Last night at 9/8 central, the NAACP Image Award-nominated series, Verses and Flow: Engineered by Lexus, debuted its third season on TV One. I am blessed to be among the voices featured on this double feature night, along with poetry stars Carvens Lissaint, Miles Hodges, Storm Thomas, The Saint, and Ashley Catharine and music stars Jill Scott [!] and Bel Biv Devoe (That's right. Bel Biv De Freaking Voe. Of "Poison" fame. Just click on that link and listen. You may return to this post once you've had your fill of the greatness.)
In light of this great opportunity to perform for a national television stage, I wanted to dedicate this post to a timeline of events that led up to me being blessed with the opportunity. It has been a long and winding road thus far, and while I'll never know what tomorrow has in store, it's always good to take pause for a bit of gratitude for the lessons learned, the people who guided me, and for the joy of it all.
1980s: The Beginning
My journey to Verses and Flow starts circa 1989. I am five years old and living in Tuskegee, Alabama. My sister and I perform for our little church, singing Negro spirituals. We've learned most of these from our aunt and uncle, Ron and Natalie Daise, whose songs and stories about Gullah and Sea Island culture invigorate and inspire us, just as they inspire the audiences before which they perform all over the south and beyond.
My aunt and uncle were probably my first examples of artists who always retained their sense of responsibility for building and enhancing a community. Through their faithfulness, they demonstrated the value of the ancient performance tradition into which I would soon step. They were also my first examples of the potential of performance art, as they signed with Nickelodeon in 1994 to star in what Wikipedia calls "the first show designed for preschoolers to feature a black family," Gullah Gullah Island.
1990s: The Middle Life - Kid TV News, My First Poem
Fast forward to 1993. I'm living in Macon, Georgia, and I am about to have my television debut. Local Fox affiliate 13 WMAZ, in coordination with my elementary school, has started a weekly news and interest series called Kid TV News. I make my entrance in style, in a living history museum. I play the role of Captain Kidd, "one of the most feared and fearless pirates of all time." This leads into a half dozen or so other weekend TV appearances, focusing on topics of interest that range from the importance of paying the elderly in nursing homes a visit, to creative Christmas gifting ideas for kids.
I also write my first poem. My mother saved it.
2000s: A New World Spoken
Fast forward past the teenage angst of my middle and high school years (if only such a thing is possible), where I do a lot of art (drawings, stories, listening to Bob Marley) and hone my love for history, to college, where my good friend and fellow writer Aries H. starts this organization at the University of South Florida, known simply as The Poets. It's 2004, and my love affair with spoken word is just beginning. By 2005, I'm deep in it, inspired by poetry greats in the Tampa Bay and Florida scene like Lizz Straight, Wally B, LIFE, Keith Rodgers, Will Bell and more. It is through these artists, and the community that they cultivated, that I am introduced to the regional--then national--then international--poetry scene.
Fast forward to 2008. I have been hearing about the Southern Fried Regional Poetry slam, from every poet I met, since I started performing more widely in the area. Southern Fried has a great reputation for being a huge celebration of the southern poetry family--with an emphasis on the family. Most poets I meet even lovingly refer to it as the "family reunion." I decide this year, finally, to attend, and boy was it a great decision. From that point, my whole poetry life changes. I get to perform on a team with playwright/singer/artistic genius Aleshea Harris, I meet countless lifelong friends, like the consecutive National Poetry Slam Champ Slam New Orleans fam (Kataalyst, Sha'Condria, et al) and to top it all off I make it to final stage, which is held at Florida State University. It's a revelatory moment for me, and one that builds my confidence that people might actually like my poems.
In the years that follow, I am blessed with the chance to perform on stages all over the country, including some of poetry slam's most sacred sites, like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Bar 13, and the Green Mill. I get a chance to travel to the Caribbean and perform with a collective of poets and musicians called the Microphone Messenjahs. I read a LOT (Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Edwige Danticat, TONS of poets, and LOTS of books by thinkers contemporary and past, like Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Cornel West, bell hooks). I read and read and read. And I meet poets and performers from all over the country, all while attending college and utilizing art as a means of education and transformation. Most important, I get the chance to be a part of the growing community of creative, focused, world-changing minds that is the international spoken word and slam poetry scene. So much love.
The highlight of that participation, I would have to say, occurs in 2009, when my best friend in the poetry world, David DeTyme Tolliver and I, come together to create Tampa Bay's first-ever PSI-certified poetry slam, Sacred Sounds Tampa. Sacred Sounds blossoms, immediately gaining a following in the community as another place where diverse voices come together in the name of community. We do collaborations with nonprofit organizations and independent businesses, and we send teams to Southern Fried as well as the National Poetry Slam. We even bring the 20th Annual Southern Fried Poetry Slam to Tampa, to many positive reviews. Sacred Sounds just celebrated it's fourth year, and it just keeps on getting better. If you're ever in the Tampa Bay area on the third Saturday of the month, you should check it out!
2013: Verses and Flow, and beyond...
So, finally, the year is 2013. And I get the email confirming that I've been selected to perform for Verses and Flow. I am overwhelmed with excitement over the opportunity. They fly us out to Los Angeles and give us the star treatment! Beautiful hotel in downtown Los Angeles. A cool driver who came up to me at the airport looking like Alfred from Batman. Pure joy. I bring my camera along and snap photos of all these amazing poets with whom I will be sharing a stage, folks like Safia Elhillo, Chas, and Javon Johnson of Fiveology. With they pretty selves.
It's a whirlwind of a day, filled with very interesting interviews, cool makeup artists, and poems on poems on poems. When the time comes to film the TV episode, we are all running on pure adrenaline and joy. It's really a grand time. Many amazing things occur. Faith Evans (who had filmed the show before ours) gave me a hug. I met BEL BIV DEVOE. I learn that Omari Hardwick is not only a movie star, but a very wise man. Basically, all these wonderful artists who had been such an inspiration to my life, many of whom had provided through their art the backdrop to my life, were in one amazing space, along with members of my poetry family. To put it maybe over-simply: it was a life-changing experience.
So what's next?
Permit me a moment of mystery here. Certainly, there is always a bit of mystery when contemplating the future. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, and all that jazz... That said, I am at work on several ventures, including work with some great Chicago-based organizations, Chicago Slam Works (founded by Marc "Poetry Slam Inventor" Smith) and co-facilitating short film, storytelling and photography workshops through the University of Chicago's South Side Stories program. I also still co-curate, host, and DJ at Chicago's most raucous open mic, Real Talk Live!
I also intend to be in a city near you, sooner than later. I enjoy traveling. It's freeing. And inspiring.
I am ever grateful to the folks at Verses and Flow for believing in me enough to invite me on the show. It's been a long road, with many bumps along the way (I left out many of the bumps. You'll get those in later posts. This one is long enough).
So just to make it on the show inspires me to work harder and with greater focus on bringing creative critical thought and inspiration to those who might benefit from it.
Thank you for the chance, Verses and Flow!
And now, back to work.