Photo By: Rosana Liang
It’s called Open Mic for a reason: it is supposed to be an open venue for self-expression through poetry, spoken word and music. “Anyone and everyone is welcome to grace the stage in a supportive space” boasts the flyer for the event but this was not the case at all, considering what happened at the UC Santa Barbara Multicultural Center’s Open Mic on February 10, 2011.
The emcee hosting the event discouraged two students from sharing their pieces.
Sean Mabry, a UCSB first-year Literature major, was shooed offstage before he could finish reading “Sunny Prestatyn” by Philip Larkin, and Demi Anter, also a UCSB first-year Literature major, was almost kicked off while in the middle of performing a spoken word piece.
During Sean Mabry’s reading of “Sunny Prestatyn”, the emcee was apparently offended by the phrase “tuberous cock and balls” (which is a reference to a crude sketch on a poster). Shortly after hearing those words she kicked Sean offstage, saying that she “wasn’t feeling it.”
But so what if she “wasn’t feeling it”? This isn’t American Idol and she is not a judge.
“I was confused,” admits Mabry. “I remember the emcee very sharply saying ‘you’re done.’ So I went back to my seat, figuring it was somehow my mistake. It was extremely embarrassing.”
No one else in the audience took offense to the poem; in fact, many of us were already familiar with it and its cryptic message. A few audience members giggled at the phrase, but no one demonstrated any form of disgust or offense – except the host. It was obvious to those of us familiar with the poem that she was offended because she misunderstood its meaning, and that is certainly not reason enough to discourage a performer. The poem is about the defilement of a woman on a poster, not an actual woman. The narrator in the poem is clearly troubled by this and there is nothing in the poem that celebrates the actual defilement of women.
“Shouldn’t the person watching out for offensive material be the most attentive listener in the audience?” asked Mabry.
I have attended several of these MCC-hosted Open Mic events, and I have observed that performers are only kicked off the stage in response to the audience – in other words, when audience members are offended or unimpressed and voice that sentiment.
“There’s a difference between maintaining cultural sensitivity and actively trying to be offended,” said Mabry. “It’s hard to deny that what happened at Open Mic was an example of the latter.”
A bit later in the show, Demi Anter took the stage to perform a sexually-charged spoken word piece. In the middle of her performance, the emcee once again made a very obvious gesture of her disapproval by signaling to the DJ to cut the mic; this made many audience members uncomfortable.
“When the emcee cut off the first poet [Sean], the mood of the event quickly became discouraging and awkward,” said Anter, who was able to finish her piece before getting kicked off.
The fact that Anter was able to finish her piece did nothing to relieve the tension that the emcee had ignited for no reason at all. Her response seemed unnecessary, especially considering that no one in the audience booed or attempted to heckle Anter off the stage.
“I heard the emcee clearing her throat while I recited my piece – which was a rather intense poem about a failed relationship and included some profanity – but I just kept going and she did not cut me off. I later learned that she had come close to cutting me off. I am not sure if this was due to the subject matter or to the profanity.”
Anter also remarked that she did not expect there to be any censoring at an “Open Mic” event, a sentiment which I believe was shared by everyone who attended.
I am writing this article in defense of free speech. I am by no means proposing that “anything goes” for an Open Mic event. Of course, there must be ground rules – no hate speech, for example – but these should be clearly stated and not left to the discretion of one person. The audience and performers at this particular Open Mic were forced to accept the host’s notion of what was inappropriate and what was not. There were other “edgy” performances that could have been deemed offensive or problematic for some (one student sang about domestic abuse and others used racial slurs in their poems); however, the emcee did not ask any of these performers to step off stage. It appears that she found only sexually suggestive pieces offensive or inappropriate. At this type of venue, it is perfectly logical to kick someone off the stage if audience members are visibly or audibly offended – that’s how Open Mic works. It is not acceptable for the emcee of an “Open Mic” event to censor performances based on their own personal feeling or assessment. If that’s the case, it should be clearly stated on the flyer.
Anter has since written a letter to the MCC detailing her reaction to the incident. Other students have decided to take action as well.
Paulina Cassimus, a third-year Film Studies major, and Kevin Zambrano, a third-year Literature major, wrote a letter to the MCC which states: “Open-Mic nights are supposed to be a chance for people to express themselves without fear of being thrown off the stage for reading something that the moderator doesn’t think is in good taste.”
In other words, Open Mic is a democracy; the audience decides what is appropriate. Censorship by the emcee should neither be permitted nor tolerated. We’re all adults here, and if we don’t approve of someone’s performance, WE will shoo them off stage. We do not need (nor should we tolerate) anyone making that decision for us.
I am baffled that a performer can get the boot for failing to make the emcee “feel it” at Open Mic. Did I miss the flyer that said Open Mic performers would be censored by the emcee? Or does this trample on our right to free speech?