Toni Asante Lightfoot

From Friends to Griots: The Modern Urban Griots

Volume 15:4, Fall 2014
A Splendid Wake Issue

An imperfect draft of the history of The Modern Urban Griots as remembered almost twenty years after we began

This is how I remember it. Which is to say, there are seven other people who will have varying stories of how The Modern Urban Griots came to be, what we did, and why. Many things they say will be more factual but it’s all mostly true.

It's Your Mug 20th Anniversary Reading at the Kennedy Center, 2014.  From left to right: Joel Dias-Porter, Toni Blackman, Ernesto Mercer, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Twain Dooley, Holly Bass, Brandon D. Johnson.

It’s Your Mug 20th Anniversary Reading at the Kennedy Center, 2014. From left to right: Joel Dias-Porter, Toni Blackman, Ernesto Mercer, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Twain Dooley, Holly Bass, Brandon D. Johnson.

I started hosting poetry readings at It’s Your Mug on a cold night in February of 1994. It was not a large fanciful crowd that led me to believe an institution was going to be built. That first night the attendees were Toni Blackman, two of her friends, my mom, my sister, my 2-year-old niece and me. The first reading was small but I felt something bigger would fill the beautiful room. Slowly word got out and people wanted to come to Georgetown to see the Black-owned coffee shop. Bruce Scott, the owner, had marvelous taste in pastries, coffee preparation, and décor.  So folks came for poetry and ambiance. One great night in March/April, Brandon D. Johnson came in with 12 poems. He read them all in one night. The next week he came with new poems. I liked that Midwestern work ethic. He’s from Gary, my dad helped to elect Mayor Hatcher, and come to find out Brandon used to play tennis with my brothers. He quickly became a brother to me. When Holly Bass rolled in with her California/Georgia/Sarah Lawrence/New York City cool, sweet, easy, energy we were in love. She too joined the gang.

The “gang” of poets was small and closed down the coffee shop with still more poetry, laughter, and editing suggestions in us. We’d travel the city looking for late night digs perfect for eating, drinking, and conversing. I was always on the lookout for good, cheap food, in a not-too-loud room, so we could eat and talk, and have adequate lighting to look over poems.  If they played jazz even better. Sometimes, one of us would get up and dance even if there wasn’t a dance floor and then all of us would join in – together we were delightfully fearless.

Onto the scene and into our divine madness, Twain Dooley joined our Tuesday night reading gang after returning from a stint in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a manager of the military base McDonald’s. I know crazy, right? Love it! He came with poems of DC, his working class life, his Jamaican American history, and funktified go-go. He and his siblings went to Deal Junior High at the same time I did, and I had the biggest crush on his younger brother. He too joined us who wrote, talked about poetry, left the Mug to talk about poetry, drink, dance and laugh until the sky turned light blue. Lori Tsang heard about this joint in Georgetown and came with politically-infused, smoldering, fire poems that backed us up and made us think. Her parents were from Jamaica. She worked her day job like Brandon and Twain and she loved arts. Danny Boylen came in and read his poems like Melvin Lindsey’s Quiet Storm. He went to Carroll High School. When I was in high school, I was a prop girl for the Carroll plays. Soon he was sitting at a table with the folks known on the scene as serious about poetry. All of us had several things in common with each one of us and so a table grew into tables.

I didn’t sit much because I hosted. But there was a table from which came the best heckling this side of The Muppets. The 8Rock crew, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, and Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade) would say the things I wanted to say but couldn’t. When the poets would complain about them I would fain anger at them but I always wanted them there because they were my heavies. If someone wanted to sit at one of the tables the crew occupied they’d have to be able to take the commentary that came with it. I scoped who could and couldn’t handle it. A couple of times the fellas were mercilessly brutal and then I really would be angry, tell them what I thought and if they agreed they’d say “Ah-ite, Toni”; when they didn’t agree some fuck you’s might be thrown over a plate of calamari or fries. So when time came for The MUG to start, we already had our readers, editors, and promoters.

The future MUG poets weren’t the only ones mixing and mingling.  Mind you, fifteen to twenty others were becoming regulars as well. This is all before fall of 1994. I’m just giving you a quick glimpse as to the future members of and those adjacent to what would become Modern Urban Griots.

I hosted as well as talked with the poets. I gravitated to those who tickled my fancy with great life stories, great food, great music, and a great to desire to create. The Mug readings were separated into 3 sets. The first set was the open mic the first twenty on the list got to read in. That would go from exactly 8:00 pm to around 9:15 pm. How is that possible? Most of us considered ourselves real writers and had short shit. The second set was a themed set. Only five to ten poets would have written anything on-subject so that set was done by 10:00 pm and then we’d break and the third set would start around 10:15 or 10:30 depending on how much socializing  I was doing. The third set was the Drive-By Set where people would stand where they were sitting and read their WIPs (works-in-progress). This allowed new people to test the waters and old heads to share some stuff that needed help (see what egoless looks like?). Regulars with no group name and the 8Rock crew and other regulars would wait until the 11:00 pm closing to talk about the poems in progress.

It’s Your Mug was not our whole lives. I, for one, love to travel and so I did. I was developing my relationship with Trinidad & Tobago and left a few times to spend a month there. It was during my February 1995 trip that Jane Alberdeston Coralin came to complete what had yet to have a name. When I came back everyone warned me that there was a new poet who was working the scene out and that I would love her. I sure did! I still love Jane’s way of twisting a cliché into something wildly thought provokingly new. She loved to go six to seven days a week with us to poetry readings, poetry slams at the 15 Minutes Club, to Adams Morgan to dance. We all hung out talking poetry with Ernesto Mercer, DJ Renegade, Kenny Carroll, Gaston Neal, Mweli Askari, Reuben Jackson, etc… and poets who came to town.

I get ahead of myself. Back to 1995, we were still hopping into cars and going to poetry readings and conferences and eating and drinking. We had no name but we did have a reputation. We were budding good poets, aberrant conversationalists and ambiance whores. Andy Shallal’s Luna Café on P St. became a haunt of ours before his Busboys & Poets was a sparkle in his eye. All of us had traveled wildly through the states. Most of us had Caribbean experiences. We loved all kinds of art and loved to talk about all kinds of things. For us the more references to other cultures the better. We believed in tipping and treating restaurant people well. We had similar brought-upsy even if vastly different upbringings. I cannot repeat too often how important the mutual friendships were to the forming of this group.

We thought it de-rigueur to not quote our own poetry. So we came up with Rule #23 which you had to cite before doing so. The pomposity of quoting your own poetry always brought us to laughter not just because we knew you were quoting yourself but that we knew your poem well enough to know the quote. Usually it was done with a little fanfare. You knew it would fit so well that we would have to concede that it fit perfectly and thus stave off the jonin’. (For you who are new to DC – jonin’ is a real DC term for “talking derogatorily about someone for doing something that is in opposition to the customs of the day.”)

Thomas Sayers Ellis from the Darkroom Collective would come to The Mug whenever he was in town. He would then join us on our late night romps through the city sharing stories of the Darkroom. We wanted in on that. One night around one of the Mug’s tables, we gave ourselves a week to come up with a name for our ad hoc group. Twain came back that next week with The Modern Urban Griots (The MUG). Every other name was off the table; I can’t even remember any of the ideas put out there. I put together brochures with our pictures taken by Mignionette Dooley, Twain’s sister and Brandon’s then-future wife. We were on a roll. We opened with a performance at the Mug. Gigs started coming. We performed at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Nuyorican, and smaller venues around the city. Each of us had side projects with people in and out of the group. Holly, Jane, Lori, and I formed the collective Diasphora. Lori, Ernesto, and Jane had Bamboo. Brandon was part of the Black Rooster Collective with DJ Renegade, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Ernesto Mercer, Gary Lilly, and Rene Stout. Twain and I wrote, directed and acted in “Jazz, Wine, and Poetry: An Almost Love Story” on Valentine’s Day 1996 at It’s Your Mug. We performed it again the next year at Mangos. By then, It’s Your Mug was closed but DC still had poetry six to seven nights a week. But I get ahead of myself.

The Modern Urban Griots - promo

Photos by Mignonette Dooley. Top row: Jane Alberdeston Coralin and Toni Asante Lightfoot. Middle: Twain Dooley. Bottom row: Holly Bass and Brandon D. Johnson.


The Modern Urban Griots booked features at all the local readings that were popping up. We performed with two- or three-piece combos with The Movement at BarNone, Vagabond Poetry Series at the State of the Union, The 15 Minutes Club.  We were getting independent gigs that required bios to be read and we all placed The Modern Urban Griots on them. Henry Taylor, who was over the The American University Department of Literature, also read at the Mug and inspired us to write better with dedication to study and the general population. The MUG also had the crews from the Mug to call on to fill out a roster for a specific event and those crews called on us.

However, when poets asked to join us they didn’t get that we weren’t an organization like that. Thanks goodness we did keep it that way because from that others formed their own groups. (See the It’s Your Mug Issue of Beltway Poetry for more on the history of the groups that came out of the Mug.) As a group we had ample time to put together poems and ideas to create artistic presentations of poetry. Out of that ability came performances like “The Modern Urban Griots: As You’ve Never Seen Us Before.” It was poetry infused with photography, a poem danced to by Holly, a little singing from me, and others bringing drama. It was experimental and allowed the audience to feel part of something different, something good. No one else in DC was putting together shows like that.

From there, the collaborations continued. When I started reading my work regularly, I learned that you needed a chapbook. They were like calling cards that you could sell. Folks from colleges and universities, and churches, and anywhere could take a gander at your work and then call you for a gig. I can put together a chapbook to this day in less than two hours from downloading material, formatting material, and printing, to saddle-stitching. I also worked as a temp and had access to computers, copiers, and fancy cover-stock paper. So whenever we needed a program, brochure, or promotional material, I could put something together. I’ve stayed up all night with The MUG picking poems, editing poems, cutting and taping mis-paginated work. However, having good quality product catapulted us into some really groovy places.

Joel Dias-Porter was famous for his high quality products. I knew his work years before I knew him from the radio and his poem set to music called “Pressed Against The Glass.” Check it out if you don’t know it. It’s still some good stuff. Some people wondered if Joel was a Griot. He might as well have been but he wouldn’t put his name to ours because he already had some other great group affiliations – same with Ernesto, Brian, and Kenny. Others wanted to join The MUG but didn’t realize we were more than an organization. We were a bunch of friends who turned into The MUG. As with most groups who start like this, that structure was susceptible to circumstances. But again I get ahead of myself.

When It’s Your Mug closed on August 20, 1996, The MUG was still getting gigs. By this time, most of us were accepted to the Jenny McKean Moore Fellowship at George Washington University studying under Cornelius Eady. That connection got us accepted to the second year of Cave Canem and we went in June of 1997. There we met and worked with fifty Black poets from around the country and we were in workshops led by Elizabeth Alexander, Afaa Michael Weaver, Toi Dericotte, Sonia Sanchez and Cornelius Eady. We were floating on air. Well most of us. I don’t know if Twain applied but he, Danny, and Lori didn’t come to CC. We came back with stories, new favorite drinks, and an internal knowing laughter that must have been obnoxious.

Jane and I moved in together. Holly, as a writer for the City Paper, upped her connections game and often got us gigs through her other sources. Jane didn’t have as much time as she used to because she was in school at Trinity. Danny had fallen away from the group, gotten married to someone not from the crew. Lori left the group.

In 1998, I saw that the National Theater was accepting applications for their little theater. While sitting around Twain’s table one night, Holly, Jane, Hayes Davis (I’ll get to him in a few), Twain and I put together a few groups of poems. We set the “play” in a bar (yeah, we were sticking to the adage of writing what you know). The topics ranged from our life travels that got us to the bar, to similar bits of our past, bits of our future.  We called it “Everything I Never Told You Became A Poem.” The National Theater accepted it and The MUG was there. We also performed it at HR-57 and U-Mass Dartmouth. We sold the chapbook of it at events.

So you are wondering about the new kid. We all were too. I met Hayes in Philadelphia (his hometown) at a Moonstone Conference (Gods bless the name). We were in Robbins bookstore and he was reading with Cave Canem (CC). As I walked in someone said “Toni, if you’re looking for your brother he’s upstairs.” I tilted my head because my brother wouldn’t step foot into a poetry reading. I sat for the reading and this brother as high yellow as me comes on the mic. Yeah, he could pass as my brother.  Afterwards we spoke but didn’t become friends until summer of 1997 when DC sent 11 poets to Cave Canem. Of that group, Brandon, Holly, Jane, and me represented the MUG; Renegade, Brian Gilmore represented the 8 Rock Collective; Yona Harvey, Monica Hand, and Ernesto Mercer represented Bamboo; and Imani Tolliver, Erica Doyle, and Karma Mayet Johnson were all Muggers. Corny name but we claimed it. So Hayes in particular stayed up all night with us laughing, writing, editing, singing songs from our hometown groups and repping Philly (great music and I performed at an open mic at Zanzibar Blue with Major Jackson and Thomas Sayers Ellis there). Next thing I knew Hayes moved to DC for grad school at the University of Maryland in College Park. Hayes was CC, loved to hang and do poetry with us. His conversation and enthusiasm was all the stuff we loved. But we were more than two years into as Danny called it – “mortgaging our mornings for the sake of a really good nights.” This is where it really begins to end.

The MUG continued with Cave Canem (CC) through our 1999 graduation. By this time, A. Van Jordan had gotten his MFA from Warren Wilson. He was teaching in New York and we saw others monetizing poetry by going back to school. I never got accepted to an MFA program and left DC often to follow other opportunities.

Somewhere along the way, I offended some of our merry band of poets. Some fell for someone who didn’t fall back. We are poets so there was sex between some and wanted sex between others. There was some betrayal. Some wanted more from the group. Some had other more interesting projects. I was done with America in general. By 1999, I was spending most of my time trying to move to Trinidad. Each one of those sentences is a few-pages-long story in and of itself but to paraphrase one of Twain’s poems: I’m not going to air their dirty laundry out on the line with mine. Someone else can write about the sordid details of the demise because I still love, admire, and respect each of them deeply. When we can gather we still have fun with, drink with, read with, and grow with each other and now our families. Again, I’m ahead of myself.

By the summer of 1997, I hated the way the readings at Mangos were developing into a hideous free-for-all mess. It wasn’t a good set-up either. The Mug had a specific space for poetry. Mangos needed to have wait staff walk in front of poets and the food generated noise (silverware clanking against the plates, the bartenders shaking ice with drinks). I got tired of stupid people reading sexist, homophobic, religious rants that weren’t poetry and being called a bitch by those whom I chastised for not writing at all but using any open mic to preach poorly developed ideas. What was virtue at the Mug was shunned at the new venue which catered to the youthful idolatry of “freedom.” I used to have it but only up to a point. My “bitch” was part of my charm. At Mangos, the charm was gone. I wanted to do the readings at HR-57 because we loved the music but they needed more money than the audience was providing. By 2000, my sister and I founded The Haven: a bed & breakfast in Trinidad & Tobago. I was done. I couldn’t monetize what I was doing in DC and Trinidad & Tobago had a cheaper standard of living with great art and artists. When I left, The MUG was already not meeting as regularly due to the other responsibilities that came with our maturation. Hayes married Teri Ellen Cross (yep, the one from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poetry and Lectures Program – whoop she’s CC, too!); Brandon married Mig. Twain married regular Mugger Gayle Danley. Jane went to SUNY Binghamton for her PhD, Holly was putting on fabulous shows and becoming that fashionista on a bike. Danny is a chef. Lori left the scene and concentrated on writing and photography.

Some people have told me I needed to move back to DC. That the scene has changed for the worse since I left. I’m writing this to clear up that misconception. That scene from 1994 to 1999 was amazing because some amazing people had an inordinate amount of time with limited financial liability. We were single, divorced, kid-less, mortgage-less, and so eager to be a part of something not-of-our-daily selves when we began. We were a neo-soul café literati responsible only to ourselves and then we grew up.

I didn’t start the MUG. I just facilitated its existence with seven other wonderful, hard working and hard playing co-investors. This is just my short recollection of some amazing people and amazing times.

Pending the proper funding most of the members of the Modern Urban Griots will come together and perform, write, collaborate, in 2016 to celebrate over twenty years of our development. We hope to see you there. To quote Danny Boylen again: May we always have words between us.


Toni Asante Lightfoot is a native of Washington, DC. There she fell in love with poetry, artists, science and scientists. Lightfoot started hosting poetry readings in 1993 and has continued to host readings in Boston, Trinidad & Tobago, and Chicago. She has published several chapbooks. In 2005, she won the Guild Complex's Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards and has hosted the GBOMA every year since. Lightfoot was the Director of Writing Programs at Young Chicago Authors. She has developed curricula that teaches creative writing through the lens of science and science through the lens of creative writing. Her work has been published in Torch, Muzzle, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, and she was guest editor of Beltway Poetry's It's Your Mug 15th Anniversary Issue. Lightfoot is currently working on her Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine at Pacific College and lives in Chicago, IL. To read more by this author: Toni Asante Lightfoot: Fall 2001 Toni Asante Lightfoot: Guest Editor, It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue, Summer 2009