Arms flailing and legs kicking, poet Khari B. can leap from stages and flip from chairs without skipping a beat. "It took a long time for me to realize I did that," says Khari, who claims he's often so immersed in his verse that he completely zones out. One night, performing at the now defunct Rituals, he allegedly started spitting, kicked over a table, threw the mike, and kept spitting after the mike went dead. "I hear it was pretty intense," he says, laughing. "After that people backed off the front row when my name was called."
The oldest child of jazz clarinetist Mwata Bowden and his wife, Judy, a schoolteacher, Khari Bowden says he's been writing poetry as long as he can remember. "My mom was really creative," he says. "She wouldn't let us buy cards for people, so we had to make them and I'd put my poems in there." As an architectural engineering major at Tennessee State University, he got into spoken-word poetry in a performance class, where--hopping and flipping, much as he does now--he debuted a piece criticizing classism, racism, and complacency. "That's just how I felt it," he says. As he got more and more into the Nashville scene, he felt he'd found his niche: "It was a great release and it gave me an opportunity to say things I wanted to say and have people talk about it and respond themselves." Disenchanted with school, he moved back to Chicago in 1997 and began working for a children's advocacy group while continuing to appear at poetry sets and hosting shows at the River West Brewery and the Ebony Room.
His rep as a fire-breathing poet is rivaled only by his notoriety on the dance floor, which has earned him the moniker "Discopoet." Dressed like a latter-day Jimi Hendrix, complete with black cape and chunky crystal jewelry, he's been known to dive from the DJ's table headfirst onto the floor, only to pop back up and dance in the crowd; he can often be spotted doing James Brown splits and back flips off the bar at Sinibar, Rednofive, and the Hidden Lounge.
"I want to take over the world," he says. "I want to free minds. I want them to feel they can take over the world. That the avenues are available for them to run their own world and not deal with any bullshit, from the government to their gossipy friends."
But while he advocates for freedom and individual expression, he also abides by some strict personal rules. He refuses to participate in poetry slams and contests because, he says, "I'm not trying to outdo anyone else." He won't perform over prerecorded music "because it takes away from the spirit of the work." And he won't become romantically involved with any of his fans. "The relationship is going to go to hell at some point or another and I don't want that negative vibe at my sets." Currently a full-time poet, he teaches poetry at community centers and in schools and refuses to buy, support, or dance to "wack" music, which, according to him, makes up most of the commercial rap and pop pumping on the radio. "I'll walk straight off the floor."
"It's so much simpler and so much more fun to be myself," he says, "and I try to relay that to other people. I try to take away that fear they have of being themselves. People get so caught up in being accepted, but you'll be denied or accepted anyway, so you might as well be yourself and have a good time."
Khari B. currently hosts an open mike poetry set with poet Danny Divine Tuesday nights at 7 at Java Oasis, 2240 S. Michigan (312-328-1216). There's a $5 cover. He also puts on periodic poetry shows and dance parties at HotHouse, backed by his father's band, Sound Spectrum, and he'll host a release party for his first CD, WordSound: This Ain't No Punk-Assed Poetry, this Friday, July 19, at Isaac Hayes, 739 N. Clark, with funk band House of Twang. Doors open at 9; there's a $15 cover. Call 312-266-2400 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.