It surprises many to learn that the Red Lobster in Harlem, on 125th Street (next to the Apollo), has an open mic–EVERY Monday. It’s called Freedom of Speech and it’s hosted by Brother Earl Majette.
I hadn’t been to FoS in quite some time, but it appears I returned right on time. I still had a valid FREE ENTREE birthday coupon from June available on my Red Lobster app. So I used it to get a free seafood pizza, which of course came with complimentary cheddar bay biscuits.
So while I can’t speak for anyone else, for me FoS was feeling like the best open mic ever! DJ Baby D, the resident musical curator, and his turntable helpers were setting an upbeat and festive mood; a couple was dancing off to the side, grooving to the classic R&B tunes being spun.
Baby D was also celebrating his birthday, but that didn’t stop him from hopping on the 1’s & 2’s and getting down to business: Once Baby D plays the instrumental for Solange’s “Cranes,” it’s showtime–not at the Apollo, but at one of Harlem’s most popular open mics. The list fills up fast, so try to get there before the 8 pm start time. I try to arrive by 7 pm. If you come earlier than that, you can take advantage of the Happy Hour specials.
Brother Earl started off with some House Rules: cell phone off or on vibrate; use your inside voice (some folks struggled with that last one throughout the night). Then Earl warmed up the mic with the poem “Do You” because, as Earl puts it, “Nobody likes to go first!” “Do You” was the perfect lead-off for an open mic named after the First Amendment, as it featured lines like “value your voice.”
James Dean Rivera followed with some poetic “Words From The Heart.” He had a few memory miscues, but the audience was supportive: “Take your time! Brother Earl echoed the sentiment with his post-performance comments: “No shame in working through a poem. That’s what open mic is for.”
FoS features all type of performers from different genres. Several comedians come through regularly to work out their routines. (Rumor has it, Richard Pryor’s son once did a comedy set at FoS.) The comedian, Khalil Rashad, came with some solid funny. There were several quotable bits he said, but I don’t want to give away too much of his routine. One memorable quip came when he shared his frustrations about being short: “I used to be tall–like 6’8–but then child support cut me in half.”
Next up was rapper H.D. McFly proclaiming his love for “big belly” women, who have stomachs that “shake like jelly.” A woman in the crowd was feeling McFly’s message and she let it be known with an impromptu interpretive dance–in the middle of the Red Lobster’s imaginary dance floor.
McFly ended his set on a more serious note, rapping, “I’m a Black man in this country / Living with a short life line expectancy… / How many more young emcees will die at 33?” The following poet, Mona Bode, began by thanking McFly for the conscious lyrics in his closing song because she lost her son, Quinn, to gun violence.
Ms. Bode, the greatest-smelling poet of all time (she actually makes her own soaps and lotions), let everyone know “I Am Africa.” I followed Mona, and I let everyone know that The Spirit moved me to do an unexpected poem, a poem which contains a reference to Mona’s son, Quinn.
And The Spirit rolled on, as Earl caught it and went into a rendition of “Black People!” letting everyone know that “we are the offspring of Ancestors that refused to die.” DJ Baby D capped off the moment by playing James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).”
Panama Dime, a young female rapper, came with the Cardi B-esque/Drake-like double-time flow over a mid-tempo-trap rap beat and in the words of the host, “she rode that wave.” Dro followed. “Detroit in the building,” he said, before doing spoken word about his “struggles.”
Gus, another comedian, explained how hard it is being Palestinian in New York. Some of his biggest gripes revolved around bodegas: either the worker would leave when Gus entered the store because he thought Gus was his relief, or the worker would clown him for trying to buy Magnum condoms.
Moon Dog, an elder poet, shared a poem about gangbangers and inner-city thugs. Marlena got on the mic to rep the female comics. She threw a zinger at the city of Brotherly Love: “I moved to Philly for a little while… We all make mistakes.” She also displayed her unique talent–cursing someone out with a mixture of Spanish and Yiddish.
Unfortunately, time was running out for me and I needed to start the long trek home. I left after the performance of one of my favorite FoS regulars, Mike Meez L, who’s like a young DMX with superb freestyling capability. He brought MAJOR energy to the stage and the crowd loved it, so much so they called for an encore reprise.
As I walked out the door, and waited across the street at the busstop, I could still hear the open mic going on. There was an outside speaker sharing the show with the people outside. I heard a young lady who walked past singing along with the open mic’er, who was performing a song about “I gotta get up outta this hood.”
And that’s what I did: I got up on the M101 bus and got outta the hood formerly known as Harlem above 110th Street. As I rode down to the 1 train subway station, I toyed with the idea of remixing some of Bobby Womack’s lyrics:
🎶 Across 110th Street / Cheddar Bay Biscuit pushers won’t let the junk food junkie go free🎶
Post-note: Sadly, my departure caused me to miss two great artists who performed later that night, Ngoma (a spoken word legend) and Kool Breeze (creator of Mercury in Metrograde). I particularly would’ve loved to have heard Breeze’s new piece, “Babysitter Sexperiment.”