Singer blends rhapsodic poetry, feminism

Long before Lisa B began rocking audiences on the alternative club circuit, she was crafting lyrics in what she calls "the Song of Songs tradition," where imagery of religious ardor matches romantic ecstasy.

Lisa B — that's B for Bernstein — has since built up a following in the urban cultural phenomenon that has seen a blend of rap, poetry and spoken-word performance enjoy a fever-pitch popularity.

The Oakland resident, who is also a serious poet with several books and awards to her credit, has just released her first full-length CD, "Free Me for the Joy."

She calls her work "overtly and inherently Jewish."

"God No. 2," the last cut on the CD, was published first as a poem in Lilith, a Jewish feminist magazine. Her poems have also appeared in Tikkun magazine and in a 1998 Northwestern University anthology called "Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust."

The CD reveals Lisa B's talent for writing a powerful lyric.

"Trane's Ride," written by Lisa B in honor of jazz great John Coltrane, is a rumbling plea to the "Old Testament God" for help with a hard journey:

The hooves beat in my throat/ plowing up notes/ and from the dust cloud/ poured a train of horses./ I saw the calm of my father's feet/ by the torn-up cabbage leaves,/ a whole town in Louisiana/ walking the dusty road,/ a dank cabin where mothers strangled/ in chains, a baby cried,/ the silk edge of a blanket,/ Naima, my witness/ in this world./ Naima, my witness/ in this world.

The song is indicative of her belief that jazz is "completely a creation of blacks and Jews."

Although her upbringing was not religious — she rebelled by attending synagogue for a time — she identifies strongly as a Jew, both spiritually and artistically.

"I was raised on the strain of Jewish culture that is political progressiveness," she said. "I was a Red Diaper baby."

In fact, in the 1920s her grandparents had helped found the Coops, a progressive workers' cooperative made up of Jewish immigrants.

Her family moved from New York to Cupertino when she was 10, "and the sense of belonging to an active Jewish community dissipated."

She dropped "Bernstein" in her professional name in part to skirt the anti-Semitism — or at least pre-established mindset — that she says is still at play in the culture.

But she also said her new identity as Lisa B seemed more contiguous with a "much lighter, more playful" field than poetry writing.

"For my grandparents, being a singer was a step away from being a saloon keeper," she said. "I am moving away from my identity as an intellectual. And in this culture, Jews are expected to be serious."

A foray into synagogue membership and Torah study ended when the strong political consciousness with which she was raised collided with a troubling sexism in old-time religion.

"I had a real problem with a patriarchal, punishing God," she said. Today, the services that resonate with her are those that focus on the Shechinah, or the female divine presence, "instead of the Big Patriarch."

Now, she added, "my role is to stand outside the formal Jewish culture and sing in its tradition. In ancient times, the shaman was a poet and a singer."

Among her accolades is a $20,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her segue into song was natural once she began reading her poetry aloud, she said. She has since been learning about the music industry and working with a vocal coach on what she calls "the athletics of singing."

She worries, though, that her lyrics may be undermined by the soft-jazz packaging that is its messenger.

"The genre isn't really known for its lyrics, even though they may at times be pithy and well-written," she said. "There is not so much a place for imagery, which you find more in the folk-rock-pop tradition."

Her CD was produced by Jim Gardiner, who has worked with Kenny G.

But Gardiner's got a way with Muzak, and that's bad news for Lisa B, who can ignite a live audience.

Given Lisa B's rich, throaty voice and lively command of the language, it becomes intriguing to contemplate what could result if she would collaborate with a producer who taps more incisively into her gift.

As for her next move, Lisa B is up for the challenges of a performing career that can function within existing parameters — and cut new ones.

"I am an adventurous spirit."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.