Shihan is speaking up to tell the truth

Music Notes

September 08, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

In his restlessness, in his aggravation, there still was poetry.

I'm tired of working for Starbucks for no star bucks / My time is worth more than $6.50 an hour. ...

It was 1997 and, like countless artists before him, Shihan Van Clief decided to "follow his rainbow" and become a full-time poet. That year, he said so long to his boss and fellow employees at a Los Angeles Starbucks where he served lattes all day. Before that, Shihan (he goes by just his first name) had taught martial arts. But writing was always his first love -- ever since he was a boy growing up on New York's Lower East Side.

Almost 10 years after leaving behind a steady paycheck, the artist is doing his own thing on his own terms. And, yes, homeboy can pay the rent. His energetic debut, The Poet, dropped in stores Tuesday. Featuring insightful rhymes over heavy, jazz-inflected beats interspersed with revelatory spoken-word snippets, the CD is smart and at times bitingly funny.

"I characterize it as a spoken word album with hip-hop," says Shihan, who's calling from Los Angeles. "I grew up on rap and poetry. But I separate the two when I write."

"How so?" I want to know.

"I like to write after I'm given music," he says. "That's where the raps come from. What I normally do is free-write. I give myself 15 minutes and just write until I feel something clicking. It's like a puzzle piece, putting it all together."

I dig his flow. Over the organic beats, Shihan is smoothly assured -- his timing and sense of rhythm precise and sharp. Shihan's spoken- word performances are usually breathlessly animated, the words tumbling over one another. They stop and start or shoot through the air, popping like bottle rockets.

"I've been writing since I was in elementary school," says Shihan, 30. "I started taking it seriously in '93. There was so much going on then."

That year, he was signed to a recording contract with MCA and soon afterward moved to the City of Angels. Nothing came of the record deal, though, and Shihan was unceremoniously dropped. In his personal life, a close friend became hooked on drugs, and the artist found solace in poetry while hustling to make ends meet. But after his last day of serving coffee and biscotti, Shihan wanted desperately to get his lyrical stories to the people. So he haunted spoken-word bars around L.A., blessing the mike with spirited poems on racism, interpersonal politics, elusive love.

"Some places would give you a meal, pastries, maybe $20," Shihan says. "It was hard. I worked wherever I could at any open mike I could find."

Things started to break around 2000 when he co-wrote "Tic Toc," one of MTV's most popular Rock the Vote campaigns. Not long after that, Shihan landed a gig performing in Pepsi's national Slam TV and radio campaigns. He also has appeared on all five seasons of HBO's Def Poetry. If you tuned in, surely you saw the handsome poet with the powder-puff ponytail, delivering stinging poems about gross materialism among young black men or inspired lines about finding what Mary J. Blige yearned for back in '92: "real love." You also may have caught him in the national touring production of Def Poetry.

On HBO, I've seen Shihan perform a fierce piece called "Auction Network," which takes a swipe at mainstream hip-hop stars who perpetuate insufferable inanity in their music and videos. Sounding like an overly jovial announcer, the spoken-word artist sells us a "premium 5-foot-10 young Negro buck brought to you by way of Any Ghetto, USA." The poem also appears on his debut.

"Music is the new cotton," Shihan says, "and people will sell themselves for anything right now. I wrote ['Auction Network'] after the MTV Music Awards and getting sick [of] watching 50 Cent perform his 'Pimp' song. There's some kind of responsibility to being an artist. Hip-hop is 30 years old and hasn't grown up, which is a shame, you know. I want to make a statement, feed some minds and tell the truth as I see it."

Aside from the bitter pieces, Shihan offers sweeter moments: "In Response" is an affecting ode to his wife and 3-year-old daughter. ("We live a love that God would envy.")

At under 45 minutes, The Poet is digestible and seldom preachy. Like his favorite poet, Nikki Giovanni, the artist gets his points across through intelligent, down-to-earth language and vivid imagery. Add the palpable passion with which he delivers his lines and you have a potent force in baggy jeans.

"Everybody has a voice," he says. "Not everybody is going to get a chance to say something. So don't waste time on the mike. Don't hold yourself back. Take responsibility for your art. Express yourself."

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