In Performance: Latasha Natasha Diggs's scat attack | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In Performance: Latasha Natasha Diggs's scat attack

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Harlem-based writer Latasha Natasha Diggs is no "remedy poet." She hears them all the time at readings, poets whose "personal remedy is to get up on the platform and read some of their pieces. Someone who's just releasing their opinions and emotions, who's in it for the moment. They just want to tell about which man left them or why the system is so fucked up towards the black man or just some straight-up pussy shit. Everybody writes from a personal perspective, but it gets out of hand. OK, I see you're angry."

Diggs's work contains its fair share of anger, but there's also colorful imagery, intricate wordplay, and characters like Eruzulie, a stripper who's been taken over by two deities. Diggs's subject matter ranges from nappy hair to sexual politics to the sights and sounds of Lexington Avenue.

"I grew up partially Dominican and partly Puerto Rican," she says. "There's a lot of animosity between those two groups within the Latino community, to the point where they can't stand each other. When I was growing up, before high school, my friends and I didn't acknowledge it. I knew Elizabeth was Dominican and Denise was Puerto Rican and Toni was Puerto Rican, and they knew I was black. Yet we saw our similarities, not our differences."

In high school Diggs became a club kid, getting paid to dance at venues like Red Zone, Tunnel, and the World. She and her brother were hired to dance on Deee-lite's 1991 tour. A career of sorts followed, and Diggs appeared in music videos by Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, R.E.M., Digable Planets, and the Jungle Brothers. But in 1993 an arsonist torched her family's house, leaving her temporarily homeless, and a knee injury sustained during the fire ended her dancing days. She took to poetry. The first thing she read in public was a straight "remedy" poem about her mother; the next batch, a remedial series about her frustration over the fire, went over better, and she was hooked.

Diggs joined a poetry collective called Soup, whose members performed monthly with a band and addressed a different topic each time. "Those shows were wild," she recalls, "and there was a freestyle off-the-head segment. Here I was reciting poems, and this person scatting, and behind was Ad-Rock on the bass and some cat on vibes." After Soup she joined the more hip-hop-oriented Speechcraft 101, in which members read their work instead of relying on drama and memorization. It disbanded last year, and now Diggs is part of SuperNovae, a performance art collective.

Lately she's been scatting some of her poems. "It demands more emphasis on each word, and demands more speed and slowing down and reciting it," she says. "I get a lot of responses where people don't understand what I said, and I'm like, That's the purpose. The reason I do scat is for you to not necessarily catch everything I'm saying in it. It's for you to think. I think things are given away too easily." She's also experimented with vocalese, a type of singing popularized by King Pleasure and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and "the dopest shit anyone could ever do." She's performed "Me and Chino," about a girl whose parents disapprove of her relationship with a south Bronx boy, to the horn solo from Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia."

In 1995 Diggs gave up a budding career as a freelance music journalist to go back to school. "It was only a question of time before my lack of knowledge of English was going to catch up with me," she says, noting that she failed English in high school because she never went to class. "I have two finals the day before I leave for Chicago. I'm looking at my poems; at the same time I'm thinking about the formula for standard deviation, and then I'm taking Haitian history and I'm thinking about the fucking Constitution of 1816, and my head hurts. I don't know what to expect of myself in Chicago."

Diggs will perform here for the first time at 7 PM Sunday at the New Harlem Theater, 1579 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door. Call 773-252-5120. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Aaron Fineman.

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