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ArtPrize 2013: Stephen Gren inspires through spoken word

Stephen Gren, together with local spoken word group the DiaTribe, helped bring the first-ever blind and deaf friendly exhibit to ArtPrize.
Stephen Gren (middle) with fellow members of the DiaTribe.

Stephen Gren (middle) with fellow members of the DiaTribe.

Underwriting support from:
Gren with his son, Mac, at the DiaTribe's venue "Word".

Gren with his son, Mac, at the DiaTribe's venue "Word". /Courtesy of Stephen Gren.

Stephen Gren learned long ago that life would never be a bed of roses. Now, at age 22, the Grand Rapids artist has a lot to say about his experiences and it’s hard not to listen. Spending five minutes around Stephen Gren catapults his listeners into a world of spoken word poetry, for better or for worse, and certainly with no turning back.

Gren began writing poetry a little over a year and a half ago.

“My whole coming in to poetry is actually a sad story,” he reminisces. Fueled by the heartache from a recent breakup, accompanied by the sudden deaths of two close family members, Gren was thrown into a world of grief with little transition. To help himself cope, he turned to the pen and page. What followed was a quick transformation from a normal “guy” to an up-and-coming artist in the Grand Rapids area.

His first poem, "Broken Hearts and Love Letters," bemoans a first love that was started and then never finished.

Gren remembers the first time he performed this piece. “It was the first time I ever performed. It was March 18, 2012, Wednesday and I stepped outside after the show and I heard, ‘Hey, big guy’. It was Azizi [Jasper] and Mitch [Burns], and they said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a show at Dr. Grin’s; why don’t you come on down?’ And ever since then, I’ve been performing with them.”

The two men Gren met on that fateful night would eventually become his partners in the locally known spoken word performance group, the DiaTribe. The DiaTribe consists of members Azizi Jasper, Mitch Burns, Marcel Price, G Foster II, Duke Greene, Venson Dix and Stephen Gren.

The group had its earliest beginnings at the Hookah Lounge in Eastown, where Jasper founded and hosted an open mic poetry night, the Smokin’ Spoken Word. Nearly five years later, it remains the longest running spoken word venue in West Michigan.

The Message at Dr. Grin’s comedy club inside the BOB, and The Drunken Retort inside Stella's, have since been added to the group's weekly shows. Three successful poetry nights is an accomplishment for the DiaTribe members, yet the men had bigger dreams. With the start of the fall season came another ArtPrize contest, and the men of the DiaTribe were vying for top prize.

“Fable and Mitch came up with the idea of ArtPrize January 1,” Gren said. The DiaTribe’s entry, titled “Word”, is the first of its kind in the annual ArtPrize competition. They are the first spoken word group to perform for ArtPrize as well as the first to make their entry both blind and deaf friendly.

The type of poetry style they use, spoken word, “doesn’t have to rhyme. A lot of it has metaphors, a lot of it has story telling… with it, there are no boundaries,” says Gren. It is “a growing art form that is not very well known, and a lot of people stereotype it.”

The DiaTribe’s poetry focuses on issues of racial and social inequality, sex, love and relationships, and everything in between. Each poem speaks from the individual experience of its author with though-provoking questions, leaving its listeners to find answers for themselves.

Regardless if the DiaTribe wins ArtPrize, they are still going to keep performing. “We all understood that when the DiaTribe came around, this was a forever type of thing. None of us will stop writing after ArtPrize. We’re still going to do shows.”

The DiaTribe will continue to perform every Monday and Wednesday from 5-8pm inside Dr. Grin’s Comedy Club at the BOB for the duration of ArtPrize. Their exhibit entitled “Word” is available to view every day at the comedy club during regular business hours.


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