned lactification into a Zen-like thing (no pun intended), would do well to heed the artist's eloquent anger.
All this, plus meditations on genius, creation and an undulating homage to Lauryn Hill, equal an impressive aesthetic rupture. And we need more of those. If not for the sake of overcoming decades of self-imposed triumphalism, then to acknowledge, momentarily, that our individual characters will never be solely our own, not while the stories of so many are scripted only on the sidelines.