Every Thursday night, Newark burger joint Burger Walla open its doors to Evolve NJ, and the sweet potato tots stop being the only thing drawing Newark residents to this Halsey street spot. That’s because Thursday nights are when Sean Battle, an adjunct professor of English at Essex County College, turns Burger Walla into a space for Evolution Open Mic.
Evolution Open Mic is a multi-layered event, and with the help of his associates — artist and art facilitator Kween Moore, and community advisor Queen Assata — attendees are treated to poetry, musical performances, interactive games and discussions centered on the Newark community and beyond.
“We want people to have a good time at whatever event we host, but we also want it to be of substance. We want people to leave with something that uplifts and enlightens their consciousness,” said Battle.
“Edutainment” is what Battle calls it – a meeting of education and entertainment. “The tagline of Evolve NJ is ‘accountability through artistry,’ so we hope to hold people accountable for their actions in an artistic space, and we hope it carries on to other facets of their lives,” continued Battle.
Take last Thursday for instance. A little after 6 p.m., soft reggae began wafting through the speakers, and the tangy scent of incense replaced the smell of caramelized onions. Participants and guests started flowing in, some just finishing their workdays.
As the room filled up, Battle took the floor and announced that the featured poet of the night would be none other than Newark’s Breya “Blackberry Molassez” Knight. Heads nodded and people exchanged knowing looks. Knight is a Newark poetry scene favorite, and was recently a performer at a tribute show to the late Amiri Baraka.
The theme for the night was “From Tragedy to Triumph” and all the poems followed this lead. Poets reflected on everything from Newark’s resilience as a city to personal triumphs they’ve had to overcome. During a portion of the show that Battle calls “The Nightmare of the Week,” guests debated their love and hate relationship with Newark. Some residents complained about the lack of fresh produce, while others lauded Newark’s authenticity and endurance.
“[Evolution Open Mic] is something our people need. We need something to come to every week where we can release what’s on our mind, relax, enjoy and hear positive vibes,” said Knight.
Battle said that he and his cohort realize that without the broader community there is no art, and that in order to enjoy an art scene, they must first cultivate it. Unlike other open mic shows, everyone who attends Evolution Open Mic winds up a participant in one way or another.
Poets and attendees alike are even urged to contribute to what Battle calls the “canvas of resource,” which is a plain canvas that is set at the end of the room specifically for free range artistic expression. The collation of canvases from past Evolution Open Mic shows will comprise an exhibition during Newark’s annual Open Doors festival in October.
“Life is art. It’s such an influential tool. Art is adding more beauty to the city, and I’m trying my best to do that with my poetry. And so is Sean and Evolve NJ,” concluded Knight.