Grand slam

Rodrick S. Freeman

Photo By Larry Dalton

For the past twelve years, slam poetry has slowly garnered the acceptance of the literati traditionalists, evolving into a legitimate form of self-expression, and Rodrick S. Freeman has become one of Sacramento’s, and the genre’s, more notable pupils. Having won both the local and state “National Slam Society” competitions, the 20-year-old Freeman’s passion for this amalgam of a conventional poetry reading, a hip-hop performance and an ardent Sunday morning sermon has only increased. A performance of his latest piece during the interview is a commanding turn that leaves one hungry for more, and, lucky for Sacramento, Freeman has just begun making the rounds.

How long have you been doing slam poetry?

Oh, probably for about three years.

How did you get into it?

Actually, I had been writing for a long time, and then I just decided to perform one day and realized the style I represented was slam poetry. From then on, I just went around local spots—San Francisco, anywhere I could go—to just recite, just perfect the craft.

You wrote just for yourself before then?

At first, I wasn’t too confident in my writing. I just did it for myself, but then I thought I came up with a powerful beat that I wanted to share with people. Actually, my immediate friends just encouraged me to keep on writing, so I did. Their encouragement fueled the fire.

What about your influences? Are you influenced by music or by other poets?

Oh yeah. Just like Langston Hughes in his era—he was heavily influenced by the blues in the jazz era of that time—I’m heavily influenced by hip-hop, which is basically spoken word to music. The influence also comes from the culture, not just the music, but the culture as a whole.

What about other poets?

As far as influences, of course—Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison. I’m real big on the Renaissance.

Do you want to keep doing this, maybe on a professional level?

Right now, I’m still trying to work on my art, trying to perfect it. I don’t think I’m at a professional level; I’m still at an artistic stage. I do it for the art, I do it for myself, trying to portray what I feel. So as far as financial gain or trying to do it professionally—that’s probably in the back of my mind, but right now it’s not too prudent.

Getting up there and performing—is it cathartic, like therapy?

I guess you could say it’s a stress release, but I’ve always been a person who loves to be in front of the crowd, just performing or talking. As a public speaker I’ve always had the gift of the gab, you could say. I think the writing more or less [is] the more therapeutic part of it. Performing is just the cake, you know.

Do you feel out the crowd?Oh yes, no doubt. It’s like anything else, you got to know your audience. I’m not going to bring a militant, pro-black speech to a poetry meet where I know it’s going to be just a lot of original old-heads. I always try to bring in a few pieces where I won’t get picked on too much. Most “real, real” poets, real historians of poetry, don’t really feel that what I’m doing is actually poetry. They think it’s more rapping, you know?

The purists?

Exactly, the purists. That’s exactly the word I was looking for. I try to bring something else out for them, but sometimes I don’t have remorse. It matters how I feel.

Have you done any paid performances?

Recently I did a seminar—it was basically a self-help seminar for battered women—and I did a poem, ["I’m Sorry"]. It’s basically an apology from all men’s standpoints—from the abusive husband to the substance abusers’ child to the gangbanger child to the molesting uncle. I said an apology to all women from all those points of view. I got a hundred dollars for just doing that poem right there, so that was the first paying thing I ever did, the first and only I should say. That’s not the most important thing to me right now, though. I’m still trying to find what I want to do as an artist.

Do you perform in Sacramento a lot?

Right now, Sacramento is having like a booming resurgence of poetic spots. At least four times a night you can go somewhere around to recite where there are open mikes.

Do you have a favorite place?

Oh, no doubt. The Brickhouse, on Arden and Del Paso. That’s where I’m going after I’m finished talking with you.