Monday, February 28, 2011

LeBron James and the Poetry of "I Rise": A Guest Posting by Liz Jones-Dilworth

Back in October 2010, as the shadow cast by the huge middle finger of LeBron James still darkened most of greater Cleveland, Nike aired a 90-second commercial (watch it just below) meant to both capitalize on, and rehabilitate, the King's image as he settled into cozy South Beach alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Alluding in its title "I Rise" to Maya Angelou's famous poem "Still I Rise," the commercial features LeBron trying on a number of different personae including—at just over the 1:09 point—that of a beatnik soul poet (pictured here). Mind you, this wasn't the only link connecting LeBron and poetry from around this time. Not to be outdone by Nike, the Miami Herald held a much-publicized LeBron poetry contest which interested the P&PC office very much. We tried to give you an inside report on that event, but our requests for an interview with contest judge and sports writer Dan Le Batard were repeatedly ignored. Who knows why—maybe he found out that some of us on staff are from Cleveland.

Still, despite the Lake Erie-sized chip on our shoulder, we remained curious about this poetic streak in what we can only call LeBronsville. So we turned for some answers to Liz Jones-Dilworth (pictured here, bio at the end of this posting), who completed her dissertation on 21st-century performance poetry at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010. Jones, who is now the VP of Operations for a public relations firm, was more than happy to weigh in. Here (following the video) is what she had to say.

Just ask Homer: a poem is a pretty good way to make a hero. Nike’s “I Rise” commercial, featuring basketball star LeBron James, uses a variety of poetic techniques—from old-school anaphora, refrain, rhyme, and allusion to contemporary hip hop samplings and multi-track, multi-voiced layering. Perhaps wondering what in the world to do with their $90 million James contract after he was declared the sixth most-hated sports personality in September 2010, Nike ultimately chose a poetic strategy to redeem him.

The poetic structure of the commercial, which does not resemble a typical advertising jingle, lends weight and seriousness to James’s character. The ever-repeating “should I?” gives us the sense that the speaker is a complicated man wrestling with existential questions of identity and modern morality. And, on the surface, the poem-within-the-poem moment seems in tune with that message. James introduces the segment by asking, “Should I read a soulful poem?” He’s dressed all in brown, from brown sunglasses to a narrow-brimmed hat to his turtleneck. He stands in front of a brown stage curtain and reads to a silent off-camera audience. He holds a single white piece of paper.

Then, we see a man playing bongos to accompany him, and hear a smattering of polite applause.

Wait a second, you may be saying. What are the bongos doing in there? Bongos haven’t been in style in the spoken word scene now for a good, what, fifty years?

Suddenly, James’s “soulful” poem seems suspect. What's going on here? Is the commercial making fun of poems? Imagine someone who knows little about poetry refusing to go to a poetry performance. Are they imagining someone just like this—playing bongos? And what, if anything, is James-as-poet meant to reveal about who he “really” is?

The poetry James reads is an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s 1978 “Still I Rise":

. . . shoot me with your words
[ . . . ]
You may cut me with your eyes,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

In its attachment to Nike and LeBron, the power of Angelou's original poem is diminished if not entirely undercut. "Shoot" and "cut" acquire basketball and advertising connotations (shoot a basketball, shoot a commercial, cut across court, cut to a closeup) that reduce the social and gendered violence of "shoot me with your words" and "cut me with your eyes" to simple trash talk and gamesmanship. Similarly, "air" becomes a brand name, an act of commercial broadcasting, and a basketball style, not a figure for woman's survival and triumph. Admittedly, the ad is a really savvy, thought-out deployment of Angelou's poem; Nike obviously has a poetry critic (albeit a cynical one) on staff. But one nevertheless can't help wondering, how can the poem be soulful if it’s really all about basketball and shoes?

James is portrayed not just as a poet, but as a television personality, an actor, an ad man, a student, a basketball player, and a construction worker. And really, none of these roles are taken very seriously—he acts in silly westerns and cop shows, and there aren’t too many real-life construction workers who’d tear up a basketball court with a loader while people were standing on it. As a brand, Nike creates heroes—performer-athletes with strong personalities. Nike is the poet, not LeBron.

The pink suits and fat doughnuts, squeaky microphones and bongos may invite us to laugh at the absurd, ever-changing faces of James. Yet when he says, “Maybe I should just disappear” and the screen blacks out, the impulse seems suicidal—and possibly reminiscent of Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem," which ends "Or does it explode?" The relentless “should, should, should” from the hero worshippers is tinged with a hatefulness that possibly threatens James’s career, his identity, and his soul. Ultimately, though, it's the commercial (or the poem) that brings or sings James back to life—back to the screen and the court where he (supposedly) belongs. Paradoxically, while Nike argues for allowing LeBron to be his own man, it does not present a clear image of who that man is other than a basketball player.

As Nike keeps bringing LeBron's complex human individuality back to the court and to the subject of advertising, it doesn't treat him any differently than it does the vocabulary of Angelou's poem; everything comes back to basketball and commercials. Thus, even though both Angelou and LeBron are presented as poets, neither is given a byline in "I Rise." That distinction is reserved for the poet—the maker of heroes and the maker of meaning, Nike itself, which signs off with an autograph everyone knows: the swoosh.

Liz Jones-Dilworth currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she is the VP of Operations at Jones-Dilworth, Inc., a PR firm specializing in start-up tech firms (a.k.a., the poetry of spreadsheets). Her dissertation, The Role of the Poet: The Performance of Poetry at the Beginning of the 21st Century, discusses the public roles and performance styles of Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Beau Sia, and Patricia Smith and grew out of her own experiences performing, coordinating, and publicizing poetry in a variety of venues. For her take on writing a dissertation and completing graduate school, check out Becoming Doctor Jones.