Every now and then I’d like to dig deep into a performance poem and analyze how and why it’s effective. These are entirely opinions of my own, but feel free to add to the discussion. Also, give a suggestion on which piece should be analyzed next.
For this edition of the Salt Mine, I’ll analyze:
“Other Ideas for Pepsi Commercials”
by Amir Safi
Amir Safi always surprises me with his content and his performance. If you take a look at some of his other pieces, such as Ode to Whataburger or Brown Boy White House, he has a presentation style that feels relaxed and calm. Having seen him perform Ode to Whataburger live in Utah, I’ve always been impressed in his ability to converse with the audience in the middle of the piece, to explain, for example, what a “pasture party,” is. This style, as though he might ask you what your birthday is or if you caught the last Rockets game, differs from the usual approach to performance poetry, which is to yell and enunciate every word with overwrought emotion. Indeed, Amir seems extremely relaxed on stage, which, for me, allows the audience not only to be on his side, but to really befriend him by the end of the performance.
For this piece, Other Ideas for Pepsi Commercials, he’s taken the now infamous Super Bowl commercial featuring Kendall Jenner ending police violence and brutality by offering the police a Pepsi, and used it as the backdrop to outline how absurd the notion of ending police brutality is. He gives several scenarios of police injustice and inserting Pepsi at the crucial moments. “Instead of pepper spray, the police shoot them in the face with shaken up cans of Pepsi…Trayvon Martin goes to the store to purchase a can of Pepsi and skittles…Standing Rock loses the battle with the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Missourri River flows with Pepsi.” Take after take, Amir inserts Pepsi in these crucial moments when an oppressive hegemony asserts its will against an opposition. These interpolations give the impression that these moments have been sponsored by Pepsi. If on Pepsi had been there, the speaker says, perhaps there wouldn’t have been violence. Lives would have been saved through effective product placement.
And that is the core of what Amir seems to be saying. There is no reason why a product like Pepsi would have quelled any of these injustices. Instead, Pepsi was simply attempting to co-opt a social movement in order to sell more products, ala the Coke campaign “I’d like to buy the world Coke.” Sure, this Coke campaign was subtly undermining the Vietnam War with messages of peace through co-opting of the larger hippie subculture of the time, but the difference is that Coke didn’t attempt to put a Coke in the middle of Saigon in order to shoot their commercial.
The piece by Amir follows an escalation, beginning with a TSA encounter, forcing a Muslim woman to remove her hijab from which she produces two Pepsis. This is harmless enough, thus beginning the journey of this piece. The audience is then transported to the Berkely campus during Occupation protests, when police forces brutally pepper sprayed peaceful sit-in protesters, and replaces the pepper spray with cans of Pepsi. The piece then recalls various violent authoritarian actions against minorities, such as Trayvon Martin and the Standing Rock protests, interspersed with fantastic images of cans made out of spent bullet casings and the phrase “blue cans matter.” The descriptions aren’t limited domestic acts, but also mentions Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of barrel bombs and chemicals against citizen of his own country, with a large amount of casualties being children. Other takes include Rachel Dolezal, Billy Bush and Trump, and various other episodes of an oppressive hegemony exerting force against the disenfranchised. A twist is thrown in when Amir delivers the line “Tamir Rice is just playing in the park with a can of Coke,” as though there is no redemption in this travesty, no matter how much product placement there is, or perhaps implying Rice’s death can be attributed to a lack of brand loyalty.*
All of these takes culminate in a deeply personal moment for Amir. The last take is of Amir being pulled over in his home town of College Station, Texas, for the ninth time. The performance here becomes stilted as Amir seems to choke up with emotion, and why shouldn’t he be? His home town, College Station, a small town (from what I recall) based around a college, is close knit and comfortable. This is the place where he is supposed to feel safe and secure. That is the definition of home. And yet, here he is, pulled over for the ninth time. In a small town, you’d expect that the police force would know you pretty well after the third or fourth time, but clearly there is something else going on. The scenario that plays out in the piece is all too common, and has become a common fear for oppressed minorities across the United States.
At the end, Amir asks the rhetorical question: do you see it, the definition of appropriation, the ability to take and take and take everything and nothing at the same time? The “everything” that the police person is taking is Amir’s life. The “nothing” that the police officer takes is responsibility. At the same time, this rhetorical question is also addressing the (usually) white question of “what is the big deal with the Pepsi commercial,” and, further, “what is the big deal with wearing symbols of another’s culture?” Finally, as Amir points out, it has come to this, you have appropriated everything, and now Pepsi wants to appropriate the struggle and oppression of disenfranchised minorities in order to sell products.
This piece takes several risks. In an artform that has grown increasingly didactic, Amir leads us through a series of scenes, adeptly presenting images and showing the audience rather than browbeating the audience. Though brief, these scenes are vivid, particularly as many of the scenes he illustrates are still fresh in the collective consciousness, so he lets the Kairos do all of the work. He doesn’t have to spend any time illustrating how Billy Bush and Donald Trump gossiped in the back of a TMZ van and talked about grabbing women by the pussies. Most audience members have scene the footage of many of these scenes on repeat, and can recall many of the moments he talks about.
The adherence to the Kairos, though, might be the greatest risk of this piece. While the piece is poignant in its current moment, each of the scenes he describes grows increasingly dusty in the back of the minds of audiences, particularly as new injustices are inflicted daily. Of course, he could continue this piece ad infinitum with each new injustice, though the premise of the piece, the infamous Pepsi commercial in which Kendall Jenner ends a standoff by offering a can of Pepsi to the police, becomes older, and may one day meet an audience that no longer recalls the commercial. Certainly, aging is a risk of every piece, but I believe in this moment and for this piece, it’s a risk well-taken.
*Upon talking with Amir Safi about this piece, he clarified that Tamir Rice is holding a Coke because Coke is fake Pepsi and Rice was holding a fake gun.
(Note: Amir Safi is a founder/co-founder of Write About Now, a spoken word organization out of Texas, which has a spoken word review of its own: http://www.writeaboutnowpoetry.com/)