‘Unplugged’ has Albany area residents expressing their artistic side
With dim lights, someone steps up to the microphone. It’s a small gathering, but those who are there know that the next person could be doing almost anything. Perhaps they are going to do spoken word poetry, or perhaps a humorous song with their acoustic guitar. Anything is possible at Unplugged.
The small, intimate gathering started in late August of this year when Tannur “Shewritez” Ali decided she needed a bit of a change. She had been performing at Wet Mike for a while, but wanted to step away from the night club type performance, when she first stepped into Global Essence on South Jackson. She was going to lunch with a friend when they stopped in to check out the store’s shea butter when she realized that it would be the perfect venue for a poetry night.
Ali, a student at Albany State University, hoped to have a poetry night where people could recite poetry as well as have a conversation. “Wet Mike was a club,” she recounts. In contrast, Ali wanted her poetry night to be open to all ages. When it came to Global Essence as a location, she found a kindred spirit in its owner, Patrick Jenkins. “Patrick shared the same vision as me.”
Unplugged is held every two weeks at Global Essence – the next is December 5 – but something unusual happens. “It always works out where I’m broke that day,” says Ali. However, fate never seems to leave her hanging. “It’s organic and people call up and offer to handle the food or other things,” she says. “I never have to ask for it.” Additional funds are raised via voluntary donations, which almost always cover expenses. “It’s been short a time or two, but not often,” Ali says.
So, how has Unplugged changed since it’s August debut? “It’s gotten bigger,” says Ali, who still organizes the event. She points out that Global Essence can seat 30 to 40 people easily, yet the last Unplugged had about 60 people that stayed the whole time. “That’s something when people are standing uncomfortably for all that time.” However, Global Essence’s size isn’t a liability to Ali. “If seven people show up, it’s fine.”
By having the event at a place like Global Essence, as opposed to a night club type venue, the poetry night is opened up to younger talent. Ali mentioned one in particular, a talented young lady named Ze’leah King, young girl who sings, writes poetry, and acts. King isn’t able to perform at other poetry nights.
However, calling Unplugged a “poetry night” isn’t really accurate. Ali mentions her sometimes collaborator, David Barnes. Barnes is a guitar player and singer, and is also a significant contributor into what has made Unplugged so popular.
“One of the main rules of Unplugged is that the audience should respect the performers and the performers should respect the audience.” That hasn’t been a problem either.
Ali tells that many times, people who have been creative at home have been fearful to share their works, only to learn that people were responsive. “They’re usually surprised by how many people absorb it,” she says. “Lots of people would be surprised by the number of normal people who are artistic,” Ali says.
Unplugged also features a listing of grants and awards and scholarships available to artists and writers, which Ali shares as she learns of them. In addition, there are “two minute plugs” for people to plug things in the community or even their business, but only for two minutes. There are also discussions on a variety of topics. One recent topic was the Occupy Movement. Ali recounts, “Things got pretty heated,” so after ten minutes they went back to poetry.
Hot button topics would seem counterintuitive, yet Ali points out that her purpose behind Unplugged wasn’t to make people think like her, but to walk away thinking for themselves. “I want them to leave inspired,” she says.
For Ali, Unplugged is more than just a poetry night, or a collaborative art project. She sees it as a step towards changing the world.
“I came to Albany in July 2008. For the first couple of years, I hated Albany with a passion. I understood why there wasn’t more people here. It took a couple of years and a couple hard knocks to understand that the problem with Albany was me. I’m not doing anything to change it,” she says.
Ali, who describes herself as being blunt, would ruffle people’s feathers. “If I see someone doing wrong walking down the street, I tell them,” she says. People would tell her, “You can’t change the world.” However, she isn’t buying that. “I’m trying to change the world, one Albany at a time.” Ali believes that Unplugged is a great way to start because it gets people to thinking.
“That’s why I’m starting to love Albany,” She says. “Albany’s just an example to me. A place you can grow something, a place you can change something.”
“I want it to be a catalyst,” she says, hoping that more people will work to change Albany into what they hope it can be. For Ali, Unplugged is the first step in her efforts to do just that.
Tannur Ali hosts Unplugged every other Monday night at Global Essence at 111 South Jackson street.