As part of the "Arte Latino" Smithsonian exhibition at the Oakland Museum last year, La Peña Cultural Center organized a spoken-word forum headed by renowned poet and author Piri Thomas. As he sat, patiently listening to young poets like Darren de Leon throwing down verses about life's realities, his serene face gleamed with the wisdom of an elder listening to his children. Piri and others helped start the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City during the mid-1970s. Using art as a medium, they channeled their experiences of the hard-knock 1950s and '60s in Spanish Harlem's El Barrio. For Thomas, that experience was spending seven years in prison and coming out with a new will to live, having learned the power of the written and spoken word. In 1967 he wrote the urban drama Down These Mean Streets, which has been in print ever since. A longtime Berkeley resident, his CDs Sounds of the Street and No Mo' Barrio Blues offer great examples of what he calls "wordsongs," fusions of spoken word and music that champion unity -- something the world needs more of right about now.
Readers' Pick (tie): Jerry Brown/ Barbara Lee