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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2010

Activists take a stand with rhymes

BY DONALD BRADLEY
McCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

KANSAS CITY — Yeats and Whitman lovers may not get the Recipe.

But that's OK with Priest and 337, the two Kansas City hip hop poets who make up the duo. Theodore Hughes, 44, and Desmond Jones, 34 grew up in the inner city and they know they've taken what Robert Frost called “the road less traveled.”

The two use poetic verse for performance activism, appearing at events in the city and traveling the country to rant theatrically on nuclear arms, West Bank occupation, gay rights, minority issues, gang violence, and even the Power & Light District's dress code.

“If it's unjust, we're going to talk about it,” Hughes said. “It's not about our careers. It's about what's wrong. We know some people hate what we do.”

He paused: “But they're listening.”

Earlier this month, while nuclear weapons protesters were getting tossed from a City Council meeting, the Recipe was across the street in Ilus Davis Park slamming the United States for not drawing down its nuclear arsenal. Their rhyme included these lines:

“An underhanded bandit,

trying to big brother the planet,

checking pockets

and pointing rockets.

Courting doubt.

Disarmament's what's this all about.

The U.S. acts like Napoleon on the

block,

trying to see what the competition got.”

They did the same piece in May at a non-proliferation treaty rally in New York's Times Square.

“Give out a shout out for the Recipe from Kansas City,” a woman said when introducing them to the crowd.

But political activism is not their only gig.

At the requests of Kansas City Young Audiences, the two do poetry, literature, and creative writing workshops at local schools. They are also regulars at Synergy Services, a shelter for homeless teens.

Recently, they told Synergy teens to write anything that was on their mind.

“If you have nothing to say, literally write ‘I-have-nothingto-say,' ” Hughes told them.

A shy boy in baggy blue jeans finally wrote: “I'm stressed by the disappointment of people who don't want to see me fail.”

Synergy arts director Jay Cady said Priest and 337 — some people they work with don't even know their real names — have a way of getting kids to open up about home, abuse, and family strife.

“We see things that never come out in a counseling session,” Cady said.

Larry Greer of Kansas City Young Audiences said he knew students would like the two. The surprise came from teachers and administrators.

“They didn't think hip hop could be so positive,” Greer said.

So is this a calling — helping kids and speaking out?

“I think it's recognition that there's work to be done and that we can help,” said Jones.

“It makes us feel good,” Hughes added. “We are contributing to the world.”

When Hughes was in junior high, all the boys were sweet on a new pretty girl.

All the “alpha males” were doing their thing to try to win her over, he said. But he composed a poem and slipped it in her book. She chose him to sit with her at lunch.

“How come she wants to talk to you?” a friend asked him later.

“Because I'm not acting like you,” Hughes said.

That day the power of poetry dawned on him.

A Westport High School graduate, he went to Highland Community College in Kansas on a football scholarship. From there his jobs included trash removal, roofing, and a stint in the press room at The Kansas City Star.

During workplace debates that invariably spring up, someone would tell him: “You got a way of putting it.”

About six years ago, he went to poetry competition at the Blue Room.

Also there — Jones, aka 337, a name derived from reversing and turning upside down the name of his best friend Lee. Jones had graduated from Central High and attended Jackson State University to study dramatic arts. He had been influenced heavily by Langston Hughes.

“We found each other that night,” Hughes said. “We shared a passion for poetry and decided to get together and [tick] people off.”

Two chairs, separated by an overloaded ashtray, sit outside the front door of Hughes' house on Flora Street.

Spiral notebooks are scattered about.

This is where the men, both married with children, do their creative thing.

Lynn Miller, youth director at Palestine Missionary Baptist Church, was not surprised when Jones took his poetry full time. He has attended the church for years and now works with youth.

“He was always very theatrical and creative,” Miller said. “These kids listen to him and he gets them to do things nobody else could.”

Hughes' son, David, said his dad's activism was just like his parenting.

“When he sees things wrong, he tries to fix it”

Research is the key to every political poem they do.

“We have to do homework,” Hughes said.

A single piece can take eight hours or two weeks. Some require up to 10 drafts.

They are picky about their causes. Those tend to be about someone's rights being diminished. Women, gays, minorities, the poor.

Nuclear weapons, particularly the new Honeywell plant going up in Kansas City, hasbeen the biggest lately. The $685-million facility will produce non-nuclear parts for the nation's arsenal.

In August during a protest at the site on Missouri 150 and Botts Road in which 14 demonstrators were arrested, Hughes and Jones were dressed as terrorists. Unlike those arrested, they did not trespass.

“Who's the terrorist?” Hughes said through his face covering. “We're the ones building the nuclear bomb plant.”



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