Naming her latest album Ma’at Mama, after the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, balance and order, was surely an apt choice for acclaimed spoken word artist Ursula Rucker. Nowhere is this more evident than in concert, where Rucker strikes a balance between the written word and live performance while revamping work that is generally the result of her collaborations with a hefty list of renowned musicians and producers. The Philadelphia-based poet first crossed over into the underground music scene in the 1990s through her work with both conscious hip-hop and electronic artists, most famously The Roots and Josh Wink. Since the release of her solo debut, Supa Sista, in 2001, she has added Jazzanova, Little Louie Vega and countless others to her list of collaborators. Her rhythmic, poignant commentary, often socio-political in nature, stands proud against a musical backdrop that draws heavily from hip-hop, jazz and funk.
Opening with “Libations,” from her latest disc, Rucker took to the stage with dark sunglasses pulled over her eyes and a small, leather notebook raised to the side. Essentially a thank you poem to “our ancestors, our forebearers,” this roll call of artistic visionaries, political activists, spiritual figures and victims of hate crimes set the pace for Rucker’s performance. Like cultural theorist bell hooks, Rucker’s poetry is never focused strictly on either sexism or racism, her main topics of interest. Instead, the two are fused, part of a larger overall theme of oppression and the need to allow love and tolerance to rise through the mire.
As a lyricist, Rucker’s work is structurally similar to that of both Jazz Age and Beat Generation verse and clearly owes some credit to the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets as well. Her concise phrases and use of repetition set not only the tone but the time signatures for her band. It is this sense of musicality within her compositions that gives Rucker the freedom to play in nightclubs alongside funk and blues artists, as was the case for this concert.
On stage, Rucker is a commanding presence with a sharp delivery that emphasizes the urgency of the message. A graduate of Temple University’s journalism department, Rucker’s work often takes the tone of an activist reporter, detailing the headlines of the day and calling for change. During “Rant (Hot in Here),” she instructs the audience, “Okay, class, let’s review the words of the day,” before railing off a list of words seemingly pulled from the CNN news ticker. She concluded the number by beckoning for folks to “resist, pump a fist” in a rallying cry for revolution.
Rucker closed her unusually short, 45-minute set (her performances generally last two hours) with “Release.” Originally featured on her 2003 album Silver and Lead as an Afro-Caribbean influenced house track produced by Little Louie Vega, the piece morphed into a comparatively sparse, psychedelic form in this setting. Despite the sonic differences, the message of love in a time of crisis remained intact, with Rucker’s stark descriptions of a post-9/11 world offset by her imploration to “release your heart.”
The only major criticism of the event stems from the crowd, whose chatter grew so piercing that it was nearly impossible to hear Rucker at various points in time. John Bigham of The Soul of John Black made reference to the noise during his band’s opening set when he remarked, “I think I heard people stop talking for a minute. We must have been alright.”
Bigham is a man with one hell of a résumé. A protégé of Miles Davis, he did time in legendary L.A. rock-funk hybrid Fishbone and has performed on the recordings of artists ranging from Eminem and Dr. Dre to Nikka Costa. This diverse background fueled a set that blurred the lines between blues, rock, funk and soul.
Daniel closed out the night with a set of R&B that roused the tightly-packed crowd. Ranging in style from smooth ballads to wah-heavy dance floor jams, this full-sized band played skillfully and enthusiastically until the end of the club night.