The Edge District

Don’t call it a comeback: The underground spoken word scene takes hold of Memphis


The spoken word and arts scene in Memphis can’t be called new. Over the past 20 years, a mostly underground scene has evolved to create more opportunities for artists and new culture points in the city.

Gatekeepers into this artistic world said the scene has ebbed and flowed since the 1990s with roots in Precious Cargo, a North Downtown club that closed due to economic shifts in the Downtown area in the early 2000s. Artists and entrepreneurs like Darius “ PhatMak ” Clayton, Tonya Dyson and Cequita Monique McKennley reflect on Memphis’ underground art culture and their call to provide platforms for themselves and other artists.

Siphne Aaye, visual artist, beatboxer, and DJ performs “Paid in Full” by Eric B. & Rakim at The Den, a spoken word and arts venue in The Edge District of Memphis.
 

The Den

His name is Darius "PhatMak" Clayton, an artist and the owner of The Den, which is housed out of the former Hattilloo Theatre at 656 Marshall Avenue in The Edge District.

When Hattiloo, a black reparatory theater, relocated to Overton Square, the property came on Clayton’s radar as he was deciding what to do for his next career move.

In January 2015, Marshall made a leap from his day job as a bail bondsman to being the owner and operator of The Den.

“I really didn't have the credit. I didn't really have the financials to open up a business. I didn't have a business plan. None of the things that you need to make a space happen, I didn't have any of that,” Clayton said. “I just had a piece of a vision of what a spot could be and what I wanted. The next thing I know, a year and eight months has passed and the spot is still developing.”

Darius "PhatMak" Clayton is a creative Jack of all trades. He sings, performs comedy, and recites his own original poems at The Den, a creative lair for artists in the city of Memphis.

The Den is home to several performing art events in the city, which are usually no more than $10 for entry. Among the events are The Word, an open mic started by local entrepreneur Tonya Dyson; the Early Show, which is a comedy open mic; a visual art and lounge event called Bohemian Wednesdays and Soul Market, where people can buy locally made products from local entrepreneurs.

“That's why you might not see a lot of mass promotion of The Den and what it's going to be. It's almost like a living art piece,” Clayton said. “You know the people who come here, you know it's living, but there is no sole creator.”

While the events at The Den are eclectic, Clayton’s heart is close to the art of spoken word. In high school, Clayton wrote poetry because he looked up to artists like Tupac Shakur and DMX.

“I kept a book of rhymes, but I didn't know how to write in bar format. So it would rhyme and it would be good. Some of it would be on beat and some if it was not on beat, but that was my poetry,” he said. “It spoke to what I was going through at the time.”

His moniker, PhatMak, was given to him in high school. What may have started out as a check, or a playful form of name-calling, has evolved into Clayton’s larger-than-life artistic identity.

As he drummed up business in the early days of The Den, Clayton said he used to ride around with a sign on his car that said, “Poets Needed”. As weekly events draw a steady crowd, Clayton said he hopes the space will eventually evolve into a performing arts collaborative.

He said he wants to offer shows where artists can make money with the potential to grow beyond the exposure an open mic event offers.

Darius "PhatMak" Clayton is the owner of The Den on 656 Marshall Avenue in The Edge District. He hosts several spoken word and open mic events and also provides a space for local entrepreneurs to sell products and services such as shea butter, hand-stitched backpacks and massage services.

“I want this space to be a place where we can create shows like trap jazz [an infusion of jazz music contemporary trap music] … and put them on the road and take these artists outside of Memphis where they can come here, build their ideas, hone up on their stage presence, hone up on their material and then take on the world.

I hope it's like X-Men, a Professor Charles Xavier School for the Extraordinary Black Artists or something of that nature,” he said with a laugh.

Clayton, a native of Orange Mound, has traveled the world performing poetry, including shows in Italy and Germany. He maintains that Memphis’ style is distinct.

“The city is broken down into so many different parts and pieces that these communities are like sub cities. So, you have an Orange Mound style or Whitehaven style or North Memphis or South Memphis style,” he said.

“Sometimes you can hear it in that person's creativity or somebody who's from another country that was raised here or from another city that was raised here. Their delivery and writing style is very different. I like that about the city.”

As a poet, Clayton has watched the spoken word and arts scene in Memphis evolve over the years but distinctly remembers a place called Precious Cargo.

“From Precious Cargo came this thing called Melt the Mike Mondays, which was like the first wide-spread open mic in the city,” he said. “Everybody knew about it. It was hot.”
 

The Word

Tonya Dyson is an artist, entrepreneur, and founder of Neosoulville, an event production company with the goal to promote unity and solidarity through an organized platform for black artists.

The events focus on soul music, hip hop and poetry and helps fulfill Dyson’s mission to scout and create opportunities for Memphis artists.
A crowd waits listens to music from reggae band Chinese Connection Dub Embassy as the weekly spoken word and open mic event, The Word, begins at The Den.
The Neosoulville website, which is currently closed for re-branding and will re-launch in November, usually features a free calendar about Neosoulville events and any other cultural events in Memphis that helps promote Memphis artists.

Dyson said she also hopes the site will also be a vehicle for people scouting Memphis for jobs and can demonstrate that social and professional lives align in the way it would in larger cities like Chicago, New York or Philadelphia.

A native to Covington, Tennessee, Dyson came to Memphis 21 years ago. She is a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing and management.

Dyson was introduced to poetry at an early age. After being exposed to talents like Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Stevie Wonder, she began to write her own poems and songs.

“Fortunately I could sing too. So I said, instead of getting up and saying the poem, I'm going to sing it and get the band to come in on it and sing it” she said.

“I recognized song lyrics as poetry. Each piece could be so varied even though they're talking about the same thing, but you're getting this unique perspective from people and that's the thing that's always drawn me.”

A leading example of a working artist, Dyson’s ventures include hosting The Word, the annual Soulsville Festival and serving as marketing and program manager of the Memphis Slim House.

Memphis, she said, is the home of the blues, but she there is a lack of awareness around the current leaders in Memphis soul music, hip hop and poetry. She said the spoken word scene, which encompasses all of those genres as well as rap and comedy, is especially overlooked.

Dyson began hosting The Word in October 2009 because she said there were no consistent open mics at the time. The Word was originally called The Spoken Heard and Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of Hattiloo Theatre, pushed her to follow through with starting it at his location.

The event was hosted in the Hattiloo Theatre while it was still located on Marshall, but as The Word grew and more productions came to Hattilloo, Dyson changed the location. It returned home to what is now The Den in March 2016.

The Spoken Heard lasted for about a year and half and was featured on VH1 Soul Cities before Dyson took a break and rebranded to The Word. For the past seven years, she said Memphis’ spoken word scene has waned and waxed.

Tonya Dyson, local entrepreneur and founder of The Word sings between acts and encourages local artists to promote themselves and upcoming events.

Dyson sees The Word as a consistent “Monday night staple” that brings forward fresh talent and nods to the great art supporters of Memphis past and encourages artists to promote themselves while they have the mic and an audience’s attention.

“We're all working towards the same art scene. We all have the same goal. So, why can’t we support each other? You know it's making the scene grow and it’s making it look vibrant and have a certain amount of solidarity and unity.”

Dyson had her first encounter with the spoken word mecca Precious Cargo when she was 18 years old and staying on campus at Lemoyne-Owen College. The scene at Precious Cargo established the foundation for her deep roots in the Memphis black arts scene and inspired her to host The Word.

“Cequita (the owner) really made Precious Cargo this home base. It was this venue that artists could access and it was amazing especially if you were a new artist, because anything artistic or super cultural, Precious Cargo was that home. She was a go-to person and she'd always say ‘yes’ if you had an idea no matter what level you were in the business.”

Dyson said poetry nights at Precious Cargo were always on Monday night and The Word is on Mondays in part to pay homage to Cequita and Precious Cargo.

Precious Cargo

Cequita Monique McKennley goes by Cequita Monique as an artist. She opened Precious Cargo in January 1996 at 381 North Main Street, at the corner of Overton Avenue. The club was at the foot of the iconic Ramses statue when it was by The Memphis Pyramid.

She described Precious Cargo as an international hub of coffees and teas and people that came from around the world.

“It was an artist hub, an intellectual hub and an emporium. It had gifts. We sold t-shirts and novelty items, but we grew to be so much more,” she said. “It was like a church, a sanctuary, a gathering space and a speakeasy.”

McKennley said she created the space because as an artist, she needed a place that was always available to her to perform. As business grew, she didn’t dance and sing as much because she had to manage the register, cook and clean. Though, she didn’t mind.

“The young people at Precious Cargo created the movement,” she said. “People would come and play chess, study for their law degrees. Students from Rhodes, The University of Memphis, and Lemoyne-Owen would come in the daytime for food and good dialogues and in the evening for entertainment and fellowship.”

A local artist performs for a crowd at The Den from a notebook of original pieces.

As much as McKennley loved her business and its patrons, she said she was eventually forced to close Precious Cargo. The doors shuttered at the end of 2008 as the club was a casualty of the Great Recession.

“Memphis has a tendency of building out east towards Nashville, and so a lot of stuff was pulling from Downtown. Peabody Place was there and then it started to close. Beale Street started doing some funny stuff,” she said. “That’s when I decided I was working hard and aging fast. I kept it longer than I should have.”

McKennley said letting go was hard, but she needed to “catch her breath.” She eventually became a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, and kept Precious Cargo, LLC as a business. Under the LLC, McKennley does catering and works as an independent artist.

McKennley said she’s glad to see that the spoken word scene continues to grow and evolve in Memphis and she finds relief in knowing she is one of the many pioneers that has inspired people to continue pursuing their art and create additional platforms for artists.
 

Memphis Spoken Word Places & Events

Most of this list is generously provided by Jessica L. Crenshaw, president of the Spartan City Poetry Club, a group of writers that meet monthly to discuss the written word. Some are not listed because their shows run in seasons and the seasons have ended.
 

Mondays

The Word

The Den

656 Marshall Avenue

Memphis, TN 38103

Every Monday at 8:30 p.m.

Cost: $5-7

 

Writeous Soul & Iam.Dmaze Presents Magic Mic Mondays

Azul Tequila Bar

4672 American Way

Memphis, TN 38118

Every Monday at 7:00 p.m.

Cost: Free

 

Tuesdays

Soul Speak Open Mic

Mot&Eds

1354 Madison Avenue

Memphis, TN 38104

Every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m.

Cost: $5

 

Thursdays

In the Loop Artistic Showcase

Brinson’s Downtown Chicken Lounge

341 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38103

Every Thursday at 7:00 p.m.

Cost: $5

 

Saturdays

Spartan City Poetry Club

Cordova Branch Library

8457 Trinity Road, Memphis, TN 38018

One Saturday a Month

Cost: Free

 

Poetry, Rhythm, & Soul

Southwest TN Community College- Macon Campus

5983 Macon Cove
Memphis, TN 38134

Main Building- 2nd Floor-ABC room

Last Saturday of Every Month at 7:00 p.m.

Cost: $10

 

Sundays

Art Unplugged

Blow Hookah & Cigar Lounge

815 Exocet Drive, Cordova, Tennessee 38018

Every second and fourth Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

Cost: $10
 

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here
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