The track rang out of the laptop speakers, while Rafeeq Davis looked down at his composition book. He bobbed his head in sync with the beat, waiting for a point to jump in before firing off his lines.
Davis got halfway down the page before he tripped up, but laughed it off as he grabbed a towel to wipe his forehead.
“That’s a strong verse, too,” Ricky Strickler said, sitting at the opposite end of the table.
Alphonso “Zo” Martin sat by the wall behind the two, listening and nodding to the beat.
“I want to freestyle this,” he said and Davis gave him the floor.
“Go ahead, yeah, let me hear it.”
Usually, weekly meetings of The Poeticians, a spoken word and hip-hop group in Point Breeze, focus more on members fine-tuning their performances for upcoming shows.
But on a week when several of The Poeticians couldn’t make it, the group took on a much looser approach.
“This is good,” Strickler said. “We haven’t had a freestyle session like this in a while.”
The group was formed in February 2014. Artistic director Sara Graybeal was tasked by ArtWell — a non-profit art organization where she works as a teaching artist – to create a youth artist leadership group. Graybeal quickly realized there was a range of interest that expanded beyond this initial endeavor.
“We just had a ton of ideas of what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it,” Graybeal said of The Poeticians’ beginnings. “We became an independent group, and then pretty quickly started doing open mics every couple months.”
More recently, they’ve been doing longer performances at different venues around the city.
The Poeticians’ shows usually revolve around a specific theme. Sometimes, she said, topics can stray from the original plan as she saw during planning for a show on April 27 that was focused on the concept of rebirth at first.
“You know, rebirth is becoming more about gender relationships,” she said to everyone around her. “Which is fine, it’ll give a really simple theme for everyone to unite around.”
That, she said, shows how adaptable the group can be.
“It’s a somewhat new thing for us,” Strickler, who deals heavily in the music production side of The Poeticians, said. “When we do these bigger shows, we like to if possible have a theme that we’re all writing around, so it can sort of have a very nice flow and sense, and consistent message throughout.”
The group recognizes the role each person brings to the effort.
“We brainstorm ideas together,” Strickler added. “And I think one of the things that is really great about The Poeticians is that we do have sort of a means of agreeing upon things, where people are not afraid to speak out and say I don’t like this, I do like this, but that we’re able to, at the end of the day, come together with something that we’re all happy with.”
Graybeal said The Poeticians have about 12 active members, and 25 in total who have participated in some capacity during the past two years.
“Some of them are former co-workers of mine,” she said. “My housemate is a Poetician now. She is a singer and a poet, and she got involved.
“People from the neighborhood have brought other people from the neighborhood, so we have a lot of people who live within a 10-block radius of here, and then former students of mine have brought their cousins and brought their friends.”
Chris Frazier, the group’s program director, was there from the beginning. He started writing rap when he was 14 and didn’t know Graybeal until that first meeting two years ago when he was just about to turn 23. But he did know her housemate Anna, who was the one that passed on the word about him.
“Sara was trying to get in touch with me for probably about a month,” Frazier said, recalling the lead-up to that first meeting.
“My lyrics were basic,” he said. “And we got together with the idea of people who want to get better with their art, and master that, come with us.”
The concept grew from there.
“It’s expanded in a lot of different ways,” Graybeal said. “I would say the majority of the group is from Philadelphia originally, but people are from all different neighborhoods and life experiences, and several of us are not originally from Philly, so it’s pretty diverse.”
And the diversity and versatility that each person brought to the group added to its appeal, especially in the case of Martin, one of The Poeticians’ newest members.
Martin joined The Poeticians after the group’s had an open mic night in February 2016. A friend who worked at the Pharmacy, where the open mic was hosted, invited him to stop by.
Martin did have a history with poetry, even though he collected some rust.
“I’ve always been a wordsmith,” Martin said. “Actually, before that night I hadn’t performed, in front of people for like six years.”
Once he got there, it was his friend who encouraged him to get on stage.
“To be honest, I wasn’t interested in going up at all,” Martin said.
“I heard all these great poets doing their thing, and that inspired me to go up there, pull my poems out of the dust bag and let them be read.”
Martin admitted that he was still fairly new to the group, and hasn’t gotten to show off much of his work yet. Still, he came into the meeting, bouncing off of Davis, a member of more than a year now, like he had known him for years.
“It’s like a genuine feeling of camaraderie within The Poeticians,” Martin said. “They make me feel comfortable, and when you’re comfortable, your art just flows. It’s a good space.”
— Text, images and videos by Nick Tricome