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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‘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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‘As Channeled Through…’

16 October 2003 at 9:00 am (Shows, Spoken Word, Theatre) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

News Release
For more information contact:
Carolyn Holbrook
SASE: The Write Place
Artistic/Executive Director

SASE: The Write Place celebrates its tenth anniversary with authors, living and dead

On Thursday, October 30th, the night before Halloween, SASE: The Write Place will begin a year-long celebration of its 10th anniversary.

The first event, ‘As Channeled Through…’, promises to be a unique fundraiser, featuring conversations with Emily Dickinson, June Jordan, Larry Neal and Ayn Rand, three authors who passed on, leaving America with its incredible literary legacy.  (See attached sheet for biographical information.)

The event will take place at the American Swedish Institute from 6:00 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. with hors díoeurves, cash bar, a silent auction, mystical Tarot readings by Jan Miller and music provided by deejay, Del Dilla.  There is a suggested donation of $25 and up.

At 6:30, America’s most loved poet, Emily Dickinson will be ‘channeled’ through Dickinson scholars, Eleanor Heginbotham and Erika Scheurer.

At 7:15, June Jordan and Larry Neal, celebrated authors from the Black Arts Movement will be ‘channeled’ through multi-disciplinary artists/Black Arts Movement Scholars, e.g. bailey and Sha Cage.

At 8:00, objectivist author, Ayn Rand will be ‘channeled’ through performance artist, Joan Calof and storyteller, Carla Vogel.

The American Swedish Institute is located at 2600 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Off-street parking is available on the south side of the building. Additional parking can be found on Park Avenue and surrounding streets.

Artist Bios

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is America’s best-known female poet and was one of the foremost authors in American literature. She lived a very private life and only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime. After her death, 1700 poems, which she had bound into booklets, were discovered.

Eleanor Heginbotham, a Professor of English at Concordia University Saint Paul, is the author of Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities (Ohio State University Press,). She is current President of the Minnesota Chapter of the Fulbright Association. Before her arrival in Saint Paul, she taught in Liberia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and for many years in Washington, D. C., her other home. She has been a Board member of the Emily Dickinson International Society. She currently serves on the Cedar Exchange Board and on the Program Committee for the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. She co-chaired the Fitzgerald International Conference in 2002 and, in earlier years, with Erika Scheurer, the Dickinson Conference, “To Make a Prairie: Emily Dickinson and the Imagination.”

Erika Scheurer is an Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas-St. Paul where she has taught undergraduate writing, literature, and writing theory and graduate seminars in Emily Dickinson for ten years. She has delivered academic papers in her two research specialties—Emily Dickinson studies and composition theory and pedagogy–publishing articles in the Emily Dickinson Journal and the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin as well as in various composition journals. Her research focuses on the concept of rhetorical voice in Dickinson’s poems and letters and on the poet’s early education in the area of composition. With Eleanor Heginbotham, Scheurer is the co-chair of the Minnesota Chapter of the Emily Dickinson International Society and together they have organized many Dickinson-related gatherings. She currently serves as the Membership Chair of the Emily Dickinson International Society.

June Jordan (1936-2002) is best known for her poetry, which has been noted for its range of emotions. She was also a significant contributor to children’s literature. In addition, she published novels, plays, essays, Poetry for the People, A Blueprint for the Revolution and a memoir, Soldier: a Poet’s Child.

Larry Neal (1937-1981) was one of the most influential scholars, authors and philosophers of the Black Arts Movement. He is best known for his work with Liberator Magazine, Negro Digest and Black World and for co-editing Black Fire, a collection of theory, poetry and prose by writers of the Black Arts Movement, with Amiri Baraka.

e.g. bailey is an actor, spoken word artist, film maker, playwright and producer. The ultimate collaborator, he has co-founded and co-produced many productions and organizations including Write On RaDio!, @rkology, a spoken word and music collective, the MN Spoken Word Association, the first spoken word conference, Singers of Daybreak, blues for nina: a poetic interpretation of the life and music of nina simone, for SASE: The Write Place and the Twin Cities Black Film Festival. He was commissioned by Pangea World Theater to adapt Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease to the stage and produces Words Will Heal the Wound: a celebration of community through poetry. For info, visit http://www.truruts.com.

Shá Cage is Development Director of The MN Spoken Word Association and is founding and co-Managing Director of female theater collective, MaMa mOsAiC. She is a company member of Pillsbury House and Pangea World Theaters and has worked with a wide variety of area theaters. She is co-writer (with MaMa mOsAiC) of Making Medea, The Bi Show and multimedia piece, and The Menstruation Project; also Penumbra Theater’s Conflama. Her awards include 2003 Jerome/Playwrights’ Center Many Voices residency, administered by the Playwright Center, a 2003 Forecast Public Arts Grant and a SASE/Jerome writer’s award for her poetry. For more information about Shá, visit http://www.truruts.com.

Ayn Rand (Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) (1905-1982) is best known as the author of the epic Atlas Shrugged.  She also authored The Fountainhead, We The Living, and Anthem.  But she was also an influential intellectual, inspiring thousands of people to study and follow her philosophy of objectivism.

Joan Calof is a playwright and performance artist who has performed at many venues including the Minnesota History Center, the Playwrights’ Center, Patrick’s Cabaret, and four Fringe festivals, to favorable reviews in the StarTribune and City Pages. She was selected by the Playwrights’ Center for a Jones Commission, and was twice selected as an Associate Member. Her work has also been published, including an anthology of scenes for mature actors entitled A Grand Entrance.

Carla Vogel is a writer and storyteller. She specializes in Jewish/Yiddish folklore, performing locally nationally. Presently she works with Kairos, an intergenerational dance group, and the Bridges Program at the Children’s theater. She is co-founder of the Wild Yam Cabaret and Chutzpah Café.

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Arkology

22 July 1999 at 9:00 am (Music, Recordings, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

@rkology is a spoken work collective, which melds poetry with music. Our goal is to create a spoken word/music synthesis based in the aesthetic of the jazz ensemble where each instrument, including the voice, enters the ensemble on an equal footing and has an opportunity to lead and shape the resulting sound, creating a multi-sensory experience.  The work originates, variously in concept, work, image and/or sound.  We perform original work, and the work of other writers and musicians, including Nikki Giovanni, Nina Simone and Larry Neal.

The collective was co-founded by members: e.g.bailey (verbalist) Miré Regulus (writer/vocalist), KONA (drums), Dennis Maddix (bass), Mankwe Ndosi (vocalist), ANIKA (vocalist), and Malo Adams (guitar).  Currently performing with the collective are e.g. bailey, Miré Regulus, KONA, Dennis Maddix, Mankwe Ndosi and Tommy Speath.

@rkology was chosen for the City Pages’ Picked to Click Best Local Bands Poll in both 1998 and 1999.

@rkology has performed at Groove Garden Sundays (Cabooze and the 400 bar), Freeloaded Wednesdays the Front, Kieran’s Irish Pub, the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts, Intermedia Arts, Powderhorn Park Neighborhood School, and at First Friday’s—at the Minnesota History Center.  @rkology also recently opened for Roy Ayers. The  group will have upcoming performances at Intermedia Arts  and local venues around town.

‘That said, the five groups listed above each offer intelligent twists on their genres and, most important, share a commitment to simplicity and clarity of vision–be that the elegant authority of Mason Jennings, the poetic abstraction of the spoken-word/jazz collective Arkology, or the unironic teen-rebellion anthems of Selby Tigers.’ – Kate Sullivan (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

‘Arkology, a jazz/soul/spoken-word collective, has really come into its own over the last year…the group’s Nikki Giovanni-meets-Brand New Heavies vibe has attracted more people each time I see them…’ – Rachel Joyce (Walker Art Center)

‘ARKOLOGY is spoken word and a hell of a rhythm section.’ – Jen Downham (KFAI and Groove Garden Records)

e.g. bailey (poet/vocalist) is an actor writer poet and expressionist in many different forms of art.  born in saclepea, liberia, he has lived in the united states since 1979.  he discovered the freedom and power of writing in high school and it has served as a foundation since.  arriving in the twin cities in 1993, he has actively pursued acting and performance, and is a founding member of sirius b, a black male performance collective, with whom he performed in punic wars, at the walker art center, and in monday morning body count, concerning the high rate of homicide among black men, which he created and co-wrote. he is also an original member of spine:, a writer’s collective developed by the loft and the walker art center. spine: produced spoken work performances at several local venues and created a performance at the walker art center titled, spine: stripped bare. in addition , mr. bailey is a spoken word artist who has performed, in solo performances, with musicians, or with the cacophony chorus at many different venues including first avenue, biscuits and blues, bryant lake bowl (for patrick’s cabaret), the walker art center, the fine line music cafe, penumbra, and kfai fresh air radio.  in 1995 mr. bailey was the winner of the hughes knight diop poetry award at the 5th annual black writers conference conducted by the gwendolyn brooks center for creative writing. his poems were published in warpland, a publication by the gwendolyn brooks center.  he recently co-wrote blues for nina, a poetic exploration of the life of nina simone, with miré regulus, and is working on a film residency for the walker art center, coordinated by artist-in-residence, susan robeson.

KONA (percussionist) is a self-taught musician.  He has taught himself different aspects of rhythm through listening.  He currently performs with local psychedelic surf-pop sensation TV Baby and is also working on a project, Locust Solace, with Chris Lynch and Doug Reed, at Gark Recording Studio, as well as being a contributing component of Arkology.  KONA carries the sense that music is a never-ending learning process and envisions himself continuing on the music path that will let listeners move their hips when they hear his music.  He is also learning other instruments.  KONA would like to give thanks and praises to the Most High. Peace.

Dennis James Maddix (bassist) is a native of St. Paul and has been a journeyman bassist since 1980. He has played primarily Jazz, though he has branched out into Blues, Orchestral, Reggae, Pop and Rock musics.  Dennis has worked with the Chimera, Park Square,  Mixed Blood, and Penumbra Theaters as a musician, a tech, and as music director  for “Revisions for the Maid” in Park Square’s 1982 season. Dennis is currently active in the spoken word and music collective ARKOLOGY and in the local band TV BABY.

Mankwe Monika Nkatuati Ndosi (vocalist) is a Minnesota born, Tanzanian spirited performing artist.  Ever aware of inspiration and possibility she is jumping into all kinds of art around the Twin Cities with friends and colleagues @rkology, the Circle of Choice Ensemble, Kirk Washington Jr., René Ford, Derrik Phillips, friends at the double G spot (struggle space), Aarawak Productions, and others who have blessed her footsteps.  She is revisioning and reworking Cornbread, a monthly potluck and improvisational performance/dialogue at Intermedia Arts.  She is currently collecting hubcaps and painting mirrors, saving to return to Tanzania, worshipping the shortwave radio, her cat, and her car, and celebrating the families she has been born into and has become a part of since returning to the town of her birth.  Deepest praise and respect to the ancestors and elders who have brought us here. Sema Yote y Upendo.

Miré Regulus (poet/vocalist) is a writer, dancer, performer and roving arts administrator. She writes, performs, dances with her mind, and takes care of business.  Life, necessity and her heart has led her journey from Illinois to Andover to Brown to the little cities that could.  She has been sited at the Playwright Center, Penumbra, Walker Art Center, Patrick’s Cabaret and the Red Eye in her various adventures. Her works include:  a woman alone with others, performed as a solo piece at Patrick’s and expanded for Red Eye’s Works-in-Progress ’95 series; can you see me clearly, a slipstream into discovery—performed for Patrick’s 11th Anniversary show; jambo through my toes, three bits and pieces performed in Penumbra’s Audre Lorde Sighs Late Nite Series.  She is a member of the Circle of Choice Ensemble, which recently revived June Wilson’s Choice…like ripe fruit in March ’98.  Her most recent works include blues for nina, a poetic exploration of the life of Nina Simone, co-written with e.g. bailey, and jibber jabber headnoise, a work-in-progress.

–to speak is to make it real/to write is to let it live/to enact is to let it go/   /to change it is to choose again

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@rkology

1 March 1998 at 9:00 am (Music, Recordings, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

ARKOLOGY is a spoken word collective, which melds poetry with music.  Our goal is to create a spoken word/music synthesis based in the aesthetic of the jazz ensemble where each instrument, including the voice, enters the ensemble on an equal footing and has an opportunity to lead and shape the resulting sound, creating a multi-sensory experience.  The work originates, variously, in concept, word, image and/or sound.  We perform original work, and the works of other writers and musicians, including Nikki Giovanni, Nina Simone, Larry Neal, and Stevie Wonder.

The collective was co-founded by members:  e.g. bailey (verbalist), Mire Regulus (writer/vocalist), Kona (drums), Dennis Maddix (bass), Mankwe Ndosi (vocalist), ANIKA (vocalist), and Malo Adams (guitar).  Currently performing with the collective are e.g. bailey, Mire Regulus, Kona, Dennis Maddix and Mankwe Ndosi.  The collective has also performed with other Twin Cities musicians including Kevin Washington, Rene Ford, Sam Favors, Markiss, Michael O’Brien, Doug Reed and Tom Speath.

Arkology currently performs at Groove Garden Sundays at the Cabooze and will have upcoming performances at The Front and Kiernan’s Irish Pub.

‘That said, the five groups listed above each offer intelligent twists on their genres and, most important, share a commitment to simplicity and clarity of vision–be that the elegant authority of Mason Jennings, the poetic abstraction of the spoken-word/jazz collective Arkology, or the unironic teen-rebellion anthems of Selby Tigers.’ – Kate Sullivan (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

‘Arkology, a jazz/soul/spoken-word collective, has really come into its own over the last year…the group’s Nikki Giovanni-meets-Brand New Heavies vibe has attracted more people each time I see them…’ – Rachel Joyce (Walker Art Center)

‘ARKOLOGY is spoken word and a hell of a rhythm section.’ – Jen Downham (KFAI and Groove Garden Records)

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