"Honest artistic expression." It's a phrase poet Mat Davis repeated several times during our recent conversation about his brand new weekly open mic event Localmotion, happening every Sunday night at Fletcher Place Art & Books.
"We're open to everybody - dancers, storytellers, rappers, comedians, painters. We don't care if you come and play the spoons," Davis says. He's simply looking for that "honest artistic expression." And it was there in abundance for the inaugural edition of Localmotion last week. As were were many of the elements that made me a fan Davis' previous open mic night - Omnimic at KI EcoCenter.
There were tributes to recently deceased writer Amiri Baraka. Poet Too Black delivered scathing critiques of American capitalism, and Omnimic favorite Dr. Monday stole the show with a passionate memorial of Michael Taylor. In 1987 Taylor's death made national news. Arrested for a suspected auto theft, police claimed the 16-year-old Indianapolis resident shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.
That's the sort of "'honest artistic expression" Davis is aiming for - an engagement with community issues, a compassionate stance on social justice and a respectful questioning of authority.
Davis is no stranger to these concepts, and he's well aware of the power art has to create self-reflection and even stir up trouble. I asked Davis to recount a formative incident that occurred during his junior year in high school for an example.
"I was invited to Northwest High School to speak on a panel that was organized by the students. It was a discussion about media and education, how that impacted the way young people saw things," Davis remembered.
"There was a group of people from the community who were invited to participate on the panel. But the weather didn't cooperate that day and I ended up being the only person on the panel who showed up. When I got to the school I started strategizing on what I was going to do. Being in front of high school students there's a lot of judgment and glaring eyes. So I decided I'd read a poem to try to get their attention and get them on my side."
He started reading a poem he'd written called "75108," which questions the dehumanizing culture of inner-city public education.
"That was my student ID number at Arlington High School," Davis says. "I'm not bashing anybody, it was just about the life and times at my school. It was a critique of the entire school structure. It wasn't a personal attack and I wasn't saying, 'fuck the principal.'
"I get about 20 seconds into the poem and the principal comes walking toward me down the aisle. I see him coming toward me and I know he's gonna try to stop me," Davis recalls. "He gestured toward the mic, I asked him what he was doing and he snatched the microphone out of my hand."
"Everyone started booing and they accused me of inciting a riot. The police came and escorted me out," Davis says, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. To this day he's banned form speaking at IPS schools.
But he insists he feels no bitterness over the situation. In fact, it inspired him to continue to develop projects like Localmotion. "I didn't view the incident as a negative thing. It helped me find the power in my voice and the power of speaking the truth. It motivated me to help others come in to that same understanding. That's my main thing - honest authentic artistic expression and I want to cultivate that in young people."
For that reason Davis makes sure all his events are open to all-ages and he always makes room on the schedule for first-time performers. That can create a few bumpy or awkward moments as novices struggle with nerves and flubbed lines. But Davis' events have such spectacular high points you quickly forgive these occasional rough spots. Every time I attend one of Davis' open mic nights, I walk away with the feeling that I've discovered an exciting new voice in my community, or that I've been exposed to an interesting new perspective on an important issue. Which is why I give Localmotion my highest recommendation.