More than just words

The guys of 5th L add visual flair and lyricism to make their audience think


When local schools book poetry duo the 5th L, they expect a straight-up spoken-word show.

Sometimes, teachers dim the lights and light votive candles for extra ambience. But when 5th L members Femi Lawal and David Ross come out, they bring the lights back up, blow out the candles, grab two mikes and start their a cappella show.

"The last [place] we want to be is in a room with candles and incense burning," Lawal said. "That does not complement what we do."

Ross and Lawal call their vocals-only performance a "high-powered a cappella presentation." It's an evolving phonetic artistry that merges spoken-word poetry with hip-hop and theater. When the two perform at Center Stage on Saturday, they'll step up their game and spit in front of a full band.

"Our performance is so interesting to watch," Lawal said. "It's very visual and very lyrical at the same time."

They want to make you think with their words and often use their own struggles as examples. As Lawal and Ross burn through their show, they jab with their hands for emphasis. Some pieces have verses and choruses. Call it poetry with a hook, or soul hip-hop.

"It's just like, look, this is what I'm going through, and maybe somebody might connect with it," Ross said. "Then we can help each other to kind of get through some of it."

The two met several years ago at the old Five Seasons and decided to team up. They now conduct creative writing workshops, write plays, record albums and perform in Maryland and Virginia schools. They toured branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library last month. The 5th L's material is for all ages, but Ross and Lawal said their school crowds are usually in their early teens. It seems as if it's a tough age to wow, but the two, who are in their late 20s, can relate to, interact with and impress their audience.

"They're easier to work with once you dazzle them," Lawal said.

At Saturday's show, a five-piece band - two keyboardists, a drummer, beat-boxer and trumpet player - will support the 5th L. It will also feature beat-boxers Chuck the Madd Ox and Shodekeh, Olu Butterfly, the J-Rock Project, E the Poet Emcee and Love. It's the sequel to a release party they threw last September at Center Stage for the album The Water Margin. Expect a high-energy show. Think the Roots meet Langston Hughes, Lawal and Ross said. It's an interesting marriage - one they don't see in fellow acts.

"As far as others doing it? I don't know," Ross said. "It feels like we really don't have a blueprint to follow. We're just kind of making our own path."

The 5th L performs 8 p.m. Saturday at Center Stage's Pearlstone Theatre, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, call 443-921-0596 or visit

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