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Open-mic nights still have rhythm after five years

When Dorian Rogers hosted the first performance poetry night Rooftop Rhythms five years ago at Abu Dhabi’s Cafe Arabia, he expected a few dozen people to show up at best.

Fast-forward to today, and Rogers is expecting up to 300 people to turn out for the 47th Rooftop Rhythms at NYU Abu Dhabi on Friday, marking the monthly night’s triumphant fifth anniversary.

Drawing on diverse traditions – from the beat movement of the 1950s to freestyle rap battles – spoken word offers artists’ modern voices a stark and striking platform on which to share intimate ideas and experiences, unaccompanied onstage and in front of a live audience.

Rogers, a poet previously known as Paul D, calls spoken word a “new rival”, even to music’s self-expressive vehicle.

“Unfortunately rap has been dirtied down,” says the 34-year-old American expat. “But in many ways, poetry is the new hip-hop – addressing socially relevant issues that unite people.”

While the art form might be gaining greater acceptance globally, few communities can claim the kind of sudden embrace of performance poetry enjoyed in Abu Dhabi.

The biggest surprise, says Rogers, is how quickly the concept chimed with a regional audience – today, more than half of the 25 monthly performers are often Emirati or Arab poets, embracing a concept which may resonate deeply with local traditions.

“When I arrived in Abu Dhabi I turned on the TV and I was like, ‘They have poetry channels here?’,” recalls Rogers. “The Arabic crowd have really taken it, run with it, and made it their own.”

A long-term organiser of open-mics and poetry slams in the United States, Rooftop Rhythms was originally born out of a mix of boredom and homesickness, shortly after Rogers arrived in the capital to take a job teaching English, less than six years ago. “There was maybe one-fifth the number of events happening then than there is today,” he says. “I’m not saying I was the first person, but there wasn’t much going on.

“A successful poetry open-mic in the States is when 50 people come – and that’s a great night – but here we quickly got 200 or 300. I have to say that it’s not me being an amazing events planner, but shows it really hit a chord with this audience.”

The nights typically feature an open-mic format, where anyone is welcome to pre-register for three to five minutes in the spotlight. At this Friday’s anniversary event, the second-half of the evening will be turned over to an ongoing competitive “slam competition”, and will also have annual awards presented to performers and community supporters.

Since launching Rooftop Rhythms, Rogers has counted up to 10 poetry open-mics crop up across the Emirates, and credits the boom with inspiring similar shows in Kuwait, Qatar, and even as far away as the Seychelles, where young Arabs are embracing the spoken word form as a way to address self-identity issues in a public forum.

While most poets choose to perform in English, or multilingually, a standalone Rooftop Rhythms-Arabia performance has been created for Arabic speakers.

Over the past five years, Rooftop Rhythms has moved around eight venues – from the terraced Cafe Arabia which inspired the name. Since late-2015 it has found a home at NYUAD’s The Arts Center, where monthly events are held at campus hang-out The Marketplace, with support from the US embassy.

“Rooftop Rhythms is inspirational – demonstrating how a grassroots arts scene can uplift a city and build a community,” says Bill Bragin, The Arts Center’s executive artistic director.

That uplift – and acceptance – has been evidenced in Rooftop Rhythms’s engagement with the wider cultural community, with poets invited to participate in numerous cultural happenings, including the capital’s Mother of the Nation Festival and Abu Dhabi International Poetry Festival, as well as Dubai’s Sikka Art Fair and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Rogers has diversified the Rooftop Rhythms into music events such as Abu Dhabi Soul and Versus Hip-Hop Party, but his belief in the power of spoken word remains undiminished. “I want this movement to keep growing by leaps and bounds,” says Rogers. “I hope we continue to break into new sectors – that spoken word expands to become a household norm, and secures a place in tradition as a popular art form.”

Rooftop Rhythms #47 takes place at The Marketplace, New York University Abu Dhabi on Friday from 8pm, register for free tickets at www.nyuad-artscenter.org

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