His Punch Line Smarts

Bomani Armah heads to an open-mike night at Sankofa Books. When his
Bomani Armah heads to an open-mike night at Sankofa Books. When his "Read a Book" parody went over viewers' heads, he found himself in over his. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bomani Armah ("I'm not a rapper, I'm a poet with a hip-hop style") hops into a bar chair at the ultracool Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier. It is a Wednesday night, we have the bar to ourselves, we are having a splendid conversation. You may be thinking: Dude, this is such an unextraordinary scene. Except that Armah is simultaneously hosting an open-mike talent show, toggling from bar to stage in five-minute intervals and proving how fluid the mind can be.

He's fixated, at the bar, on what has happened to him over the past four months, how he somehow became a symbol of the coarsening culture. All because he wrote a crunk song, "Read a Book," that traveled the Internet, that was discovered by Black Entertainment Television, that was made into a video, that ignited a controversy, that turned Bomani Armah into a person he didn't recognize, someone accused of "setting my people back 100 years." Between the irate blog posts and the snippy interviews by the likes of CNN's Tony Harris, Armah discovered that he had suddenly become somebody.

"I got recognized at the post office," he says. "I'm not used to that." Anytime Jesse Jackson calls you out -- he accused Armah of "recycling degradation" -- you know you've arrived.

On this night, no one is calling him out, except to say that he should hurry back to the stage, back to the mike. There is only love for Armah in the cafe. Here, he is free -- free from his "Read a Book" troubles. Here, he is focused on art, everybody's art. Rudeness is not tolerated.

"Most important rule," he instructs the audience, "cheering for everybody." Which includes the yodeling senior citizen they call Miss Jane, the guitar-plucking urban cowboy, the University of Maryland doctoral student who raps provocatively about female anatomy.

Back and forth Armah goes, stage to bar, bar to stage. An impressive display of thought juggling. He is 29, with a smile that could soften a hard heart, wire-rimmed glasses and short locks. Whenever kind words come his way -- and they keep coming his way here -- he puts his hands together and dips his head in a slight bow. "Thank you so much."

Armah grew up middle class in Mitchellville and now lives in Petworth. He has 17-month-old twins and a five-year marriage. He has been kicking around the D.C. music scene for six years, producing for other local musicians, hosting spoken-word events, trying to break through as an artist out to elevate hip-hop into something more relevant, more meaningful.

As a former English major -- he dropped out of the University of Maryland to pursue his music career -- Armah has conducted creative writing and audio/video workshops for kids. He has worked as a youth counselor. He has seen firsthand one of the most pernicious effects of the rap game, the warping of black reality into a one-dimensional caricature. Too many in his generation of artists, he says, aspire to be "as grimy and gangster" as they can be, a depiction of black life that filters down to the kids, who become the next inaccurate storytellers.

"As an educator and an artist, it was hurting me both ways," says Armah, who is hardly the first "conscious" artist to come along advocating a hip-hop makeover. But most artists who feel as he does, Armah adds, "write essays or long esoteric songs" that are indigestible. Armah was determined to do something more jolting. Provocative, but funny.

" 'Read a Book' was a joke from the beginning," he says. "It was more about parodying the state of hip-hop." And now it has become the thing that defines him. He thought about that for a moment. "Damn, do this many people not get me?"

* * *

Read a book! Read a book! Read a [expletive] book!

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