It was Theon Lee’s first poem, a homework assignment in grade school, that jump-started a love for rhyme. While his first poem was an ode to his grandparents, he later became a ghostwriter for amorous middle school boys who wanted to purchase poems for ladies of interest.
“I had a little business going,” Lee said, and boys in the school would pay up to $20 for one of his poems. Even though it wasn’t a serious operation, the act kept him writing until his life changed drastically — dropping out of high school, a tour in the military, a marriage, children and a divorce occurred in the span of five years.
After a discharge from the military, Lee used his poems to assimilate back into civilian society. Faced with his status as a veteran, he concluded that his early poems were “whack,” so he aimed to change his approach and adopt a disciplined drive.
At a slam poetry event in Flint, Michigan, Lee won second place and earned $300 for his performance on the mic. He recalls a friend telling him, “Wow, you did really well,” and the encouragement carried Lee to continue toward becoming a full-time artist.
“One of the experiences that really hit home for me was a poem I wrote about fatherlessness,” he said. At a different event, a member of the audience approached him after the show and wept, saying the message within the poem resonated with her deeply. Small moments of success propelled Lee to see that artists have a duty to help provide insight into the audience’s pain.
Lee was a full-time poet from 2011–2013, splitting his time between solo work and groups. He searched for a purpose with his craft and found his real goal was a mix between self-expression and enlightenment. He said he wants to understand what it means to embody hip-hop as a lifestyle, and this begins with the process of observing and writing then living what he speaks.
Lee said he can spend a month or two watching the world around him, gathering ideas, then he’ll do a lot of thinking for months to complete work. One of the views he’s formed with this method is the belief that, “Hip-hop is the Black and brown fine arts.”
“Think of it this way,” he said. “Graffiti can be comparable to German impressionism, or the DJ can be like an orchestra.” Through these comparisons, Lee notes the importance of hip-hop culture as more than a pastime, but something embodied in the spirit of the people invested in the conglomerate. This idea is also known as the “Five Pillars” of hip-hop, which includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, emceeing and knowledge.
Lee said his life is heavily influenced by hip-hop because of the totality of his experiences. “I was raised in poverty. I picked up art as something…” he began, then he trailed and discussed the importance of art and culture as noted by a favorite author, James Baldwin.
Baldwin — author, essayist and novelist — spoke of an “artist’s struggle for integrity” in 1963, and the speech made a lasting impression on Lee. “There’s a difference between someone who does art and someone who is an artist,” he said.
With that knowledge in hand, Lee believes the pain expressed in his poetry can be used to help someone see beauty and suffer less, just like the woman who approached him about his poem. The longer he continues studying hip-hop, the more he becomes concerned with encouraging others to push the culture forward.
One of Lee’s programs, The DOJO, is a platform devoted to emcees wanting to feed off the energy of a crowd, rattle rhymes and promote peace.
“Indy is a very shy city,” he said. “We don’t know if we should dance or sing or clap along. But at The DOJO, it’s a show for the people.”
The DOJO, sponsored by Old Soul Entertainment, meets every third Friday night at 1060 Virginia Ave. to showcase local emcees.
Like most of Lee’s poems, particularly the ones showcased online, the mission for The DOJO is simple and profound.
“Hip-hop comes from a need to express and be human,” Lee said. “It’s a learning experience and a festive experience. There aren’t many places where you can learn and have fun.”
The DOJO, sponsored by Old Soul Entertainment, meets every third Friday night at 1060 Virginia Ave. to showcase local emcees. “The DOJO honors tradition and provides a platform to strengthen the local hip-hop culture,” according to the group’s website.
Shows are scheduled to start at 8 p.m. with a $7 admission fee. Upcoming DOJO dates are Oct. 21, Nov. 18 and Dec. 16.