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The San Francisco Chronicle
Taking The Rap
Poet Aya De Leon Tackles Sexism And Reclaims Hip- Hop In Her New Play
By Joshunda Sanders
March 14, 2004
When she was a freshman at Harvard University, Aya de Leon went to see Public Enemy in concert.
It was the late 1980s, and at the time she was more interested in the Clash. But she liked Public Enemy. The band's material echoed qualities of the political art tradition that she'd grown up around in Berkeley.
During the show, front man Chuck D asked the guys in the audience to raise their fists. De Leon responded eagerly, impressed by the revolutionary prompt, waiting to participate.
But all he asked the women to do was scream.
"You just want women to scream?" de Leon demands indignantly, re- enacting the scene in her new play, "Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop." "What kind of revolution is that, Chuck? That is exactly what every tired-ass gangster rapper wants women to do!"
She probably should have spoken up back then. Instead, she just stood silently. She hadn't quite found her voice.
Now, at 36, de Leon knows exactly what to say. The playwright has made a name for herself as an artist who champions the otherwise voiceless. In 2000, she won a Burning Bush Books Poetry Prize for "Grito de Vieques," a poem about military exercises in Puerto Rico. She toured with hip-hop theater artists Danny Hoch, Will Power and Jonzi D in 2002, and last year she won a Women of Color Resource Center Sisters of Fire award and a Magic Award from the Avant! Foundation for community service. She is now part of a writer's circle that includes local authors devorah major and Opal Palmer Adisa, and she is also known for reading at spoken-word venues throughout the Bay Area. She was even included in "Quirkyalone," a book by Sasha Cagen about people who are satisfied with being single.
In the words of a fellow artist, "Aya de Leon is everywhere."
At a recent hip-hop politics panel in Oakland, de Leon spoke passionately about the need for young people to assess their priorities. Smirking, she added, "I drive a beat-up car. ... I can do that because I'm not defined by what I drive. I know who I am."
Clever and insightful, armed with lots of sass and a commanding presence, de Leon tackles almost everything she encounters with the same mixture of effective honesty and humor. Her wit, coupled with an anti bling-bling sensibility, is a crowd favorite wherever she goes. Typically, she sports shell-toe Adidas and a running suit, her hair in braids or an untamed Afro that frames her long face. She usually carries a half-gallon jug of water with her and refers proudly to herself as a "fat girl." She draws on her mixed black and Puerto Rican heritage by adding some Spanish to her constant quips.
Her unpredictable and humorous perspective, she said between bites of a salad in Oakland's City Center, allows her to "deliver really challenging material in a way that people will hear it. There are a lot of dire things going on in the world right now, but you can't just yell at people all day about how dire it is."
De Leon ignored hip-hop for a long time. Her mother, a lawyer and activist, encouraged her to pursue her artistic aspirations instead. She studied theater at the Jean Shelton School of Acting and the People's Theater Coalition, where she worked with Whoopi Goldberg. She also performed with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Later, de Leon became a teacher, activist and youth worker. She nurtured her dream to write prose, although the solitary demands of full-time writing didn't appeal to her people-loving persona. As she read some of her poems in the community, she accidentally "backed into slam poetry" at a time when poetry slams were becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Before recording a CD of her poetry, she was well-known for sharing her unique and riotously funny riffs on sensitive guys, cellulite and the corporate manipulation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. She was also well-known for her trailblazing personal choices.
She married herself in 1997 and wrote about it for Essence magazine. This year she conducted the first "Self-Love Workshop" and mass self-marriage at La Pea Cultural Center to share the experience.
"If our lives were movies, some of us would just be walk-on parts ... or supporting actresses, but not the stars," she told a crowd on Valentine's Day. In a wedding dress from Sears, she tearfully restated her vows to herself.
Since she became self-employed four years ago, de Leon has been busier than ever, with residencies at universities, readings and projects. Typically, she produces only one show each year -- the annual Love Fest at La Pea -- but this year, she is a fellow for Cave Canem, a nonprofit group dedicated to black poetry. She is writing a book she hopes to finish by the end of the year, and she will perform at the National Black Theater Festival in August in North Carolina.
But as busy as she's been, de Leon could not ignore hip-hop forever. If she hadn't been angered by another show, maybe she could have left it alone.
At a Lyricists Lounge show in New York, when the opening act started spewing profanity about "bitches and hos," de Leon had had enough. While the rapper droned on, she began yelling back at him from the audience, telling him exactly what he could do with his anti-woman rhetoric.
Eventually, though, she ended up barricading herself in a nearby bathroom stall. She had to do more, someday, than just stand on the sidelines and criticize sexist rappers. "The question I kept asking myself was, 'How am I going to happen to hip-hop?' "
The answer came in the form of her new play -- which includes hilarious characters who offer insight on everything from sex- kitten rappers on the verge of nervous breakdowns to gangsta rappers with Tourette's syndrome.
The vision she holds for her work meant that she had to tackle the sexism in hip-hop eventually. The struggle against that sexism, she said, is related to "self-love, to healing, to issues of how we look at love and relationships in this society, which is connected to gender, which is connected to how the economy is set up, which is connected to the election, which is connected back to hip-hop."
The connections are clear in her play, in which she does more than claim a space for positive women in hip-hop.
She does scream, like Chuck D said the women should do so many years ago. But she also stands, at center stage, with her fist in the air.