Sex sells, even to black people on the poetry circuit — a notion poet Ainsley Burrows knew in his heart to be true and ended up going against the grain by making a bold visionary move.
In 2006, the Kingston, Jamaica native founded the one-of-a-kind burlesque troupe, The Sweet Spot, which focuses solely on celebrating black sexuality through its popular Afrocentric events — playing to sold out crowds at various venues across the country.
"[It] started out as kind of a dare," Burrows told NBC News. "I was on a train in England with a friend and we were talking about how closed the poetry community was about sexuality. One would think that artists are the most sexually liberal group of people, but they are not. It is a difficult thing to conceptualize but they are not."
Upon the release of "Climax," his 2003 album of all erotic and love poems, the Brooklyn-bred odist said he faced scrutiny from his "more politically leaning peers," who called him a sellout and other derogatory terms for "not doing the difficult work of challenging the system with political tomes."
"It was pretty weird," he said. "I didn't understand how a group of artists as progressive [as they are] were so closed to sexuality. I mean, they were definitely having sex, but for some reason it was not meant to be written about or celebrated in public."
Burrows, who has been featured on BET's "Lyric Café" and TV One's "Verses & Flow" continued, "Being who I am, I set out to change people's perceptions and appreciation of the erotic arts. I told the friend I was traveling with that I would start doing an event that was all erotica. He said, 'No one would come to an event like that. People only do erotic events for Valentine's Day.' My response was, 'Watch!'"
Described as a "high energy, pop erotica stage production," The Sweet Spot has morphed from a small idea to a national treasure — of guilty pleasure. Through the power of grassroots marketing, using creative resources, and producing compelling content, the quarterly events have grown from performing in four to over 30 cities within its first five years.
Performing in each city every three months, Burrows said his audiences range from 300 to 1600 people, depending on the venue.
"I think that black people [have been] in the closet sexually — because of the history of this country and the history of the Western World — and we are very cautious about how we express ourselves sexually and tend to live around the edges of all things sexual," he said. "A lot of this, I think is based on a legitimate fear of being viewed as hypersexual or being exploited and marginalized by the larger society."
"But with that said, I think there is a new sexual revolution brewing, especially among black people that is about to set us free from many of the taboos around sex and sexuality," the former Guinness beer spokesman continued. "And the work we do at The Sweet Spot is meant to be a catalyst to that change."
Designed as a variety show, the theater style setting of The Sweet Spot has featured live body painting, erotic poetry, sexual comedy, live music, and burlesque performances.
"People are sometimes confused about why we call our show a burlesque show," Burrows said. "The fact is that burlesque shows in the United States were originally shows that included a variety of acts — all delivered in a satiric, tongue-in-cheek style. That is exactly what we do! We just brought burlesque shows back in a contemporary form - without the outdated big band or jazz sound. We are trying to connect with people who are alive today not people who were alive in the 1920s."
Serving as a sort of ringmaster, Burrows has become an affable and well-dressed crowd pleaser with his provocative prose and thick Jamaican accent. His co-host, comedian Sabrina Gilbert, revs up the crowd from a female perspective with naughty jokes and breakout dance routines to music from the Dirty South played by a live DJ.
"Sometimes we say it is an erotic circus, but it is also a place for grown folks to enjoy the arts outside of the usual settings," Burrows said. "Sexy does not have to be slow and calculated, it can also be fun and liberating! With that said our overarching goal is to give our audiences an experience they can't get any other place in the world."