Interview with On Deck Magazine

1 July 2010 at 9:00 am (Music, News, Press, Releases, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Interview: E.G. Bailey
by On Deck Magazine, July 2010

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.

ODM: You have managed to transform your poetry into several different forms, not only music but also film, theatre, and radio. Of all these genres which is your favorite to work with?

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.

ODM: Tell me about your poem titled “America” what message were you trying to send with it?

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.

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E.G. Bailey: American Afrikan

31 March 2010 at 9:00 am (Music, Press, Recordings, Releases, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

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e.g. bailey: Behind the scenes with the spoken word innovator

24 February 2010 at 12:15 pm (Music, News, Press, Releases, Spoken Word, Theatre) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

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American Afrikan Release

23 February 2010 at 7:00 am (Music, News, Recordings, Releases, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records presents: AMERICAN AFRIKAN
e.g. bailey debut mixes poetry, jazz, electronica, hip hop and more.

“He makes language live!” –Amiri Baraka

“So what’s surprising about Bailey’s debut album isn’t its aural cinema, but how great it is as music.” – Peter Scholtes (City Pages)

“There is so much history, culture and experience packed in American Afrikan that to summarize would be to attempt to summarize all of African American experience.” –Jon Behm (Reviler)

“Whether he’s singing, reciting poetry, or completely silent, Bailey’s masterful feeling for the power of words (and their absence) is felt throughout.” –Jon Behm (Reviler)

“Themes of identity, reclamation and rebirth permeate the album and should make for an equally evocative stage show.” –Chris Riemenschneider (Star Tribune)

“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.” – Peter Scholtes (City Pages)

With co-signs from Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets and the legendary Amiri Baraka, Twin Cities spoken word artist, poet, musician, organizer and educator, e.g. bailey, presents his first full-length album, AMERICAN AFRIKAN, a spoken word concept album that begins in Africa, crosses the Middle Passage, explores America and ends up somewhere that defies easy definition.

Part musical theater piece, part audio chapbook and part performance art experiment, AMERICAN AFRIKAN mixes the beat-influenced poetry of bailey with music that blends hip hop, funk, jazz, electronica and more, creating a sound that is at once progressive and challenging yet smooth and listenable.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that an hour-long spoken word album wouldn’t be much fun to listen to; many aren’t. But as Umar Bin Hassan says in the album’s liner notes, “The sounds on this album are just as important as the words.” Through bailey’s voice, through the Igbo nuns on ‘Oracles of Equiano’, through Aimee Bryant’s rendition of ‘Motherless Child’ and through the album’s diverse sonic palette, AMERICAN AFRIKAN succeeds not just as a piece of literature or poetry, but as a cohesive musical journey.

Producer Katrah Quey, perhaps best known for his work with TC wordsmith M.anifest (who shows up to drop a verse on the ‘American Afrikan’ remix), handles a majority of that music, though Hipgnosis and DJ Limbs shine on a couple of early tracks. The beats compliment the words; sometimes fun and funky, sometimes dark and meditative––but always engaging. The album also features appearances by Twin Cities-based African poets, Ibé Kaba and Sankaradjeki; Mankwe Ndosi, singer for Atmosphere; Dubai jazz ensemble Abstrakt Collision; Midwest emcee Idris Goodwin and others.

Though the music might be what draws people into this album, it’s bailey himself that will keep them there. Crafting a masterful narrative from the first track to the last, he explores identity, history, culture and all the places they intertwine in a way that is always meaningful but never preachy; always heart-felt but never melodramatic. As he says himself: “The project attempts to explore what it means to be an Afrikan today, an Afrikan in America, an American Afrikan. What is this journey historically, metaphorically, poetically? However, you can’t answer that question unless you explore what it means to be American, in post-9/11 America. And because America affects and infects us all, it is also about all of us.”

Deemed a true innovator of the spoken word art form, his charismatic yet rhythmic style dances words with sound in and out of synch with verbal play. One of the most prolific voices and talents in the Twin Cities, Bailey’s work has taken him on travels through the U.S., England, South Africa, France, Serbia and more. He has created spoken word work in film, theater, music and radio. Born in Saclepea, Liberia, and now based in the U.S., he is a founder of several foundational entitles in the local and national community including: MN Spoken Word Association, Tru Ruts Endeavors, the Urban Griots Spoken Word Awards, The Spoken Word and Hip Hop Institute at the University of MN. He has appeared in spoken word commercials including ‘Art Connects’, which premiered during the 2008 B.E.T. Hip Hop Awards, and was featured on the MTV, VH1, MTV Europe, CBS, NBC and other networks, in addition to being inducted into the Television Hall of Fame archived at the Modern Museum of Arts in New York. As he moves effortless between radio, film, theater, and producing, his live performances are always a treat.

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‘American Afrikan (M.anifestations Remix)’

8 February 2010 at 5:27 pm (Music, News, Press, Releases, Shows, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , )

‘American Afrikan (M.anifestations Remix)’
by Jon Jon Scott

With a co-sign from none other than Amiri Baraka and The Last Poets’ Umar Bin Hassan, Minneapolis spoken word artist/curator/educator/producer, e.g. bailey, who’s full length debut, American Afrikan, is a sprawling concept record spanning the middle passage and beyond. With glimpses of jazz, hip-hop, soul, electronica and Fela Kuti, bailey’s words soar, without being preachy. A powerful record that deserves your full attention. Now that Gil Scott-Heron has returned in splendid fashion with the engaging, I’m New Here, the timing couldn’t be better.

eg. bailey
El Guante
Sha Cage
Mankwe Ndosi
Ibe Kaba
Feb. 20th
Bedlam Theather

e.g. bailey ft. M.anifest –“American Afrikan (Manifestations Remix)”-mp3

Originally posted on Sound Verité on 8 February 2010.

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‘American Afrikan’ article in African News Journal

8 February 2010 at 9:00 am (Music, News, Press, Recordings, Releases, Spoken Word) (, , , , , )

e g bailey
By Nneka Onyilofor

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.

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Free download of E.G. Bailey’s ‘Blues People’

1 January 2010 at 9:00 am (Music, News, Poems, Releases, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , )

E.G. BAILEY’S ‘BLUES PEOPLE’
Surprising + Refreshing

blue black and beautiful
are we
many colors
the sun.  god’s breath
whispering through song
through wombs, pregnant
with freedom

‘He makes language live.’ – Amiri Baraka

Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records presents a free download of  spoken word artist E.G. BAILEY’s ‘Blues People’, from his upcoming album, AMERICAN AFRIKAN. The free download is available at these links:

egbailey.bandcamp.commyspace.com/trurutsmyspace.com/egbailey
ZshareDirect Download to Computer

‘Blues People’, a call to peoples across the diaspora, looks towards hope for those still struggling in this new world. Bailey utilizes imagery in a skillful and refreshing way in speaking about the multiplicity of the Black experience in America. Marrying it against a jazz-inspired musical backdrop couldn’t have been a smarter choice. It allows the poetry to have a grandeur and resonance. Recorded live in Minneapolis’ nationally recognized spoken word scene, and performed alongside saxophonist Andy Shaffer, of ‘New Orleans Swamp Pop’ outfit, Skinny Longfeet, there is a raw guttural tonality informing the relationship between the music and words. Evoking a call and response, reminiscent of early gospel and blues, the piece allows each to maintain it’s own identity while carefully courting the space between one another.

Bailey’s astute relationship with the rhythm of language, coupled with his academic background as both a student and teacher of poetry, is prevalent in his musical and metaphorical choices. As Bailey has stated, the poem, winner of the  Hughes Knight Diop Poetry Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference, strives to tell the history of Africans in America through the craft of writing. It provokes you to connect with the pain of that struggle. A well crafted piece of spoken word, it continues to show why e.g. bailey can be found at the forefront of the art form.

Bailey’s spoken word opus, American Afrikan, will be released in early 2010. Recent spotlights on e.g. bailey:

‘Twin Towers’‘Home at Last’‘From Chains to Change’

For more information: Tru RutsE.G. BaileyAndy Shaffer

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‘Raw honesty’: Interview on MinnesotaPlaylist.com

21 October 2008 at 9:00 am (News, Press, Spoken Word, Theatre) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

eg-sha-back-to-back-b-fresh-700pxlRaw honesty
e.g. bailey + Shá Cage interview each other about the work they do.

SHÁ: Alan Berks called and wants us to write something on the function of the performing arts. I’m thinking maybe we interview each other. Talk about some of our ideas on theater, spoken word, and art in general.

E.G.: I’m down. I think that’d be an interesting process. Some of our best ideas come out of conversations. Where do you want to start?

SHÁ: Well… Why do we do what we do?

E.G.: For me, it’s easy. It’s as necessary as breathing. That’s on the personal level. I know that regardless of the obstacle, no matter how bleak the prospects, if I can create or facilitate art, I know I can endure almost anything. It is my daily bread. It is a life, a way to witness and endure. I find it as valuable and necessary as any other field of labor.

SHÁ: A couple of months ago I was invited to give a small lecture to a group of students, all aspiring to become artists. I found it difficult to articulate why I chose this particular path of performing arts or why and how one gets into it. Although I’m sure I’ll hate myself later for saying this, I told them, “It just happens.” The “it” that nudges you on the shoulder one day and demands that you tear off from whatever classical theater track you may have been on because something essential to the dialogue of art and humanity seems to be missing. That’s the purpose it serves for me. This—spoken word plus hip hop theater—is my weapon of choice.

E.G.: I feel like I came late to art. I fell in love with reading, with literature. Not knowing the language when I first came to the U.S. from Liberia, my first responsibility was to learn the language. So, for me, I came to art not for art’s sake but out of necessity. I had to learn how to read. I had to learn the language, learn how this country worked. Once I started learning I fell in love with the art, and eventually it was all I wanted to do.

I didn’t feel strong enough to perform my own work for some time. I disguised myself as an artist. I wrote under assumed names. Let other people perform my work. I didn’t feel I had a voice yet, much less an understanding of performance. I only performed when forced or among very close friends. I eventually stumbled into acting, but it was all play until the end of college when I knew that I didn’t want to be anything but an artist—ideally a writer, but really any field would have been fine with me.

It wasn’t until I came to Minneapolis and started working with the performance group Sirius B under the training of the Hittite Empire that I really began to understand how a person’s art could serve his or her community. That’s when I really started to understand how I could put into practice what I had been studying and reading. I also began to understand why I got a buzz when I read Gordon ParksA Choice of Weapon or what Amiri Baraka was talking about in Raise Race Rays Raze: Creating work that spoke to your community, about your community. What is the community suffering from or missing? Your work needs to address that. It was that work and that training that was instilled in us.

It’s art as necessity rather than art as commerce or art as entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I think your art can be entertaining without it having to be entertainment. I think socially conscious artist or activist artists, artists that are saying something—or whatever you want to call them—they get pegged with being boring or too serious. You have to mix the message with the medium, but you also have to have fun.

SHÁ: Right. It’s like that Emma Goldman quote, “If I can’t dance, then I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Most of the time people just want to dance and not do the work. They think change just happens. You have to work for it, but at the same time, you have to enjoy yourself too. Which is the beauty of community-based performing arts. It’s ever-changing and always fresh. There’s an urgency to it that comes directly from what your community is dealing with, working through, and processing (both politically and socially) at the time. It keeps you on your toes and regardless of how serious the subject matter—or how deep you are in it—it also demands that you have a sense of humor.

Most of the ideas I get for plays and experimental performance projects are triggered from everyday happenings and bits of conversations. I might be at a town hall meeting at Sabathani or attending a school performance or standing in a crowd of thousands outside the Xcel Center in St. Paul as Obama gives a speech… The list goes on. There’s always been more of a sense of responsibility rather than satisfaction in the work I create for my community. There’s a campaign on the north side called Don’t Shoot… I Want to Live, which is a response to the staggering amount of shootings and senseless killing of African-American men. I was asked to create a performance art piece around this theme that speaks to the mothers and families who had lost their sons to violence. To know that your art is, in a way, “essential” means a lot.

It’s the check that doesn’t come in the mail. It’s rewarding beyond words.

E.G.: It reminds me of how Sirius B’s Monday Morning Body Count was created. One day I was having a conversation with Rene Ford, Ani Sabare, and a few other folks. And Rene was asking if I had heard from Marcus [Bracey, a.k.a. Messiah], Kurt [Washington, a.k.a. Bro’Sun] or Slim [a.k.a. St. Paul Slim]. I hadn’t. He told me that I needed to be sure that I called them on Mondays to make sure they were okay, to make sure that they had survived the weekend. This was 1996 when Minneapolis set a record with the number of homicides, most of them black men. He said that it was our responsibility as part of a community—whether the general community or the community that had been created through Sirius B—to look out for each other, to take care of each other. That conversation transformed into the idea of Monday Morning Body Count, making sure your community is still safe but also taking a toll, who had passed, acknowledging and recognizing them. What was their story and why? One morning shortly after that, I woke up, grabbed my minicassette recorder and spoke a majority of the stories that would become the performance piece. They all came to me in a flush. This happens to me often, a number of pieces will come fully embodied.

And also because I see performance art as a ground for experimentation. Where, like poetry and music, you have the most freedom to experiment with form and the juxtaposition of forms. As you mentioned there is the classical, or traditional, theater but that doesn’t always allow you, or easily allow you, to break or transform the form. Part of the reason it is classical or traditional is that it is in that prescribed form. Whereas performance art, in many ways, the core rule is freedom, openness, the lack of prescribed form. The form takes shape out of the story you’re compelled to tell.

The intention was not only to tell these stories but to use the work as a communal ritual to actively free the spirits that were trapped in the space between worlds until they were named and released. At the end of the performance each night, we named all the victims. It needed that release. We needed that release. Without it, it would have just been another play, just another form of “entertainment.”

Earlier I was talking about tradition and culture. Sometimes I feel like my engagement with culture is more conscious, or conscientious. Perhaps because I was separated from my culture so early and for so long. What I find fascinating about your work is that it’s so deeply rooted in the South. It seems so effortless. Do you consciously incorporate these elements into your work? Or is it just part of the fiber of the way you write and what you write?

SHÁ: I’d say the answer to that is both. Home for me is in the rural South—Natchez, Mississippi. It’s one of the smallest, poorest cities in the United States, but unique in its ability to retain a large percentage of its Africanisms, norms and practices as an African-American culture. The region represents a distinct fabric of people, relations, and a tangible texture that is so ingrained in my writing, my rhythm and even my way of seeing the world, that more often than not, that flavor is unintentional. Other times it’s very much a choice spearheaded with a particular focus or issue I’ve decided to confront. For years I’ve attempted in my work to produce art that talks about the ugly and the pretty of who we are, and that places value on women, elders, and ourselves. Works that are unafraid to openly and proudly retell those private stories our aunties and grandmamas shared with us. I’m particularly interested in poetry that somehow manages to challenge and criticize, holding a mirror up to our faces, while at the same time, uplifts.

My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She was mother of fourteen children, and the central character that held the numerous parts of our history together. With her passing, I felt an immediacy to carry that tongue forward

I feel there is a rawness that is unabashedly honest that has emerged in this art form [spoken word plus hip hop theater]. That is what is most intriguing to me because, in many ways, that raw honesty is the essence of what art is intended to do. To not second guess or censor itself. These young kids and seasoned griots that have decided to own this art form take an extraordinary risk in this, and their communities rally around them because, despite popular belief and, even in cities that have the highest per capita amount of theater in the nation and every month a new company is developed, there are still key voices, stories, and histories that are not being told. There are masses of people, often those marginalized, who feel theater is not for them because it simply doesn’t speak to them or about them or what they know as life. But the performing arts can allow for those voices to be ushered in—many times on shoestring budgets, sometimes in church houses, or community centers, performed by a combination of trained and untrained actors. That’s my inspiration.

But how do you know your voice is important to the larger artistic conversation?

E.G.: I know I may not be as well-known as some of my peers in this art form, but I believe my work will stand the test of time. It may only be known to a few, or my immediate community, but I believe it influences those around me, those that engage with it. And also I believe it embodies and advances the art form. These are the things I focus on. There is a proverb that says, “The greatest master is not one with the largest flock but he who creates the most masters.” That is part of my personal artistic philosophy. It’s never been a popularity contest for me. I’ve had numerous opportunities to be in front of hundreds and thousands of people, sometimes I’ve taken those opportunities and other times I’ve opted out, giving other folks the opportunity. Part of my work, and where it may have the most influence, is creating the space for others to find and share their voice.

In the end, that may be my largest contribution to the art form, to the community, and perhaps to the larger artistic conversation. I think my work also strives to spread understanding of the art form, studying and articulating the history of it, teaching it to the next generation, supporting those that have a love for it. All this takes time, time that sometimes I wish I could invest more into my own personal work. But I feel compelled to do both. It makes my life very hectic, and constantly busy, but it’s essential to me because if the art form does not continue, does not flourish, does not evolve then what was the point of practicing it. I never wanted to see it just be a fad. So I’ve often said that my work may be for two to five generations down the line.

I think of Larry Neal and Dudley Randall. Neal helped to create the Black Arts Movement with Baraka, and also co-edited Black Fire. Randall—a quiet, unassuming figure—edited the Black Poets, one of my literary bibles, and was the founder of Broadside Press. Both were artists themselves, creating work not widely known, but the power and influence of their work is immeasurable. There would not be spoken word and hip hop, without the Black Arts Movement. Many poets, and works, would have remained unknown with out their efforts.

And I think lastly, I fell in love with art because it saved my life. It taught me how to read and understand the world, how to articulate how I saw this world, and gave me the tools to tell stories, mine and others. I decided early on in my artistic life, that if I could affect or change even just one person’s life the way all the artists I engaged with changed mine, then I will have accomplished my goal with art. Because I know that I have done this, from what those that have been affected have told me, anything else that I accomplish with my art is just icing on the cake.

SHÁ: Well that’s as good as place as any to stop.

Posted on MinnesotaPlaylist.com
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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without punctuation

30 May 2008 at 2:33 am (Poems, Recordings, Spoken Word, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

without-punctuation-poem-page-1one 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.


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Spoken Word takes root in MN

26 November 2003 at 9:00 am (News, Press, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

spokesman recorder article - eg + sha - cover 1 (700pxl)

Spoken Word takes root in MN
By: Shannon Gibney
Managing Editor

Local ‘master plan’ helps new art form flourish

Spoken Word: An artistic form that accentuates the rhythmic (musical, percussive, vocal) elements inherent in a poem. (Definition of spoken word created by e.g. bailey.)

Perhaps the primary paradox of being an artist is constantly pushing the envelope of existing expression without having a space or an audience to receive it (think Kahlo, Hurston, Van Gogh). Most of the time, artistic genres have to evolve over a long period of time, and artists even have to die, before many of us realize their value.

Thank goodness we didn’t have to wait a whole lifetime for spoken word to come of age in the Twin Cities; the efforts of interdisciplinary artists and spoken word advocates Sha Cage and e.g. bailey have ensured that the relatively new genre has firmly taken root in Minnesota in just three years.

The duo credits mentors such as J. Otis Powell!, Alexs Pate, Laurie Carolos, Louis Alemayou, and Ancestor Energy with laying the groundwork for the form.

“What defines an artist?” asks bailey. “An artist is somebody who makes choices about what they’re going to do. Somebody can wave their hand, and that’s not really art. But when you make choices, when you have intention, and you have a philosophy and a foundation behind what you’re doing, then you’re moving into the realm of articulating an art, an artistic work.”

And intention is something that bailey and Cage have in abundance.

In July 2000, the duo sat down and created a “master plan” for the next five years of spoken word in the Cities. The plan included everything from the formation of the Singers of Daybreak spoken word conference [which led to the now-flourishing Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MNSWA)] to various tentacles of Trú Rúts Endeavors — a film, visual arts, spoken word, and theater production entity.

Says Cage, “We mapped out everything — all the tentacles and everything that’s in place — which is just kind of wild. We’re on track for the five years.”

Cage and bailey were spurred to create the plan because of the disorganization of spoken word artists at the time, and the widespread lack of understanding many encountered from other artists, club owners, funders and the community at-large.

“The concept of spoken word artists at the time was, ‘Well, they’re just getting up and reading their journals. They’re just getting up and reading poems — what’s the art?,’” says bailey. “But there’s certain decisions that go into [spoken word]. It’s not just reading the words on a paper; you have to take it to the performative level.”

One of MNSWA’s main goals is to inspire dialogue about and between practitioners of the art form. A key question that had to be hammered out was, “What is spoken word?”

“There was confusion [among artists] — am I a poet or am I a spoken word artist? What makes me which one?” says Cage. Through discussion, the group was eventually able to agree on a definition they could all live with.

“Spoken word is accentuating the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem. That rhythm can be music, it can be percussion, it can be your own voice,” says bailey.

“There’s all these decisions that have to go into how you best exemplify that poem — to take it beyond just the reading of it, so you understand the meaning of the poem. Because meaning can come through other ways — it can come through a jazz rhythm that you use. [Amiri] Baraka will use a minute and a half rhythm from a Thelonius Monk piece, and then read a piece about Thelonius Monk. Where, if you were just reading the poem, you wouldn’t get that. And you get a deeper understanding because you’re actually hearing Monk’s music,” he continues.

Although bailey has been searching for spoken word’s roots for some time, he says he has not been able to pin them down. However, he sees a clear lineage from the African griot tradition.

Says bailey, “It’s not to say that that’s the only thing that makes up spoken word, because it’s not. I call spoken word the American prodigy of the oral tradition, because it’s a distinct art form and it’s an American-originated form. Out of it evolves the verbal dexterity of hip hop.”

bailey and Cage look towards Generation Y to take the art form to the next level.

The duo helped organize and judge the Walker Art Center and MNSWA’s “Below the Belt: Battle of the Underage Finals” hip hop and spoken word competition this summer, and were stunned by the work they heard.

“A lot of the youth that were practicing we’d been mentors to,” says Cage. “But also, some of the references that they were making showed that they were knowledgeable not about just what’s happening nationally, but just locally. They were grabbing words that Truthmaze would use in his poetry, or Arkology or Edupo, and it was like, ‘Wow, they’re making the connection, and they understand.’”

She adds, “They were like, ‘We realize that this is the platform to talk about our lives and what’s going on with us.’ That was the consciousness that many of them that we were talking to were coming with, and they feel like spoken word is really a forum that allows them to have voice.”

For more information on MNSWA, or to find out about upcoming spoken word events, visit [www.mnspokenword.wordpress.com] or call [612-288-9491]. For more information on Tru Ruts, visit http://www.truruts.com, write info@truruts.com or call 612-288-9491.

Catch the duo’s radio show Tehuti Sundays on KFAI from 11 pm to midnight, or tune into MNSWA’s spoken word show on KMOJ every [Saturday at 10:00pm].

Shannon Gibney welcomes reader responses to sgibney@spokesman-recorder.com.

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 11/26/2003

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