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.
In the arch of Obama’s journey, unwavering faith
by e.g. bailey
After screams of joy at the news, the first thing I did when the election of President Obama was announced was to call my mother and my brother. They were both in South Dakota, where my brother lay in bed suffering from liver cancer. She had traveled from Atlanta to be by his side.
On this night, I felt a great urge to call my brother. Not to give him hope, because his case was terminal; they projected less than three months to live. On this night, I didn’t want to discuss the gravity of the situation, or medicine, or death. I simply wanted to share with him the overwhelming joy and relief, the poignancy of this moment in the lives of all Americans, but especially in the lives of African Americans, and likewise Africans in America.
In the face of his suffering, I wanted him to feel the pride in knowing the heights that an African had achieved in this country, to know that an African had “reached the mountaintop.” When I told him the news, he released a full-hearted laugh, saying, “Thank God, Brother Eric. This is a great thing. Thank you.”
Four hundred years ago an African would have been in bondage, toiling under slavery, his life and death balanced on the whim of his oppressors. And, less than 50 years ago, the descendants of that African could not vote, could not share the same bathroom, the same drinking fountain, or eat in the same restaurants with their fellow Americans. But here, in this moment, an African had achieved the highest office in this country, perhaps in the world.
And in the arc of that journey was embodied the faith, the determination, the wonder and the achievements of all who had paid the price of the ticket, including our shining princes, Martin and Malcolm.
At the annual Thanksgiving dinner with the Cage family, I was speaking with my young nephew Rashaan after he had recited the dinner grace. I asked him if he was going to be preacher like his father. He replied, without missing a beat, “Yes. And I’m also going to become president.”
I cannot remember the last time a Black child had claimed such a dream for himself or herself and thought it possible, a dream no longer the faith of struggle and imagination, but a dream now feasible and actual. And on January 20, standing in the shadow of not only Lincoln but also Martin, that dream will be commemorated.
published in Minneapolis Spokesman Recorder
22 January 2009
one of my Spoken Word pieces by way of an introduction. it’s one of my favorite pieces and one of the first that started to capture the essence of what i define as spoken word. the definition of spoken word i developed from studying the art form over the years is this:
“Spoken Word is an art form which accentuates the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem––thereby expanding the texture, the context, and possibly the meaning of the work. You can accentuate these rhythms either through your verbal delivery or you can add music, or both. The work can be created by the individual poet or with a group of poets, and musicians, either improvisationally or through conscious arrangement.”
that’s the longer definition. the shorter one is basically,
“Spoken Word is accentuating the rhythmic elements inherent within a poem, whether through instrumentation or your own vocal delivery.”
the piece is a tribute to Black Arts Movement writers and their freedom from syntax and standard rules of poetry, fused with the history of Africans in America. the freedom they exhibited on the page, i wanted to figure out how to express that in the oralization, the performance, of the piece.
but at the time i didn’t know that what i was doing was called spoken word. i considered it jazz poetry. this is why on page it’s structured like a jazz poem, which i had been writing for a couple years. but in performance, it’s developed into a spoken word piece, and my development of it paralleled and guided my development as a spoken word artist. once i completed this piece, which i edited over the course of a couple years, i felt like i understood the essence of spoken word and what it aims for. it went on to win the Hughes Diop Poetry Award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference, along with another poem, ‘letter to lisa’.
Note: Below is a live performance of ‘without punctuation’. It is fused with another piece, ‘diaspora’, and is now called, ‘Blues People’, in reference to the classic book on African American music by Amiri Baraka.