Beyond entertainment, there’s an excitement to open mic nights you can’t find anywhere else: the feeling like you’re watching the next big thing. Being able to see that spark in someone’s earliest performance and know in ten years time you’ll be able to say you saw Them, There, Then.
The hope you'll catch someone special helps you endure the otherwise bland performances from the also-rans. Then there are the characters; People you know are going to be different from the rest of the bill as soon as they start their performance. Most of the time this isn’t indicative of their quality; there are plenty of crass erotic poets, Steve Hardey-Esque relationship gurus, “Spoken word interlude” rappers and sci-fi novelists desperate to cram fifteen pages of text into their allotted stage time. These open-micers can sink a poetry promoters heart as soon as they walk into the venue, and will often be as remembered, if not more-so than the best writers that night.
Most of these characters, like most people, are good people, they’re just lost in their own idea of what “a writer” is. Couple that with subconscious, self-defence mechanisms everyone has when they start gigging, they end up performing as an impression of whatever work they admire. This leads to the Kate Tempest poet, the Warsan Shire poet, the Polarbear, Caleb Femi, James Massiah, Hollie McNish poet (Jill Scott poet, Wale poet, etc). Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, nearly all open micers will sound like other writers as those are their influences when starting out.
Usually a character is someone who goes from impression, to parody. An audible reaction from the audience doesn’t determine the quality of a poem, and this silence allows the writer to interpret their performance on their own terms, boiling down to how well they feel afterwards. If they’re self aware, they’ll analyse themselves and hopefully grow, but if they mistake that adrenaline rush from being on stage for being good, they’ll double down their investment on influences and move into a voice that sounds more and more like the writer they think they are, and less like the person they are, and the reality they live in, where clubs echo nineties music videos and romance sounds like a Galaxy chocolate ad.
It’s rare for open-mic mainstays to have voices that sound truly unique, and good, at an open mic, but the James Angir, more famously known by his stage name, The Wizard of Skill, was indeed a rare and special kind of writer.
The Wizard of Skill was a rapper, slam-poet and an all-round spoken-word enthusiast (in the most literal and performative sense). He’d put freestyles on youtube, go to battle rap nights and many, many poetry open mic nights across London. Nearly always in a parker coat that’d also perform in, always in the front row, watching every performance with a smile.
He wrote raps that had a sing-song quality to them, on beat to the point where I remember Dean Atta calling him a “human metronome”. He had a way of putting words together that’s comparable to the Rapper MF DOOM-the writing and flow had a logic you could only see till after it was said, all wrapped into a tight flow that demanded your full attention. For an example, here’s twenty three seconds from one of his pieces, "youtube”
If you want to talk music/prophets like Omaha’s Oracle/Even a “Wicked” musical wouldn’t make me popular/Youtube Partnerships impossible/like computer technology in full/without a homonym/when they correspond to me/as addictive as oxygen/the digital cinema in HD quality/I've given up internet trolling/now all my comments look like the insides of Valentines cards/Juggle infinity to amateur stars.
The Wizard would also have choruses, most notably a poem he’d often perform; “My Radio” which at most nights the audience would be able to even sing along with. These are usually cardinal sins when it comes to performing at an open mic night, but the Wizard transcended what usually feels out of place because when he was on stage you felt that there was nothing else he’d rather be doing, and the joy from that performance was as infectious as the hooks themselves.
He had a love for spoken word that wasn’t only evident through performances and constant attendance, but in the content of his work. He wrote poems for poets on the scene, including Deanna Rodger and Stephanie ‘Dogfoot’ Chan; Declarations of love in poems that didn’t sway into cringe or gratuity as they were about the kindness of the poet and how inspiring he found their work. There were also multiple videos on his youtube channel that would analyse the origins and different styles of spoken word.
I met the Wizard of Skill in 2011 at Come Rhyme With Me, a poetry night on every last Friday of the month run by Deanna Rodger and Dean Atta (still running as a quarterly night at Ovalhouse Theatre) held at Cottons basement space in Angel. It was dimly lit, Often sold out, and had an intimacy that betrayed its size. It was at the forefront of its art form at the time, with electric line ups every month, and whenever the Wizard of Skill would perform he’d stand out as much as any performer and feature on the bill.
As I said earlier, he was a character: A writer that wrote differently to anyone else you’d see that night. Someone who loved and was influenced greatly by everything we were while never letting these influences overpower his own personality, channelling everything he learnt into his own voice.
Tragically, James Angir died from a blood clot in July 2014, and typing his name into facebook will bring up tributes, stories, memories and descriptions of his writing that I can’t top-so touching it's stopped me from finishing this article, this very paragraph, countless times out of feeling redundant and inadequate. We didn’t talk a lot, I was lucky enough to bring him on stage a few times as a Come Rhyme With Me co-host and would be able to tell the audience how lucky they are that he’s here, but we never chatted beyond complimenting each others poetry.
He wasn’t a personal friend, but his presence was woven into fabric of London’s poetry open- scene and what he brought represents so much of what I love about it; A space where a person bends words and breath to express themselves the best they can. His enthusiasm, dedication to quality, and individuality were so rare, and in his absence, now even moreso.
While amassing solid body of work, The Wizard of Skill never gained a large fan-base, had a viral video or was endorsed by any big name brands, which means it’s been a lot harder for new writers to ever know who he was. Even some of the nights he was a regular at are no longer around. Of course, every person’s last open mic night will be another persons first, our landscape has drastically changed since 2014, as I imagine it will keep changing until performance poetry finds a way to support itself.
Most poetry nights have bloated line up’s coupled with long stage time that favours indulgence, so they’re rarely a fun night for an audience, and often they end too late to be worthwhile for writers who want to perform but can’t risk the journey home (having to decide between one state of vulnerability for another isn’t creating a safe space), institutions like the Roundhouse and Barbican provide career opportunities and places to engage with peers, watch and be tutored by incredible writers, and to top it all off Sofar Sounds have swept the live nights off their feet, with many writers making enough to pay their utility bills with two twenty minute sets a month instead of honing their craft at open mic nights.
With that said, as long as there are writers like The Wizard of Skill, Open mic nights will still be as relevant as they ever were. The accessible space, exchanging of ideas, and outlet for expression are not only important to the growth of any writer but also for any creative person who can feel trapped in other facets their life. They’re places to find perspective from your own life, but to also define your experience like any good poem can.
We’re so indoctrinated to be consumers we think writing is only worth it if it’s to be published, and performing is only worth it if there’s a career path, but for all the stars that have come through the open mic scene, those that have gone on to accomplish shows, get book deals, no one could rock three minutes like the Wizard of Skill could. A ready-made star at every night he rocked the mic, I’m proud to say I saw him, there, then.