Mighty Mouth

Spoken-word artist Mayda del Valle brings to life “democracy writ large in poetry”

“When I was growing up,” says Mayda del Valle (in 2004, at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan), “I really didn’t see anyone like me on TV. Well, there was West Side Story … and we’re all gang members!” Jesse Winter/RETNA

At 5-foot-1 and 110 pounds, Mayda del Valle may be petite, but she has the stage presence of a gargantua. At a recent music, dance and spoken-word event called "Race, Rap and Redemption," the 28-year-old poet commands the University of Southern California's Bovard Auditorium with her thunderous voice and agile moves. Clad in a denim miniskirt and black knee-high boots, Del Valle gyrates and gestures, infusing her cadences with Broadway charisma. This is her bully pulpit.

"Spanglish slips off my lips," she spits in "Tongue Tactics," a poem about her Puerto Rican-flavored speech.

And I'm speaking in tongues
Blending proper with street talk
Everyday meets academic
Bastardizing one language
Creating new ones.

Del Valle is doing something many poets can only dream of—making a living at it. Forget about Wordsworth's notion of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility."

She prowls the stage like a rapper—more Mos Def than Maya Angelou.

Del Valle is one of the nine original hip-hop poets who form the cast of HBO's "Def Poetry," now in its sixth season. The show went to Broadway in 2002 and promptly won a Tony Award in 2003 for Special Theatrical Event. In 2004, she was among a small group of spoken-word artists invited to tour the country with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence as part of a nonpartisan voter drive called "Declare Yourself."

"Spoken word is our democracy," says Norman Lear, the TV producer ("All in the Family") and civic activist who created the program, and who calls Del Valle one of his favorite people. "All of those voices from across all ethnicities and religions and races and ages—it's our democracy writ large in poetry."

Del Valle, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles' Koreatown, likens herself to a traditional West African griot, or storyteller. "If you go back historically and you look at the griots, they didn't just record the history of people or tell people what was going on," she says. "They set the vision for where society should be."

Del Valle began putting words to her burgeoning activism at age 15. "There was an organization called the Southwest Youth Collaborative," she says. "We used to teach the youth in the community how to deal with the police, to show them what their rights were."

Her mother, Carmen, the "mambo-making mami" herself, is actually a 63-year-old homemaker, and her father, Alejandro, 68, is a retired forklift operator. Several family members are police officers. Del Valle was the first girl on her father's side to go to college—"and there are 13 brothers and sisters on my father's side!" She earned a degree in studio art in 2000 from Williams College in Massachusetts, where she says she struggled against an atmosphere of privilege. "I had heard about rich people, but I didn't really know what it was about until I saw it," she says. "I saw kids with no financial aid, whose parents paid for their entire educations out of pocket. Their parents went to Williams. And their grandparents went there too."

After college, Del Valle headed for the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a nonprofit arts organization on Manhattan's Lower East Side that holds weekly "slams"—contests between spoken-word poets judged by the audience. Del Valle quickly became a favorite, honing her craft and ultimately gaining the Individual National Poetry Slam title in 2001. This caught the notice of the HBO producers putting the Def Poetry Jam together.

"I've seen audiences leap to their feet at the end of a [Del Valle] poem," says Stan Lathan, the show's director and executive producer. "She knows how to take a crowd and to really manipulate it. Much of it comes from her inherent passion."

By the end of her USC gig, Del Valle has taken the audience from anger to pathos to pride. She concludes with a well-known rap song reference—"like whoa!"—and a resonant pause. The audience erupts in applause.

"Onstage is my favorite place to be," she says long after the lights have dimmed. "It's when I'm more of who I really am than who I am in everyday life. It's like I'm doing something that's bigger than me."

Freelance writer Serena Kim reports on hip-hop and urban culture for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

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