Island Hosts Def Poetry Reunion Show

Artist Danny Simmons has organized numerous performances across the country and executive produced a television show that ran for six seasons. None of that was as difficult as organizing a group of poets who live around the world to come to Martha’s Vineyard for a concert.

“Transportation is a bear, connecting flights and the ferry. And also places to stay, because you just can’t come and do the show and go home,” Mr. Simmons said in a phone interview with the Gazette. “We’ve been working really hard to get these poets here and we’re really looking forward to doing it.”

All of that hard work will culminate on Saturday, July 30 with an event called Poetry on the Vineyard: A Def Poetry Reunion at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center. The event is meant to celebrate the legacy of the HBO show Def Poetry — which Mr. Simmons produced with his brother, the music mogul Russell Simmons — while raising money for the Mariposa Museum in Oak Bluffs.

Hosted by the rapper Mos Def, Def Poetry won a Peabody award in 2002. Mr. Simmons pitched the show to HBO more than 20 years ago because he believed in the power of spoken word poetry to inspire social change, he said. During its six-year run, the show introduced award-winning poets Black Ice and Jessica Care Moore to the world while bringing in renowned musical guests like Erykah Badu and Jamie Foxx.

“I realized that poetry was a powerful medium to get messages across — messages of social change, messages of introspection,” Mr. Simmons said. “When I thought of it, I thought of it in those terms rather than, ‘Oh, I want to make a TV show.’”

Saturday’s reunion will start at 6:30 p.m. and include performances from five poets. The performers include veterans like Black Ice, who has won Emmy, Tony and Peabody awards for his work, as well as newcomers like Elisabet Velasquez.

“Elisabet is a new poet to me, not to poetry,” Mr. Simmons said. “She’s sort of joining the Def Poetry family, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Mr. Simmons got the idea for the concert after his artwork was exhibited at the Mariposa last summer, he said. He thought it’d be a good way to give back to the museum while giving him an excuse to come back to the Island.

“This is something really special. We’re going to Martha’s Vineyard, which is such a historic place for African Americans, and it’s such a beautiful island,” Mr. Simmons said.

Caroline Hunter, the community engagement manager at Mariposa, said the event will go a long way to help the museum. Ms. Hunter hopes the money raised from the concert will help make the museum free to the public once again and also allow Mariposa to expand its programming.

“People on the Vineyard like to make their dollars count,” Ms. Hunter said in a phone interview with the Gazette. “These dollars will not only count for a great experience, but they will also help sustain the Mariposa Museum.”

In addition to Mariposa, the concert will benefit the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation and the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, two nonprofits based off-Island. The Simmons brothers founded Rush in 1995 in Philadelphia to provide underserved youth with access to the arts. Named after the Pulitzer-winning playwright, August Wilson is a performing arts center that focuses on highlighting Black artists in Pittsburgh.

“There are three organizations that are involved in producing this and being the beneficiaries of whatever money is raised,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s been a lot, a lot of work, but it’s been great work and fun work.

For more information on Poetry on the Vineyard: A Def Poetry Reunion, visit https://www.defpoetryreunion.com.

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