‘He makes language live.’ – Amiri Baraka
‘When the words do hit us, they hit us, seriously, and profoundly.’ – Umar Bin Hassan
‘Liberia needs and deserves guys like you.’ – Fan
‘Yes, e.g., yes…please continue to write for our souls.’ – Fan
For some time now, Minnesota has been a refuge for immigrant communities displaced from their homes due to a variety of circumstances. One of these communities is the Liberian community, which grew rapidly in the aftermath of a series of civil wars that ravished their country. However the story of Liberians in Minnesota does not begin with these civil wars but stretches back more than 50 years.
In this radio documentary, we look at this history, along with the growth and development of the community. In a series of conversations with a wide-range of Liberians in Minnesota including Wynfred Russell, Abdullai Kiatamba, Piso Tarr, Yeamah Brewer, Mameneh George, Charles Dennis and others, in addition to other prominent figures in the community including State Representative Keith Ellison, professor of history Peter Rachleff and theatre director Wendy Knox, this programs provides an overview of where the Liberian community in Minnesota stands today, the contributions it has made to the state and what the future holds.
The documentary is produced by Liberian-American artist e.g. bailey, and his partner Sha Cage. The three-part documentary will air on KFAI Fresh Air Radio (90.3fm Minneapolis/106.7fm St. Paul) on February 16th, 21st and 23rd at 7:30pm. It can also be streamed online at wwww.kfai.org.
Late Nite season is here again. Those that don’t know, the Late Nite Series was created by Laurie Carlos as an experimental stage for artists to share everything from fine-tuned work to works in development, from solo musings to full band sets. I co-curate the Series with her each year. The great thing about the Late Nite Series is that it’s such a unique blend of disciplines, all in one evening. You don’t always know what you’re gonna get at Late Nite, which is part of the excitement, but you can be assured that it will be a one-of-a-kind show by some of the best artists in their field, both in terms of the headliners and the Twin Cities artists. There is singer, gina Breedlove, who has shared the stage with Harry Belafonte, and was in the Broadway production of the Lion King. Ainsley Burrows is one of the best spoken word artists working with music today, and has appeared on BET, performed for MTV, opened for artists such as Toots + the Maytals, Capleton, Third World, in addition to traveling internationally. Stacey Karen Robinson is creating a buzz in the theatre scene in NY, both as a playwright and an actress, and is the recipient of a BRIO Award in Playwriting. You won’t get a headlining series like that anywhere else in the Twin Cities. To top it off, these New York based artists are paired with Twin Cities artists that put on great shows in and of themselves, including premier hip hop and spoken word artist, Truthmaze; singer songwriter Ashley Gold; vocal and theatre experimentalist Mankwe Ndosi; actress and playwright Signe Harriday; Hmong hip hop dance crew Floor Tribe; performance artist Amy Salloway; choreographer Julie Warder; theatre artist Anton Jones; videomaker and performance artist Juma B. Essie; and singer Love Nyala. This is just to name some of the artists appearing in the series. The performances are rounded out by DJs Stage One and DJO.
We would like to introduce you to spoken word artist, E.G. Bailey. He is a dynamic performer and an icon of spoken word in Minnesota as an innovator and founder of numerous organizations and projects that have helped to bring the spoken word community in Minnesota to the forefront. Reporter Dwight Hobbes states, ‘The scene has not been host to a stronger performing poet,’ and Amiri Baraka says, ‘He makes language live.’ He has received a number of awards including the Urban Griots Award for ‘Outstanding Contributions’ to the spoken word art form.
ODM: You speak heavily on the “American African” and the struggle of identifying with African roots while growing up as an American. Why do you think it is a challenge for members of the African Diaspora and Africans who are raised in America to identify with they’re African roots?
E.G. Bailey: Part of the reason that I made the album was to show that there are two communities and two realities for Afrikans in America. The typical understanding has been that Black people, regardless of whether they were from Afrika, or Haiti, or the United States, were generalized as African American. There was a time when the number of Afrikans were not significant enough to be thought of as a ‘separate’ community. The general belief was that they were just here temporarily, for school, for asylum or just visiting, and they would be returning to their country soon. However, events in the 80s and 90s have caused large migrations of Afrikans into the States. These young Afrikans, and the children of Afrikans, that came to the U.S. during that time, are coming of age and coming into their own. They are part of a much larger community now. So it is not so much that it is a challenge identifying with their roots, but it has been a challenge to be accepted. This generation of Afrikans, we love our roots; we celebrate it as much as possible. We know we are as brilliant, as beautiful and as strong as anybody else. What’s troubling is that those around us don’t always see that beauty. What’s troubling is the persistent negative images in the media. It still seems that no matter far we have come as Afrikans, the litany of suffering still burdens Afrika. Because of this, what is most pervasive in the minds of Americans, towards Afrika and Afrikans, is civil wars and famine and poverty and aids. It’s not to deny these exist on the continent but if those are the only images you see, that is all you know. I try to tell people how cosmopolitan, how advance, Afrika is. The first time I drove into Abidjan, I was struck by how much it reminded me of driving into Chicago. Johannesburg is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, and the lushness of parts of Dar es Salaam would shock you. This all has to be balanced with the poverty and struggle of many living in these areas, but what population doesn’t. Look at the U.S. today. Look at Europe. The more positive images of Afrika that we can put out in the world the better. That is why it’s great to see the recent resurgence, and success, of Afrikan artists, such as K’Naan, Akon, Nneka and others; the revival of Fela; or to see the World Cup in South Africa. Hopefully some of this will contribute to burying the image of the ‘dark continent’ forever.
ODM: Amongst many other things you are a poet and a musician, what inspired you to transform your poetry into a form of music and which musicians are you most inspired by?
E.G.: As a child in Liberia, I hung out in the one record store in our village. They played all kinds of African artists but the most popular was Prince Nico Mbarga. His biggest hit was ‘Sweet Mother’, which still gives me chills to this day. When I came to the States, I fell in love with my father’s record collection. I listened to everything I could, from Mississippi John Hurt to the Persuasions to the Beatles to his compilations of early rock and roll songs, with Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, you name it. My parents also listened heavily to folk, country, and bluegrass–Emmylou Harris, Claudia Schmitt, Hoyt Axton, Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels, John Prine, Steve Goodman. I would spend hours making mixtapes, on cassettes. We would travel during the summers, going to different festivals, even going to the Grand Ole Opry, and Dollyworld. My father and I would pool our money and buy albums together, like Dylan’s Biograph box set or Beatle’s White Album. I think he did it more to support my interest than his interest in the music. And of course, there was 80s radio. I was also heavy into new wave–New Order, Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Public Image Limited, Sugarcubes (with Bjork)–also U2, Ministry, The Police, Talking Heads, early Nine Inch Nails. When CDs first came out, my first purchase was Boomtown Rats and New Edition. My family would also send me cassettes of African music from back home. So I was exposed to everything.
I’ve had a few musical life changing experiences. One would be the first time I heard Prince. This was the 1999 album. I had to have everything he released, all the albums, the singles, the b-sides, everything. And then there was Purple Rain. But Prince didn’t inspire me to create poetry with music. I just thought that he was incredibly talented, and he helped me through my first major breakup. Most likely what first inspired me to set poetry to music was Jim Morrison. I happened upon a copy of Jim Morrison’s biography, No One Gets Out of Here Alive, and read it in one night. I then proceeded to get everything that Morrison, and the Doors, put out. This is when I first discovered Morrison’s poetic escapades. I had never heard of spoken word; I didn’t know such a thing existed. I didn’t even know that you could set poetry to music as a different concept than just lyrics to a song. When I heard ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ or ‘Horse Latitudes’ or ‘Texas Radio & the Big Beat’, I remember thinking I’d like to do that one day, combine my poems with music. It’s interesting, it wasn’t about writing songs, having a band, so on. It was very specifically combining my ‘poems’ with music. I wasn’t sure how this was going to happen, since I wasn’t brave enough to perform my poems at the time. The next significant event was college, more specifically, discovering jazz, The Last Poets, Nina Simone and hip hop at college. I had listened to jazz and hip hop in high school. Run DMC came out when I was still in high school and you couldn’t escape ‘Walk This Way’. There was early Kurtis Blow, LL and Fresh Prince, also MTV had just started. But it was mostly just casual listening. College was when I started to really immerse myself in jazz and hip hop, with Coltrane being my favorite, along with Eric B + Rakim, Tribe, Public Enemy and most of all De La. A teacher played a Nina track in class and I instantly feel in love. But what sealed the deal was a compilation tape a friend had made of the Last Poets. I listened to it constantly for the better part of a year. I still wasn’t performing at the time, but it heavily influenced and inspired me, and made the idea of performance poetry more real.
ODM: You left your home country of Liberia at age 10. What would you say is the biggest difference between the two countries?
E.G.: The most obvious answer is opportunity. I grew up in Saclepea, a village in the northern region of Liberia. We had unpaved roads, no running water, and those that could afford it used generators for electricity, otherwise it was kerosene lamps. But it’s like Nikki Giovanni says in her poem, ‘Nikki-rosa’, ‘though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that concerns you…only that everybody is together’ and ‘all the while I was quite happy’. To this day I still have a certain nostalgia for kerosene lamps, and I find rain falling on zinc roofs to be one of the most beautiful and soothing sounds in the world. But I was looking for my father, and I knew my father was American, and that I wanted to come to America to find him. At that time, we saw America as the Promise Land. If we could only reach it, all our problems would be solved; we would never want for money or food, whatever we desired. My first day in the States, my family attended a parade. In my naiveté, I thought the parade was for me; and when they started throwing money and candy from the floats, the prophecy of the Promise Land seemed to have come true. But eventually reality sets in and you learn that people throwing money at you from parade floats is as much of a fantasy for Americans as it is for Afrikans.
I was fortunate because after coming to the U.S., I grew up in a middle class environment, and came from a family of teachers. I benefited from a strong educational background, and was able to attend one of the best colleges in the country. This was a sharp contrast to what my family was enduring back home because shortly after I arrived in the States, there was a coup in Liberia, followed by a civil war. I helped as I could, especially after graduating from college, sending as much money as I could to help support my family. I often had difficulty fully enjoying life in America. It’s jarring to be speaking with your mother on the phone, while hearing bombing in the background; or to learn that you have to bail her out of an Ivorian jail; or rescue your brother who has been abducted to be a child soldier. It’s almost impossible to feel that you’re doing enough. Even though I don’t have a lot, I’ve carried my share of guilt for what do I have and the opportunities I have had here. In light of all this though, what has struck me, when I have been able to return home, is the open-hearted love of life. There is also an abiding faith to persevere. They may not have much and the years have been difficult but there is still so much love and laughter, a willingness to soak in life, to celebrate and welcome you in. The pace of life helps you to appreciate this. In comparison, America looks like a colony of ants.
ODM: You begin one of your poems with the words “blue black beautiful are we.” Today in the media sphere being dark and having African features aren’t typically connected with being beautiful. Why do you think the standards of beauty in the media are based on more European features?
E.G.: If you control the media you have the power to control the message and to set the rules. The politics of power and propaganda are intertwined. To maintain a hierarchy, even if the truth of that hierarchy is a facade, it’s important that your standards become the norm or the celebrated. So that is what’s perpetuated, even though we know that beauty is a highly subjective, and perhaps an unclassifiable thing.
We as a people, as individuals, have to move beyond this. We have let this be used against us too long. First you have to realize that your standard of beauty does not rest in anyone’s hands but your own. You must know that YOU are beautiful, and exude that beauty in every way possible. That’s not always easy when you are constantly bombarded with images that counter that. But that’s why we also have to control what medium we can. It’s now cliched to say that you have to ‘become the media’, but there’s a lot of power in that. That’s one of the things I like about social networking and how the internet has opened up avenues for everyone. With Myspace, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., you have the ability, if you want, to become your own media. You can become the medium for what you want to broadcast to the world. You may only touch and influence a few hundred to a few thousand people, but you are still affecting them, for better or worse.
That line, ‘blue black and beautiful are we’, relates to the Diaspora, and Afrikans of all shades and backgrounds all over the planet but it also relates to the energy of the Black Power movement of the 60s when we took pride in our blackness and our beauty. I loved getting darker in the summer. I loved letting my hair grow into an afro, or shaving it and wearing a porkpie hat. That’s what we have to do, love all versions of ourselves. I once wrote, ‘i have learned to love/my self/my own nakedness/looking for the history/in my hands/the stories my scars will tell/real & imagined//i love the color/of my soul/which i call dusk/and long to paint it/on your body/with my tongue.’
ODM: What do you want people to take from work? What message do you want them to receive?
E.G.: First I would like them to enjoy the work. Too often people stay away from spoken word because they think it’s too serious, too boring, too depressing, or it has no music, or the music is outdated. This album is not like that. It’s not pop commercial mainstream music but it’s not dry or boring or outdated. It has great music that fuses all kinds of different styles and genres, and pays tribute to our amazing musical tradition, including the different styles of spoken word throughout history. I wanted to create something that hip hop heads, funksters, jazz cats, Afrikan musicologists, techno lovers and those that appreciate a cappella spoken word could all enjoy. And to have a greater appreciation for spoken word. In addition, I wanted them to walk away with a better understanding of where Afrikans living in America are today, their legacy and aspirations. Also that it is possible to live in America and still hold Afrika in your soul, your heart, your everyday thinking and living.
E.G.: I don’t have one favorite form; I love certain aspects of the different forms. I love directing films, and the rehearsal process of theatre, as an actor and a director. I love screenwriting more than playwriting, but with both of these I prefer to do adaptations. I could spend all day in the recording studio, whether I’m recording or someone else is. Conceptualizing and creating music is a big high. I enjoy doing radio but mostly because I love sharing music with people. I also enjoy creating radio pieces or documentaries but don’t do it often. I’ve worked through my nerves enough to get to the place of liking live performance, especially if it’s with a band. But I’ve always said that film is my final destination. One of my favorite filmmakers is Orson Welles. He took his experiences from all these different mediums and brought them to film. That is what I like to be able to do, draw on all these experiences and bring it to film.
ODM: You have received recognition for your phenomenal work in the form of awards and recognition from other artist in your field. How did you react when the famous poet Nikki Giovanni praised your work?
E.G.: I couldn’t believe it actually. It was a feeling of accomplishment. Not accomplishment in the sense of achieving anything. But there are writers that have inspired you and sustained you since you were young. You learned not only how to write from them, but how to live, how to love your history and yourself, how to more clearly see the world. There a few writers like this for me, and Nikki was one of them. Another was Amiri Baraka, who I call the Godfather of Spoken Word. Studying Nikki, Sonia, Amiri, Larry Neal, Haki and others in college opened my eyes to new ways of writing. Actually it taught me not to be afraid to write in my own way, whatever that is. Because I couldn’t speak English when I first came to the States, I carried a lot of insecurities as a writer, and always felt like I had a late start compared to my peers. Learning how they took ownership of their own voice and their own language, and freed themselves from what was considered proper English and proper poetry, gave me faith and freedom to continue my own path with my writing. The track on the album, ‘Blues People’ is actually dedicated to ‘amiri, nikki, sonia and dem’, and is a tribute to their efforts to reclaim Black poetry and celebrate the Black Vernacular. I’ve had a copy of ‘Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment‘, and also of ‘Gemini‘, for as long as I can remember. ‘Truth Is On Its Way‘ is one of the best spoken word albums ever recorded. We used to perform her poems ‘Ego Tripping’ and ‘Genie in a Jar’ as part of the spoken word band, Arkology. So for her to find value in my work, and to take the time to send a postcard, it was truly an honor.
ODM: Some may argue that poetry combined with music is simply the creation of rap music. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
E.G.: This is a misunderstanding we have to correct all the time. I tell my students that even though most people assume that spoken word came about because of hip hop, and that spoken word is just hip hop without a beat, the truth is that spoken word helped to give birth to hip hop. I try to teach them that the Last Poets had already laid the foundation and released the blueprint well before the release of what’s considered the first hip hop track in 1979. One listen to ‘E Pluribus Unum’, which was released in 1972, and you can hear that the form is already in place. If it was recorded in 1972, it was created sometime before then. This would be before what is considered the birth of hip hop–summer of ’73 at the Kool Herc party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. I try to explain it this way. The Last Poets had the highest selling poetry based album of all time with their first album, over one million copies. A spoken word album, selling over one million copies; so you can understand its significance and impact. This means that it’s in households all over the country. Gil Scott Heron also releases ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox‘ the same year. So, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is also playing in households across the country. That means that the young people, that would later come into their own and help to create hip hop, are hearing all this. Every generation takes what they receive from the previous generation and transform it into their own. They would take these influences, and add them to the numerous other influences and elements, to eventually create what became known as hip hop. That’s why the Last Poets can legitimately be called the ‘the godfathers of rap’.
For me, hip hop is the lyrical evolution of spoken word. However, spoken word had been in existence long before, and was often married with music. It was married with jazz in the 40s and 50s; it was married with funk in the 70s; Nikki married it with gospel for ‘Truth Is On Its Way‘; I’ve combined it with folk music. Spoken word with music goes beyond simply being the creation of a bastardized form of rap music. Which is part of why I love it. The freedom of it allows it to be almost anything; it’s not trapped in a single form or genre.
ODM: How did you start writing poetry? Did you always know that this was the path you wanted your life to take?
E.G.: I first started writing poetry out of isolation. I was a fly in the buttermilk where I grew up. I didn’t speak the language. When I started school, I was years behind my peers. Making friends was a challenge. There were many days I felt like an outcast. One day I wrote a short poem on friendship, and it released all the pain and frustration that I was feeling. From then on, poetry became a refuge. I had no plans for it become my vocation. It was just a place I felt free and safe, without judgment. My plans were actually to study photography, as a means to becoming a filmmaker. Most of my time in college was spent as a photographer, and working as a photo editor for the student newspaper. Once I graduated, I decided I wanted to be an artist rather than work in a corporate job, so I ran a house painting business for the summer, took the money I earned and moved to Fargo with a girlfriend. I put a desk in the laundry room of the apartment and started writing, and acting in the local theatre. I had no specific goals of becoming a poet or a writer, but I knew I wanted to be an artist, however that came to be.
ODM: Which track on your album “American Afrikan” is your favorite and why?
E.G.: This is difficult because I like all of them for different reasons. But if I had to choose I would highlight two of them. One is ‘American Afrikan’ because it was one of the genesis of the album, it inspired the concept of creating an Afrobeat style spoken word track. There was a time I worked in Madison while living in Minneapolis, which is a 4-5 hour drive. I would have to travel back and forth several times a month. On these trips I would listen to Fela continuously, and practice my spoken word over his long instrumental breaks. It surprised me that no one had made any Afrobeat spoken word tracks because it seemed to be such a great fit. As I drove I would think of who I would love to collaborate with in the group, what kind of pieces we’d create, so on. The Afrika 7 version of ‘American Afrikan’ is that group come to life. I’m very happy that the track, and the remix, represents Afrikan artists in the Twin Cities. The second would be the ‘Oracles of Equiano’ remix by Starskie. I knew I wanted him to do a remix but what he sent, and how he changed it from what I sent him was so unexpected and brilliant at the same time. You don’t hear very many spoken word house tracks, so I was glad to be able to include it on the album. I like to push the boundaries of what people expect spoken word to be, that way we can widen the field of what can be created in the art form.
E.G.: I was asked by a friend to write a few pieces for a jazz album he was creating called ‘Polidix’, and ‘America’ came out of that collaboration. There is a tradition of ‘America’ poems, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg to Claude McKay. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write something worthy of that tradition. I’ve always love Ginsberg’s ‘America’ poem so it was somewhat of a tribute to that poem. At the time, Ginsberg was addressing the Cold War, anarchist movements, labor struggles, nuclear war, among other issues. I wanted to look at where we were in post-9/11 America, which seemed to be dealing with a lot of the same issues but under different guises. Since 9/11 everything seems to have gone into a deeper tailspin than it normally is, with the war on terror, the Iraq war, Guantanamo, Katrina, the economic crisis, the health care debate, you name it. I wanted to address all of this but also the history of the country, what it was supposed to stand for and whether it was living up to these ideals it continues to espouse. The world had changed so much since 9/11 that even the 80s felt quaint and nostalgic.
This was written a few years after the deflating loss of the 2004 elections, so it was written with some hope looking towards the 2008 elections. That is why leading up to the elections, I made postcards of the poem with a placard on the back encouraging people to vote. We needed and still need a change. The ‘resurrection’ has not happened yet, and we have to continue to work and fight for that change.
ODM: History is a trending topic on the “American Afrikan” album what is the significance and importance of history in the message you are trying to send?”
History is vital to all people, but perhaps most vital to our people because so often that history has been lost, stolen, erased or buried. So we are in constant search to reclaim our story and place it in the proper context. My goal with the album was to trace the arch, the journey, of Afrikans in America, so it had to have a historical impetus. I wanted to cover various landmarks and signposts in our history, even if only symbolically. So that the listener could see how far we have come, how we have persevered and how much we have created in the process. This has been, in many ways, the case with my own journey. I knew about Afrika experientially as a child, but I didn’t know the history, same with America. I came to a new and strange land; I had to study, to learn about where I found myself, how it functioned, how my people survived, so that I could learn how to survive because I needed to survive. I also made the album with my son in mind. I wanted him to be able to listen to it one day and understand where he comes from, both Afrika and America, with all its beauty and flaws, and to be stronger for it. However, a quote from John Henrik Clarke probably says it best, ‘History is a clock people use to tell their historical culture and political time of the day. It’s a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. The history tells them where they have been, where they are and what they are. But most importantly history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be.’ This articulates the essence of why I needed to create the album, both for myself and for my community.
ODM: How have you used your success to give back to your home country?
I think the best way that I can give back to my home at this time is to tell our story. Even though people may know about Liberia, it is a very narrow understanding. There is very little known about the native Liberians. They may know that Liberia was settled by freed slaves from America, or about the civil wars or Charles Taylor. Most people don’t understand the complexity of these facts; what it meant for the native Liberians to have the freed slaves return home, and how it shifted the course of their history. What were the aspirations of the freed slaves, what did they hope to accomplish? How did all this play into the conflicts that would later arise? That’s what I like about the ‘Liberia’ track because it tells the history from different perspectives, from the native Liberian perspective, the Americo-Liberian perspective and a personal perspective.
In addition, I want to encourage Liberian youth, whether in the Twin Cities or other parts of the U.S., even back home, to become artists. I want them to articulate, and expand our story and our history. Liberia has been overlooked artistically for too long, in music, literature, film, theatre, etc. I would love nothing more than an artistic renaissance of Liberian artists. That’s why I get excited when I learn about artists like Liberian filmmaker Gerald Barclay (Gee-Bee), or playwright Cori Thomas, or writer Helene Cooper, that are not only at the forefront of Liberian art, but also breaking ground in the American artistic arena. That is also why I am creating a Liberian youth showcase, called L.Y.F.E. (Liberian Youth Finding Empowerment) Showcase, so they have opportunities to express their talents and their stories, and foster a new generation of Liberian artists.
E.G. Bailey: American Afrikan
By Peter S. Scholtes, City Pages
With all respect to Alexs Pate’s inspired arguments to the contrary, rap is not poetry, and poetry is not rap. Lyrics function differently when isolated from music, which is why “Surfin’ Bird” is a great lyric and not great poetry. Yet poetry-with-music is an honorable if maligned musical tradition that connects Dada, Langston Hughes (backed by Charles Mingus), the Beats, Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron’s timeless “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” punk rock (Minutemen more than Patti Smith), slam poetry, and inevitably hip hop, wherever beats and rhymes are disconnected in a spoken way. Nobody has more persuasively claimed this vein for an African American oral and protest tradition than E.G. Bailey and his collaborators on 89.9 KMOJ-FM’s Saturday-night staple Urban Griots.
So what’s surprising about Bailey’s debut album isn’t its aural cinema—linking what sounds like a slave ship hull to the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. to field recordings of rapper Idris Goodwin (talking about blackness) and Liberian folk songs—but how great it is as music. Bailey is a reminder that Public Enemy started as radio guys, too: The Liberian-born spoken-word performer makes blindsiding funk his space for meaning, and vice versa. Working with producer Ben Durrant and M.anifest beatsmith Katrah Quey, along with a host of other gifted Twin Cities musicians and singers, Bailey crafts one dope riff after another. He makes his crisply voiced musings (“Black voices save the African man”) and those of guest Ibé Kaba (“a slave is a slave is a slave”) seem at home in the James Brown-like shimmy of the title track—well before M.anifest takes over rapping on the bonus “M.ANIFESTations Mix” (though I actually prefer the full 11-minute poetry version).
In total, Bailey spreads out only seven poems among 16 tracks (plus four alternate mixes), amid sample collage, gospel, and found audio. The results are more like Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reinvented to signify African-ness explicitly, personally, and profoundly than like poetry set to music. But don’t sell the words short. Addressing “Afrika” and America as urgently as any African American before him, Bailey is uncommonly tender: “America, your friends are worried,” he says of the wars he can’t defend. “Am I strong enough to love you with the love you deserve?” he asks an Africa he can only visit. This album is strong enough to give that sentiment the music it deserves.
Originally posted on City Pages on 31 March 2010.
At a time when bombast and personal invective rule the spoken word arena, E.G. Bailey is a poetic voice of traditional and global perspective. His debut CD, American Afrikan, is a concept album fueled by Bailey’s trip nearly a decade ago to visit family and get in touch with his roots in his native Liberia. 3-Minute Egg went to the album’s release party last Saturday at the Bedlam Theater, where Bailey melded sampled video and audio with live music and spoken word.
Originally posted on 3-Minute Egg on 23 February 2010.
He can come on like a freight train. Words are his medium. He will make you laugh. He will make you cry. He will make you think.
His name is E.G. Bailey and his brand-new release “American Afrikan” combines spoken word, poetry and music to explore what it is to be an Afrikan in America today. It doesn’t just skim along the surface in that exploration, it heaves from below like a bulldozer churning up slabs of concrete, tree roots and old asphalt in its quest — Bailey leading the narrative charge.
Using language like John Coltrane used the tenor or soprano saxophone, Bailey — together with friends such as Aimee Bryant, Katrah Quey, Sha Cage, Hipgnosis, D.J.Limbs, plus African poets Ibe Kaba and Sankaradjeki; Dubai jazz ensemble Abstrakt Collision, and Mankwe Ndosi, the singer from Atmosphere — uses bits of pre-recorded sound, field recordings (including Liberian work songs from the Mano Tribe) and jazz. He rails, he whispers, he implores, he exhorts and subtly weaves his spell.
“K Street Blues: The Bailout Plan” sounds like it could have been Sonny Rollins captured on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1952 talking to the skyline with his horn.
“America” is Bailey (with Abstrakt Collision giving an eerie, angular backdrop) holding a mirror up to our own country with all its actions and how they have morphed over time. “America with your varicose veins and Catholic guilt, I fear you and I love you … America, it’s getting harder to defend you.”
Aimee Bryant’s stirring multi-tracked version of “Motherless Child” is a riveting take on this black spiritual.
“Afrikan is the New American” has an almost Prince-like groove smothered in chicken grease.
Bailey is the real deal. He has created spoken word dynamics in film, theater and recordings during his travels through this country as well as England, South Africa, France and Serbia. He is the founder of the MN Spoken Word Association, Tru Ruts Endeavors and the Spoken Word and Hip Hop Institute at the University of Minnesota. He’s been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in the New York Modern Museum of Art.
“American Afrikan” is not just a journey but an adventure that, during February’s Black History Month, explores identity, history, culture and what it means to be black in America today.
The CD release of this wonderful piece of art takes place Saturday evening at the Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis and should not be missed.
E.G. Bailey / “American Afrikan”
Genre: Spoken word/Poetry/Jazz/Hip Hop/Electronica
Label: Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records
Web site: http://www.egbailey.com, myspace.com/egbailey
Produced by: E.G. Bailey and Ben Durant
Upcoming show: Saturday at 9:30 p.m., the CD release party at the Bedlam Theatre, Minneapolis. Cost $5. Ages 18 and older. Includes special guests Guante, Sha Cage, Mankwe Ndosi, Ibe Kaba and more.
John Ziegler has worked in the music industry for the past 35 years as a radio host, interviewer, record producer and professional musician.
Originally posted on Duluth News Tribune blog on 18 February 2010.
I am not going to qualify my review of E.G. Bailey’s American Afrikan with a score. As a white person, I feel like it would be a little disingenuous of me to try and attach a grade to the African American cultural experience. And that is certainly what American Afrikan is – more so than a musical work, spoken word piece, or political polemic. It is an examination of what it means to be black in America today, as well as what it used to mean, what it feels like, and what it could be. That it is made more accessible through rhythms and music makes it no less authentic – music is ingrained in African American history moreso than perhaps any other culture. And if that all sounds a bit serious for you – know that it is also an enjoyable listen on a purely aesthetic level.
Amerikan begins with “Professor Goodwin’s Preface,” a poignant (and also often hilarious) spoken word piece that pokes playfully at the oftentimes confusing semantics of race. From there Bailey dives down through history, unearthing slave chants, blues, jazz, hip hop, the sounds of shackles, and more. Whether he’s singing, reciting poetry, or completely silent, Bailey’s masterful feeling for the power of words (and their absence) is felt throughout. “America” is a weighty poem set to a jazz score by Middle Eastern ensemble Abstrakt Collision. Not one to shy away from controversy, “America” is packed full of lines that cut like knives:
America, which of my sins are original / Do I repent before the cross or the dollar / before the ballot or the bullet / America, I can’t take you home to my mother / she’s afraid you might try to molest her / rape her land / leave her suffering, her children desolate.
It isn’t all quite so severe though – where the record is shadowed by the turbulence of history, it also celebrates life and happiness. The title track is an incredibly long, African rhythm infused, totally danceable banger that features Ibe Kaba and Sankara Djeki (also remixed by local rapper M.anifest as a bonus track). “Motherless Child” is a heartbreakingly beautiful tune sung by Aimee Bryant. To finish things off “Afrikan is the New Amerikan” shuts it down with some feverous instrumental funk.
There is so much history, culture, and experience packed into American Afrikan that to summarize would be to attempt to summarize all of African American experience (no easy task). Just as history means different things to different people, doubtlessly the record will affect listeners in many different ways – and what I tell you about my experience may be worlds away from your own. You will never know until you find out though, so I highly recommend giving American Afrikan a listen. If you dig what you hear, Bailey will be playing a CD release party at the Bedlam Theater on Feb. 20th.
Originally posted on Reviler blog on 9 February 2010.
What does it mean to be an African…an African in America…an American Afrikan? The first solo album by multidisciplinary artist e.g. bailey sheds light on these questions and offers a personal look at a journey that began 400 years ago.
A native of Liberia who has made a life in America, reminds us in his new album titled, “American Afrikan,” that the double consciousness that W. E. B. Du bois discussed many years prior, continues to live on in all of us with hybrid identities. Those from the motherland of Africa who live in America know this challenge all too well.
“This album is a metaphor for the African experience in the U.S. Africans are moving more to the forefront. It’s a different experience than the African American experience. Part of the reason for making the album is to celebrate Africans and African culture in the Twin Cities,” stated e.g.
With tracks like, “American Afrikan” and “Oracles of Equiano,” e.g. deals with multiple perspectives in this project by weaving together an amalgamation of knowledge of “American Afrikan” history.
“I see it as reaching beyond the album. The tracks are woven together to intentionally follow each other. The transitions are important, the title is important…it’s using the vehicle of a recording but it’s intending to be a narrative or a story. It plays with different spaces…it moves fluidly. In some way’s it can be a soundtrack to a film. It’s a development of the African griot tradition. The “Africaness” should not be an after thought,” he stated.
Inspired by the likes of Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka, e.g. likes to challenge traditional art forms and create something new by merging different genres of art into this project. Whether it’s the sound of a needle hitting a record, or the language of Igbo used in a track, everything in this project has a purpose.
“The album is dealing with, where are we today as Africans? How do you pay tribute to Africa even though you are so far away? You have to be true to the story.” This project is a merging of e.g’s experience as an American Afrikan. It started off simple, but became more complex and deeper as he went on, as historical events such as the election of Obama added value to his story.
As life experience between two continents has showed him, “there are many things that can cause you to forget the beauty of where you’re from…it’s just remembering that we are a strong people and we have survived and will continue to survive in the most difficult of places and circumstances. It’s important not to get too lost in the wilderness here. You have to remember your greatness.”
For more information on e.g. bailey and his album release party on Feb. 20th 2010, at the Bedlam Theater at 10pm go to: http://www.myspace.com/egbailey or http://www.egbailey.com. e.g. will also be one of the upcoming featured artist in a future African Global Roots (AGR) event. For more information about AGR, go to: http://www.agrmn.com.
Originally posted on African News Journal on 8 February 2010.
photo by B Fresh Photography
Liberian-American Spoken-Word Artist is Home at Last
Justin Schell , Contributing Writer
His struggle to fit in America is not unlike that of many African immigrants. He attributes his success as an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and producer to this struggle of finding a home away from home.
bailey, who was born in Saclepea, Liberia, is the son of a white Peace Corps volunteer and a Liberian mother. His father, bailey says, “threw a dart, hit Liberia, and that’s where he got stationed.” His mother gave birth to him near the end of his father’s second term; and his parents lost touch after his father’s return to America.
Even as a child he loved music and theater: two memories stand out in particular from his life in Liberia.
“There was a record store and a movie theater,” he says. “I would spend hours in the record store listening to whatever they were playing.”
The owner of the mud-constructed movie theater, however, wasn’t particularly keen on offering free entertainment to they young movie revelers. “We would either sneak into the movie theater or we would drill holes in the side to watch the movie.” After the owner realized this, he would take blindingly-hot Liberian red peppers, soak them in water, and put the mixture in a spray bottle, and spray into the holes to temporarily prevent onlookers from watching the film without paying. “It would be this constant game of trying to outwit [him], as soon as you saw a shadow coming.”
One day, another Peace Corps volunteer came to his village and, after getting to know him, expressed interest in adopting him. Instead it was his father who ended up adopting the 10-year-old Bailey after she sought out his father through the Peace Corps database.
After landing in Chicago, he was driven to his new home in Crystal Lake, an hour-and-a-half from Chicago. There was a parade the day he arrived, with money thrown from the floats.
“I thought it was a parade for me!” he says with a laugh. “The next day, I wake up, I’m like ‘Ok, when are we going to the parade and when can we get more money?’ That was the start of my life in the US.”
Reality soon set in for bailey as he learned that life in America was not rosy for a new immigrant, “It was a struggle of trying to adapt and trying to fit in. Trying to figure out who I am and not fitting into any place, I always felt like I was running, that I couldn’t stop moving.”
Until he moved to Minneapolis, when he felt, “Ok, I can stop running now.”
bailey’s first connection to Minneapolis came not through the city itself, but through one of its most famous musicians. “I discovered Prince in [Crystal Lake’s] record store. I think it was “Little Red Corvette.” My ears just perked up, trying to find out who this person was, and I proceeded to get everything that he put out.”
After moving to Minneapolis, he started performing solo and with a number of music groups, and worked in the retail division of Prince’s famed Paisley Park complex, gaining crucial experience to navigate the shady mazes of the music industry when he formed Trú Rúts and its record label, Speakeasy Records.
He had a life-changing experience on a trip to the country of his birth after being gone for nearly 20 years. He returned to Liberia in 1999 as part of a four-month trip to Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. The trip, while crucial to his development as an artist as well as a person, was not what he expected.
“I realized that I could go back, but I could never live back home. I’d been away too long to be able to go back home and do what I’m supposed to do.”
An overwhelming and inane sense of homelessness hit him, he says, “going home displaces you. You’re no longer at home in either place. Home is what I had to create.”
Thus homelessness and travel inform all of bailey’s work, which symbolically channels his own experience through the larger histories of the African Diaspora. His album American African, scheduled for release in April, will appropriately feature a host of both American Africans and African Americans, including M.anifest, DJ Stage One, Mankwe Ndosi, IBé, and other international artists, including Germany’s Starskie and Dubai’s Abstrakt Collision.
“It’s a testament to where African Americans and American Africans are,” he says, encompassing the multitude of African, African American, and American African perspectives. “I want to avoid the idea of a monolithic Africa as much as possible.”
The first single off of American African, “America,” is a wide-ranging vision of the post-9/11 America that many immigrants find themselves in.
“America, I miss you,” bailey intones at its opening. He delivers his words atop a bed of rolling drums and cymbals, electric bass, disorienting electronic sounds, and wailing saxophone. From Katrina to Guantanamo, Hollywood to Baghdad, the poem subtly welds together the long histories of racism and murder that stain America’s past, yet without completely destroying the hope of something better. In the end, the music dies away as bailey softly, powerfully, declares “We’re waiting for your resurrection.”
bailey has an ambitious plan to release three more albums in 2009 that have been at various stages of completion throughout his work with Trú Rúts. Yet completion always breeds the start of something new, whether it be the release of new albums from other artists in the Trú Rúts family such as Quilombolas, TruthMaze, or El Guante. Or the birth of his first child with his wife Shá Cage.
Even though e.g. bailey has settled in one place after a long journey, his creative activity and poetic journeys show no signs of slowing down.
e.g bailey has produced “No Longer at Ease” (play), an adaption from the Chinua Achebe’s novel for the Pangea World Theatre in May 2001; “Village Blues” (film); and “Words Will Heal the Wound”, a spoken word radio series celebrating the diverse poetic traditions in Minnesota.
He received the Sarah Lawrence College International Film Festival (2001) Experimental Film award for Village Blues; the NFCB (National Federation of Community Broadcasters) award for Write On RaDio!; and the Worldstaff Houston International Festival (1999) Experimental Film award for Village Blues.
e.g. bailey: Behind the scenes with the spoken word innovator
By Rebecca McDonald (B Fresh), City Pages
The Twin Cities would not be the same without e.g. bailey. Even if you’ve never met him, you’ve most likely heard his voice on the radio, experienced one of his many theatrical productions or concerts and albums he has produced through Tru Ruts Endeavors/Speakeasy Records. He is co-owner of these organizations with his wife, Sha Cage, another staple poet in the community. There is never a lack of excitement in e.g.’s life, so Gimme Noise went behind the scenes to share in his journey to the release of his debut full-length album American Afrikan this past Saturday (pics here).
Gimme Noise: What has your journey in the Twin Cities poet’s scene been like since you moved here many years ago?
e.g. bailey: You end up in a place by circumstance and sometimes you realize that it was where you were meant to be. I had been here once as a kid but only remembered that after I had moved here. Like any good romantic, I was following my heart across the Midwest, and ended up in Fargo then Minneapolis. I dove into acting classes, worked in a warehouse and debated the eternal question of ‘L.A. or not L.A.’ and a job working for Prince sealed the deal. Prince had just released a book of poetry, so I used it as an excuse to start an open mic at the New Power Generation store. It was my first connection with the poetry scene here. All kinds of folks used to come through. It was a Prince store so there were some wild moments, but I met some folks I’d later work with in the spoken word community, like Anika and Yolanda ‘Right On’ Jackson.
Finally, I had to make a decision. I could keep making Prince the best artist he could be (which obviously he didn’t need much help with) or be the artist I needed to be. So I resigned, paid two months rent, and by a stroke of luck ended up with Sirius B. It’s a long story since then but that connection with Sirius B has made all the difference in doing what I do now. I connected with with folks like J. Otis Powell!, Ani Sabare, Rene Ford, Carolyn Holbrook (S.A.S.E.), Patrick Scully, and organizations like the Walker Art Center, Pillsbury, and Intermedia Arts. I couldn’t have found a better community to be doing art. I was embraced beyond what I could have imagined. Without it I probably would have L.A. or busted. And I’m not sure I would being doing spoken word.
GN: Describe your new project, “American Afrikan,” which you celebrated the release of on Saturday?
eg: ‘American Afrikan’ is a historical and symbolic experience of being an Afrikan in America, using the medium of spoken word. Sometimes I use spoken word to create non-linear narratives, like I did with ‘Blues for Nina,’ a spoken word theatre piece about Nina Simone; or the 20 minute short film ‘village blues’ about returning to Afrika; or ‘Patriot Acts,’ merging the different disciplines of theatre, dance and film with spoken word to present post-9/11 views of America. I am always looking at ways to push the boundaries of spoken word, and trying to innovate the art form. With this project, I wanted to see if it was possible to create a spoken word album that would present the many different forms of spoken word, and ways of experiencing spoken word, but still be able to engage the audience in some kind of a story.
GN: Why is this project special to you and others who performed with you on Saturday?
eg: I’ve fallen in love with this project the way you fall in love with your first child. You’re just amazed at how it has grown from a little seed of an idea. It’s so much a part of you but at the same time it becomes something larger than you. It’s a tribute not only to this amazing tradition of spoken word and the artists that laid the foundation, like Baraka, the Last Poets, Ginsberg, but also a tribute to my family and my history. That’s why you see images of my family throughout, and hear their voices on the album. And why it’s dedicated to my brother who died while I was making the album. I also wanted to celebrate the abundance of Afrikan talent in the community, and tell our story through this medium which is part of our griot tradition. I received a call yesterday from one of the artists, and after hearing the album, thanked me for creating it. You can’t ask for anything more special than that.
GN: You are very well known nationally and travel frequently with your poetry. In comparison to other cities, what have you seen as a unique element of the Twin Cities scene?
eg: I’ve said for years that the spoken word community in Minnesota is one of the top five in the nation. Though we’re relatively small and haven’t received the kind of attention other communities have, it is one of richest, most diverse and innovative spoken word communities in the country. I’ve also always felt that we’re one of the most musical spoken word communities because of our close relationship with the music scene here. A number of artists have explored and are exploring spoken word with music, but we have a long history of spoken word bands and collectives here from Ancestor Energy to NOW! to Arkology to Poet Tree to Trektah Beam Express to FIRE. We’ve also frequently merged it with performance art and theatre. That’s why it’s possible to make an album like this. Without all those experiences working with musicians, and experiments with different disciplines it wouldn’t be possible to synthesize all of it. I think that Minnesota is finally starting to get the respect it deserves in spoken word, especially with how well the Slam community is doing and winning the National Poetry Slam [this past year]. It shows that we haven’t just been paying lip service to the talent here.
GN: What advice do you have for artists who want to be career artists, to pursue their dreams in music/poetry?
eg: Create your art and don’t be deterred, even if you don’t get the response or support at first. But make sure you love what you do. The career will come, for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s not what we dream it to be. I thought I would be more of an actor or a writer. I never expected to be a spoken word artist. It’s just something I always loved, poetry with music, even when I was in high school listening to Jim Morrison, then discovering the Last Poets, then the Beats, then Amiri and so on. I didn’t know it was actually still being done, that you could do it as a career, or even that it was called spoken word. That was much later, after I had already fallen in love with it. Stick with what you do, if it’s meant to be your work, it will happen. If it’s not, you’ll still be rewarded by doing it.
Originally posted on City Pages on 24 February 2010.
e.g. bailey celebrated the release of his debut spoken word album “American Afrikan” with an innovative, multi-media performance Saturday night at the Bedlam Theater with fellow poets, musicians and supporters. The evening featured the following: Bryan Berry, Kahlil Brewington, Aimee Bryant, Sha Cage, Chris Cox, Chantz, Guante, Ibe Kaba, M.anifest, Mankwe Ndosi, J. Otis Powell!, Sankaradjeki, See More Perspective, Andy Shaffer, DJ Stage One, Dameun Strange, Truthmaze + more. PHOTOS BY B FRESH PHOTOGRAPHY
Originally posted on City Pages on 24 February 2010.
Tuo Tuo (Liberian Children’s Song)
Children’s song by siblings + family
Recorded in Saclepea, Liberia by e.g. bailey