Incandescent bulbs hang over a small stage set-up with a mic, and the only other light comes from the tabletop tea candles and a single strand of white Christmas lights along the wall. There are several couches and armchairs, and the sweet odor of marijuana stuck to a patron’s winter jacket blends with the aroma of fried catfish, which is the evening’s kitchen special. This is The Rack, a café and social space in Maplewood, NJ. For almost two years now they’ve been hosting On The Mic, an open mic event held Friday nights.

The man on stage is Steve Strickland and he is short and energetic. He’s the evening’s MC.

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Ras Heru performing his poetry at The Rack on Friday, December 9th. [photo/ Brian McHugh]
He’s on stage singing a Sam Cooke song and he does this before introducing any of the night’s poets.

“Hosting is awesome,” Strickland told me before the night’s open mic had begun. “I try to find people that have somewhat of a following, so that more people can get in the seats and experience The Rack.”

Every Friday night beginning at 8 o’clock On The Mic features anywhere from three to seven performances – poets, hip-hop artists, musicians. The features are often friends or acquaintances of Strickland’s, and there’s always a sign-up sheet at the door for anyone else who wishes to perform.

Perform is the key word here. When you come to The Rack on a Friday night, you’re in for a show. This past Friday featured Elu Catori who Facebook-live’d a recitation of one of her poems, before plugging in her laptop so she could perform another poem back-dropped by rising music.

Elu Catori reading her poetry:

Strickland took his time between sets last Friday, keeping the crowd in good-humor, a nice counter-point to the often somber and personal poetry being performed at the mic. He would, from the stage, call out people who walked in the front door on the opposite side of the room, asking their names and where they were from, and harassing others for lackadaisical clapping.

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Shaheed Woods performing his poetry. [photo/ Brian McHugh]

 

Throughout the show, Strickland and several of the performers addressed members of the audience with first-name familiarity. There’s a comfort here of community. One of the other features, the poet Ras Heru, had performed at The Rack before, and the hip-hop artist Real As Promised, who also performed on Friday, has hosted On The Mic in the past.

Ras Heru reading his poetry:

On The Mic “gives you that intimate setting that demands your attention,” said Real As Promised, or R.A.P. “It’s a comfortable setting, it’s a household setting; everyone will feel like family, everyone welcomes you, and you’re going to get a clear head [as a performer] when you leave.”

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The café is the perfect size for performing poetry. It’s large enough to have accommodated well over 100 people at past On The Mic events, yet is still small enough so that poets can reliably perform without the use of a mic, as did Shaheed K. Woods, the night’s first poet to perform.

“The layout of the space is unique,” said Mo, who owns The Rack. “It has one side set up as a living room and the other side is a dining room. So it’s a really comfortable at-home feel.”

On The Mic takes place every Friday at 8pm. Doors open at 7pm, and entry is $5. The Rack is BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine) – no hard liquor, and don’t sit around drinking beer. This is pleasant, candle-lit establishment, a dinner-and-a-show type place, not your uncle’s BBQ.

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