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L.A. Poet Spotlight: How Shihan Van Clief Made His Mark on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]hihan Van Clief is best known for his debut performance on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, This Type Love, in 2002. Since then, he has appeared seven times within the show’s six seasons! The series featured performances by actors, musicians, and poets including the Last Poets, Dave Chappelle, Patricia Smith, Erykah Badu, Saul Williams, Nikki Giovanni, Lauryn Hill, and, DMX!

Before Youtube, Def Poetry existed as the only platform for poets. Shihan specifically avoided a sad or angry approach in his poems to avoid the negative stereotypes of black men in the media. Instead, he utilized humor to focus on the positive aspects of his life such as fatherhood, marriage, and love. Shihan says, “I know how the media is. Why would I want to talk about what is fucked up in my life?”

Shihan was raised by his father, Ron Van Clief, in the Lower East Side of New York City. The elder Van Clief sent his son to Puerto Rico every summer, so he could understand the importance of where he came from. This gave Shihan a clearer sense of identity, which over time made it easier to speak from a place of comfort in his poems. “I’m black and Puerto Rican. I’m not confused about who I am, but I also know how I am viewed,” he says.

In the 7th grade he was exposed to poetry through his Language Arts teacher, Ed DePasquale. Shihan recognized the significance behind each poet’s story, especially since he knew many people who did not comprehend the value of their own voice.

A fresh start occured for Shihan in 1990, when he left New York City for Los Angeles and moved in with his mother, Milagros. He attended West Torrance High School until he graduated in 1992.

In the mid 90’s, Shihan met Dante Basco, Devin Smith (Poetri), and Gimel Hooper (DJ Brutha Gimel). Shihan and his friends knew they wanted to pursue a career as poets, although the idea seemed far-fetched at the time. By 1998, Shihan, Dante, Poetri, and Gimel became founders of Da Poetry Lounge (DPL), the largest and longest running open mic in the United States.

Poets such as Buddy Wakefield, Rachel McKibbens, Taalam Acey, Jaha Zainabu, Rives, and Javon Johnson are just some of the legends to grace DPL’s stage during its early years, who also continue making strides in and outside of poetry today.

Other celebrities who have also attended DPL or performed on its stage include Ed Sheeran, Prince, Shaquille O’Neal, Max Greenfield, Omari Hardwick, Meagan Good, and Angela Bassett. Shihan says, “It’s kind of fucking crazy. We’ve done a lot of shit for poetry. At the time you don’t realize it because you’re just having fun doing it.”

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]y 2002, Shihan featured for Russell Simmons’s HBO series, Def Poetry Jam. Shihan naturally stood out by performing poems with a variety of subjects every, single time. Topics about falling in love, being a good father, and husband were reflections of the positivity in his life. “I wanted to speak on being a father without having to say I’m a black father. People understand what a father is, more than they understand what being a black father is,” he says.

Forgiveness is what Shihan believes we forget to include in today’s society. He has learned over time that not all issues are black and white, which is a newfound perspective he incorporates in his writing.

For example, Shihan’s poem, Seuss Theory (Building Blocks), describes the people he encounters as a Creative Writing teacher in Phoenix High School who also deserve a second chance. Since 2016, Shihan has helped at-risk students formulate, write, and craft poems over the course of fifteen weeks. He also teaches the students code-switching, where they must learn the difference between speaking in front of friends, parole officers, judges, etc.

Giving back continues with Shihan as he is increasingly involved with Puerto Rico’s hurricane aftermath. He explains he did not realize Puerto Rico’s severity until he visited the island. “There’s a difference between living it, experiencing it, and knowing about it,” Shihan says.

About six-hundred pounds of supplies were gathered by Shihan and his wife, Elsie, for family and friends living in his hometown, Puntas, Rincon. His next goal is to buy property before investors get a hold of desperate families, in an attempt to purchase land below market value for future vacation homes.

Nowadays Shihan says he is writing for an upcoming television series, Speak Life. The show will be about four friends who are figuring out how to be men, although they do not have male figures to guide them. It is expected for release in January 2019.

You can also find Shihan hosting at Da Poetry Lounge (DPL) every Tuesday at 9PM in the Greenway Court Theatre. For more information, visit Shihan’s website:

2,000 something years ago there were no cellphones, no 24 hour news channels, no social media, it was all word of mouth and I was too forgiving, considered a threat to the powers that be, crucified by state police, they called me Jesus

1400 years ago I was undeserving of such things, king or queen or stolen legacy, tongue removed, not ready for war, had to be pillaged, then, removed from the history books they called me Africa

400 years ago I was government funded, colonized and civilized for the new world, they called me cargo

200 years ago I was in a field cotton picking, disciplined for asking, disciplined for dancing, disciplined for reading, disciplined on bad days, disciplined on good days, disciplined to keep subordinate I built the White House I couldn't live in they called me slave

130 years ago I was ready for war but, not ready for freedom, still not saved, not really human, 3/5th of a person they called me nigger

70 years ago I was 14, sitting on a stack of books electrocuted for a crime with no witness they called me the youngest person executed in the United States in the past 100 years

60 years ago I was minding my own business, walking down the street enjoying my day, admiring the beauty, thinking out loud, whistling in the wrong direction, scooped up, beaten, eye gouged, shot in the face, barb wire tied to a cotton gin fan and threw me in a river, covered up by police, but, mom choose open casket to remind you of the evil that exists they called me civil rights kick starter

50 years ago I was civil rights worker, registering voters, arrested on trumped charges, released in the dark to the Klan, I didn't make it home they call me traitor

40 years ago I was student body protesting the Cambodian Campaign, I was idealistic, didn't think it could happen to me til the National guard was brought in...they fired 67 rounds at us over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom still paralyzed...they called us troublemakers.

30 years ago...I was cointelpro target, crack consumer, turned commodity for the prison system...I was beaten into a coma where I lied in a hospital for 13 days before dying...they call me happenstance

20 years ago I was 66 years old My social security wasn't cutting it, I'm $394.60 behind on rent when police thought 2 shots from a 12 gage shotgun would make me move sooner someone called me Grandma

17 years ago I was mistaken for a broom closet, NYPD sodomized my with a plunger they said I wasn't listening right

11 years ago I was sleeping when officer liles woke me up by fracturing my skull after not appearing at my probation hearing I was 13, 3 years later the same cop shoots me through the heart They call me repeat probation violator

9 Years ago, Question: if someone drags you through the woods chained by the neck and no ones sees it did it really happen? 5 years ago I was unarmed and handcuffed stomach to the platform when he shoots in the back they say whoopsy my bad

2 years ago I was victim of the neighborhood watch, I was chased into my home and gunned down in front of my grandmother and younger brother...they call me déjà vu

1 year ago I was in the wrong car, wrong color, wrong time, but, still right place delivering newspapers when cops mistook sounds of the papers hitting the concrete with gunshots...8 cops shoot 103 times hitting 71 year old me and and just missing my daughter...they say settlement should mean forgiven

A few months ago I was headphones, hands up, head down, music too loud, should've known better they call me threat

A couple of weeks ago, I was shot in the back 6 times by officers who claimed I lunged towards them with a samurai sword they say contracting cellphone footage doesn't tell the entire story.

Last night, it was dark out, and I was streetlight and cellphone looked a little too comfortable, hands up, yes sir, back turned, I was too big, looked too much like a target or too small could slip through the cracks, too dark, just right, light skinned, wrong neighborhood, wrong neighbor, the right target, a little too close, looked like a suspect, didn't look like I belonged, almost out of sight, perp, suspect, nigger, incapacitated, drugged, high out of my mind, they say I was running towards but, I guess that looks the same as running away, I could've been protecting myself, but, I appeared aggressive, threatening, on my cellphone, or a wallet, could've been a gun, maybe some flowers, maybe I reminded them of transatlantic cargo, holocaust, state legislated, subsidized by the fed, privatized for profit, mistake, misguided,

asking for it, disturbing the peace, 3/5, nigger, right?

I guess they heard the story too many times, desensitized to the plight, just another problem, inhuman, too potent, too black, too strong, covered up, planted on, displaced, jail fodder, runaway slave, absent father, abusive husband, lost cause, asked for it, didn't answer fast enough, voiceless, didn't speak English, didn't remember my place, played my music too loud, had questionable profile pics, my speech pattern was consistent with criminal, the reason I needed to be handcuffed behind my back of a squad car, didn't know why I shot myself in the chest, I must've forgot I was quadruple jointed, I was magician, I was David Blaine I was all smokes and mirrors, not really human, uh, part of my spirit never learned my lesson, I should just killed myself or maybe I did by being all this black and Latino in one place, at the wrong time, in the wrong world, it's always the wrong time to be color or conscious or fraction or insignificant or just walking

I realized no one cared about me when I was no longer worthy of a Facebook status, or a trending hashtag on twitter, forgot about when the new iPhone was announced or when the Super Bowl happened, reblogged because the cinnamon challenge was more fun to watch or KONY 2012 or the Galaxy 9 or the murder wasn't on worldstar or my execution had a green screen or the Ukraine invasion or some planes disappearing over the ocean somewhere or my face didn't look good on a t shirt or my death wasn't fashion friendly enough, I'm starting to sound like a run on sentence or a runaway slave, history repeating itself, deserved life, but, got death instead can't understand why Im always tripping or why I gotta take my life so serious


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