The Middle East's Longest-running Poetry Open Mic Night

Aug 26,2018

American performance poet Dorian Rogers (pictured above) founded the poetry open mic night ‘Rooftop Rhythms’ in 2012. Since then the event has grown in popularity and anchored UAE’s poetry movement by sculpting numerous talents over the years. Rooftop Rhythms is now a regular fixture at New York University in Abu Dhabi and opens to packed houses of poetry enthusiasts. We sat down with Rogers to learn more about his interest in poetry, the Rooftop Rhythms concept and the growth of poetry in the UAE.


How did you first get into poetry?

I had a knack for rhyming since nursery school. At five years old, I would naturally finish the end lines of nursery rhymes that I would be hearing for the first time.

My father would teach me original raps and famous rhymes of LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys which I would then perform at family events. I fell in love with Hip-Hop in my formative years and thought of poetry as dull and boring as school mostly taught form poetry like Frost and Dickinson. 


When did you discover open mic poetry?

As a sophomore at Florida State University in 2001, a friend took me to a poetry open mic night. I remember feeling like it was so uncool to go to an event like that, but when I actually went, I was blown away. The impressive part was that you could be in the in-crowd while being positive and conscientious. I attended the weekly open mic religiously and shortly after joined Back Talk! Poetry Troupe and Black on Black Rhyme, the group that organized the shows.

I went on to major in Creative Writing (although I eventually switched to English Education), competed and won major poetry slam competitions, self-published my poetry, recorded my own albums, toured extensively, and went on to organize my own poetry events.


Who inspired you?

I attribute my inspiration fully to Back Talk! Poetry Troupe and Black on Black Rhyme. It was such a transformative experience to be exposed to a raw and expressive art form at nineteen years old.

My life likely would've gone down the wrong paths if it were not for a consistent platform that allowed me to share my thoughts and absorb the ideologies, styles, and perspectives of powerful writers.

Being part of the troupe also allowed me to get paid through touring across the Southern United States and sell my books and albums. I learned a lot about poetry but also about how poetry unites people from different backgrounds. Other poetic inspirations were The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, June Jordan, Patricia Smith, and Sonia Sanchez.


Why did you start the Rooftop Rhythms event in the UAE?

After I graduated college, I took the skills I had gleaned from my poetry troupe in Florida and transplanted them to wherever I went. In Atlanta, Georgia, where I moved to teach, I started a poetry open mic night for adults and another for middle school students. 

When I made the move to Abu Dhabi in 2011, it was only natural that I started an open mic night here. The beautiful element was that the UAE already had a long-standing love with poetry, mainly Arabic poetry. Also, the large influx of Americans and Westerners who were familiar to poetry open mics made it the perfect time, space, and opportunity to start an event like Rooftop Rhythms in 2012.


What are the changes you have seen in the event since its inception?

Initially, the show brought a majority Western crowd. The early shows evolved into equal parts cultural night and social affair as expatriates didn't have many events at the time that catered to them. The downside of this dynamic was that parts of the crowd were not attending for poetry and would often become disruptive. A lack of venue options led the event to hotels where alcohol was offered. Muslims naturally felt uncomfortable due to the presence of alcohol and there were also restrictions as to where they could sit at the venue due to respect for Islam, traditional dress, etc.

Performers under 21 years of age were not allowed to attend. It was becoming obvious that there was a feeling of exclusion for an event that was meant to be inclusive to all. The crowds had grown from eighty people at the first event in 2012 to more than two hundred per show, but I felt that it was losing its way. We were badly in need of a cultural space and home where food and beverage revenue was not the focus but, instead, the art and culture.

At the perfect time came Bill Bragin, the executive artistic director of The Arts Center at New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi, in late 2014. He had recently opened the center and gave me the opportunity to present the show in partnership with The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Soon after, we garnered the official support of the US Embassy Abu Dhabi. 

Almost immediately, the dynamic changed for the better. Those that were only at the event to socialize began to disappear. People of all walks of lives, beliefs, ages, and orientations began to attend. Ever since, the crowds have grown consistently and so has our presence on the UAE culture and arts scene.

How would you rate the talent in the UAE?

The level of talent in the UAE has consistently grown over the years. I think that has a lot to do with the increasing amount of poetry and performance arts platforms for locally-based artists. There are numerous poetry open mic events in the UAE like Backyard Poetry and Echoes in Abu Dhabi and Blank Space, Punch, Untitled Chapters, Poeticians, Dubai Slam, and Poetryhood in Dubai. 

These initiatives give artists the space to share, edit, and perfect their skills and hopefully establish themselves to a point where they can be recognized by bigger entities like arts centers, foundations, festivals, and museums who are now recognizing performance art as one of the fine arts. The Art Center at NYU Abu Dhabi's Hekayah Festival and The Mother of the Nation Festival in Abu Dhabi as well as SIKKA Festival in Dubai are a few of the platforms that pay locally-based performance artists to share their talents.

The UAE government is investing a lot in to Culture and Arts. As the cultural economy in the UAE grows, artists will realize that there are career opportunities in being a full-time poet and performer, and subsequently, their talents will continue to improve.


What's next for Rooftop Rhythms?

Consistency is more important to us than expansion. We constantly work at improving the quality and professionalism of each show we organize. We currently have a wide-range of culture, arts, and nightlife events ranging from poetry nights in both English and Arabic, live music events, silent parties which include 3 DJs playing at the same time while people choose the party with wireless headphones, and a lip sync event. 

Our belief is that we will grow organically by word of mouth if people continue to have valuable experiences when they attend one of our events. Because of the aforementioned, at the next event you will see smiles, laughs, positivity, and good times!


Any advice for young/aspiring poets?

Don't be afraid to share your work with your friends and family. Begin sharing your art publicly if you're comfortable because words have the power to heal and even save lives! Accept constructive critique as it will eventually make you better. Your words have power. Use them!


The Season 7 opener of Rooftop Rhythms is Friday, September 28, 2018 at 8pm. Entrance is complimentary. Advanced ticket booking is strongly recommended in case of sell out. For more info CLICK HERE


Images Courtesy: Maricor Geonzon