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‘Poetry vs. Hip-Hop’: a duel of words at City Winery

Mandile Mpofu
‘Poetry vs. Hip-Hop’: a duel of words at City Winery
Queen Sheba performs at a Poetry vs Hip-Hop event in Nashville. PHOTO: RIK COLAS

A long-running performance series that pits spoken word against rhythm and rhyme is coming to Boston for the first time in its decade-long history. “Poetry vs. Hip-Hop” brings to the stage an array of local artists specializing in spoken word, music and comedy before turning over the mic for the headlining performance: a cordial battle between poets and emcees.

“Poetry vs. Hip-Hop” has taken the stage in more than 20 cities, including Atlanta, where it began in the local City Winery there. The showcase is continuing its nationwide tour this National Poetry Month with a breakout event on April 17 at the City Winery in downtown Boston.

“People have stories to tell. And especially when they’re local to your scene, you would be surprised about what they’re going through and what they talk about,” said Queen Sheba, Atlanta-based spoken word artist and co-founder of the Poetry vs. Hip-Hop production company, the entity that runs the namesake performance series.

The Boston event promises to be an evening of community and connection. For the first two hours, Sheba said, the audience is invited to kick it with the staff of Poetry vs. Hip-Hop and the performing artists.

“People have stories to tell,” says Queen Sheba, Atlanta-based spoken word artist and co-founder of Poetry vs Hip-Hop Productions. PHOTO: Heather LaShun Photography

Thereafter, the show will open with a series of performances by a poet, a comedian, a singer and hip-hop artists accompanied by a live band. The line-up features local talents such as two-time Boston Music Award-winner Amanda Shea and Roxbury native and hip-hop artist Najee Janey. The night will cap off with the main attraction: a friendly battle between poets and emcees that will see the winning team go home with $1,000 in prize money.

“It’s fun from beginning to end,” Sheba said.

The Poetry vs. Hip-Hop organization aims to “give voice to the artists who never thought anyone cared,” according to its mission statement. Next week’s event is also an opportunity to introduce Boston audience members to spoken word, prove that hip-hop is alive and thriving — “People still write content that’s worth hearing,” Sheba said — and demonstrate that the craft comes in many different forms.

In her younger years, Sheba found solace in poetry. The art form provided an avenue for self-expression that music didn’t, she said, and carried her through her tumultuous upbringing as an adoptee to white parents and later a brown girl moving through the foster care system. Although she later developed her singing voice, songs weren’t long enough to say what she needed to say, and, she admitted, she had trouble keeping her rhythm. So, she felt right at home in the spoken word community, amidst “a bunch of genius misfits.”

Now Sheba’s a Grammy-nominated “genius misfit.” The artist was nominated for a 2024 Grammy in the relatively new Best Spoken Word Poetry Album for her body of work “A-You’re Not Wrong B-They’re Not Either: The Fukc-It Pill Revisited.” She said she hopes other spoken word artists will submit their work to the category to keep it going.

The draw of spoken word is the opportunity for introspection it offers. But Sheba said she and other artists would be lying if they said the audience’s engagement and energy wasn’t part of the pull.

“I definitely love performing. I will never deny that. It’s addicting. It’s infectious. It’s magical,” she said. “Being able to move an audience through a set of emotions in 20 minutes, [whether] it’s an audience of five or 5,000 — it’s insane. It’s amazing to have them eating out of your hands.”

arts, City Winery, music, Poetry vs. Hip-Hop, Queen Sheba, spoken word