An Interview with Spoken-Word Artist Taalam Acey
The following interview was conducted by Jaime Wright for Comfusion Magazine: Spring 2002.
comfusion: First of all: a BS in Accounting, an MBA in Finance (Rutgers University), followed by a partnership in a small business consulting firm, then professional poet. What is it that led to such a change of heart? What brought on such a Siddarthic transformation? Do you feel working in the world of finance enabled you to get a broader perspective on life/poetry somehow?
Taalam Acey: The degrees and financial consulting all transpired in less than a decade of my life. Yet everything before that suggested that I would eventually do something like this. I've been reading since age four and both my parents were avid readers. Though my parents divorced when I was two, my father left most of his books behind when he moved out. All manner of social, political books, and historical accounts were in bookshelves, boxes, and stacks all around my house.
I was exposed to a great deal of culture in the form of plays, African dance, and poetry from a young age. My parents were both members of Amiri Baraka's organization in Newark when I was born. In fact, my first walking steps were taken in Baraka's house. Later, my high school teachers figured I would be an author or lecturer not a financial consultant. I thought that I would live my life according to what would translate to the most financially viable and stable lifestyle. My socio-educational background and life-pain eventually dictated otherwise.
comfusion: How do you feel about sharing an alma mater with Paul Robeson?
Taalam: I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Robeson. His ability with language, scholarship, sports, and the arts have always been inspiring. He gave much and suffered more for what he believed in. His relatively abandoned life and posthumous near deification strike an interesting balance, much like Garvey's and others.
comfusion: What's it like touring full time as a poet?
Taalam: Touring full time is definitely not for everyone. I read autobiographies of those who've toured before me to help me through it. So I've ingested the stories of BB King, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, and on and on.
The road presents many opportunities and challenges. It can be lonely, but it's often serendipitous. I've traveled now to Germany, Amsterdam, London, and Canada. I've polished the knack of making my way around the United States with more ease than most can make it around their own hometown. I cover several thousand miles each month so quickly that people in Chicago, New York, and the Bay Area all think I live in their respective areas. When in fact, though I love all three, I "live" nowhere. This lifestyle is not for everyone. I spend most of my time alone and I survive via hustle.
comfusion: You have noted Gil Scott-Heron, and The Last Poets on MP3.com as some of your influences. When was the first time you heard the work of either, what was the piece, and how did you respond?
Taalam: The Last Poets got together in 1965 (or '68) and Mr. Heron released his first record in 1970, the year of my birth. Their records were around my house before I was. I've played the Last Poets' records since I was first able to use a record player. I stared at their LP cover with the little white devils and black warriors plenty times in my youngest days. I also spent many a moment studying the cover to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's First Minute of a New Day album cover. Today I'm a bigger Heron fan than Last Poet fan. I'm hurt by his current situation, but it doesn't diminish his star in my eyes. No more than Huey Newton's post-panther condition diminished his.
comfusion: What about written word poets? Are there any that have influenced you as much as the spoken word poets?
Taalam: Not particularly. Though I do dig much of Amiri Baraka's work including my favorite of his "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note." I think he's a brilliant well-read man but not quite the social commentator that James Baldwin was or researcher/debater that Dr. John Henrik Clarke was. Yet, I think the very fact that I would think of him in the same breath as these men says much about the amount of respect I have for his thinking.
I am a fan of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, Audre Lorde. I grew up reading Langston Hughes. I was more into his "Simple" stories than his poetry however. I once picked up some Pablo Neruda, which I truly enjoyed. But much of written poetry like T.S. Eliot and such doesn't particularly touch me. One of these days though, I'll get around to reading Dante. I think I may like that. I'm a bigger fan of Maya Angelou's life achievements than her poetry. I grew up reading Sonia Sanchez poems from Its a New Day every Kwanzaa. Also to the extent that Toni Morrison's prose is actually poetry, she's a genius.
comfusion: In "When the Smoke Clearz" you criticize emcees:
"Sometimes I believe some of these emcees
You reference Scott-Heron's "Message to the Messenger" in your poem which also addresses the inadequacies in the content of some emcees. You also mention hip-hop's high lyrical content in the '80s, so who are the emcees that you hold up and respect? How have they shaped your views of poetry, spoken word, and social consciousness?
Taalam: Honestly, no emcee has ever done much, at any point in the development of hip-hop, to positively shape my views on social consciousness. I don't think hip-hop has ever effectively lent itself to that, even with BDP and Public Enemy considered. When I spoke of lyrical content I was talking about demonstrating skill without sacrificing self-respect. The prototypical socially conscious hip-hop piece was probably Melle Mel's message. But the skill of (early) Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J's original remix of "Rock the Bells," Rakim's first three LPs, and much of KRS One's work is what I mean by Skills. All-out lyrical skills. I'm a fan of that.
Biggie (RIP), Jay-Z (when he chooses), and Eminem all have these skills, but it seems they focus on this technical skill of emceeing only. They meditate for days on creative and complex rhyme and rhythm schemes (that sound simple to the layman), and spend relatively no time on equally challenging/creative subject matter. They're still talking about the cars, clothes, and hoes that the Sugar Hill Gang talked about in 1979, and not nearly as creatively as Slick Rick was able to do it in the mid '80s. But then their focus is obviously on sales rather than pushing an art form. Their prerogative to do it. Mine to comment on it.
comfusion: With poems such as "I Could Be Killed (for what I'm thinking)" and "She Conjurez" there is a heavy emphasis on "the ancestors," an emphasis that is both a source of strength and life:
"I bathe her in compliments
What role do these ancestors play within the mythos of your poetry? Explain some of the inner significance and the outward intention that pervades the recurrence of the ancestors in your poetry.
Taalam: The ancestors do not merely play a role within my poetry. No. They play a role in my life. I'm a conduit of their wishes. In a sense death is another dimension and I often live the life of a spiritual medium. The ancestors talk low. I listen good. And repeat loudly.
comfusion: Your work is packed with historical/political figures within the black community, from Martin R. Delany and Harriet Tubman to Assata Shakur and C.L.R. James. What is your intent in embedding the pathway of your poems with so many of these figures? (and I'm not even talking about "Must Be Somethin'.")
Taalam: This really points back to the previous question. These men and women deserved to be known. I'm often more partial to names that have become obscure to challenge the listener. To the extent that I am successful, then those who have transcended (or have been exiled) are not truly dead/gone.
comfusion: There is a sense of community strengthening, "nation building" that saturates your poetry. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man the main character notes the following of Mary who represents the mother and community that feeds and houses him:
"... she was something more--a force ... like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown ... Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership ... I was torn between resenting her for it and loving her for the nebulous hope she kept alive."
It is a struggle between the individual and the community, between the peace of solitude and the sacrifice of serving the community, the same community that has provided a foundation for the individual. Have you experienced a similar struggle? Businessman to artist? Individual to community activist? black poet to American Poet?
Taalam: Excellent book. Its even more salient if you read James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man as a preface. And yes, what you mention is exactly what happened to my career as a financial consultant and college professor. The first time I heard performance poetry I knew that I had to do it. I'm still offered college classes (one just the other day), but spoken word is what I must do to the death. Full time. Sometimes I want to be as prolific as Miles and release several LPs a year. Yes, this is where I need to serve. I emphatically believe that the ideas that I help to re-popularize are an aspect nation building.
The only struggle is to sincerely explore the inside of me. Infinity occurs on the inside and out. The space between an inch is just as infinite as the universe itself. Rather than exploring outer space I introspect and mine deep. My last CD Mood Demistify is amazing to me. It is at once a service to the community and yet no real sacrifice. It is me. At this point I'm on auto-pilot, couldn't care less who considers me a "black poet" vs. "American Poet," "a Nigger" or whatever. I know I'm more of a god than most will ever understand. A rose is still a rose. No matter what I'm considered the work will still stand on its own to each and every independent thinker (the kind of thinker I care most about). I'm proud of what I do and yet I don't do it to be holier than thou. It's natural and I'm far from starving. So what could be better?!
comfusion: Eroticism stands tall in your poetry from eroticizing the vehicle of suicide in "I Could Be Killed" to "Moan," a poem that deals more directly with sex (though it's ultimately about human suffering). How do you view "the erotic" in your poetry? Is it a facilitator for other messages or an integral part of the organic wholeness?
Taalam: It is both at once. One of the challenges of art is to stimulate multiple senses. I love to take the listener through sundry emotions. That is the experience, the atmosphere. Sexuality is like Eucalyptus. Often when I'm faced with an audience that isn't used to poetry every other poem that I do will be somewhat sexual. A constant process of opening them up so that I can hit them with something socially conscious and then open them up again for the next message. The poems you mentioned as well as "VD Clinic" and several others do that very thing, but all within the same poem.
comfusion: In Scott-Heron's, "Comment #1" he criticizes the white youth of the sixties, stating that they have separated themselves from every institution except for "dirt and money," going on to say that his only equivalent to their rebellion is to have a wife and kid and be able to feed and clothe them. He talks more about the white children of the sixties that hang out on the streets with "everyday black people" and cry on the corners only to go home "with a clear conscience and a college degree."
Do you think that the white mainstream of the '60s by merely mimicking what they saw on the streets in the poor urban black neighborhoods worked to hinder the advancement of the black community, along with all future generations, by promoting or co-opting the poverty without understanding the struggle and marginalization underneath it?
Taalam: Naw. I think that in the end they did what only made sense for them. All that most of us want is a comfortable lifestyle with which to raise a family. They were probably sincere. But voluntary poverty is not the move. And it's impossible for those outside our struggle to truly understand it anyway, no matter how many packs of ramen noodles they eat. The affects of the system on most black people cannot be arrived at through artificial means or social experiments. This socio-economic system was not designed to be color blind just like PCs weren't designed to deal with more than 640K. But unlike PCs most of those who could affect change in this system would rather not. So for most black people life just continues to crash.
comfusion: What is your opinion on the segregation of art? For example, the African-American or Asian-American poetry sections in bookstores, rather than including these poets under American poetry? Does this work to promote the works of marginalized poets of the past or does it work to continue marginalization into the future?
Taalam: On one hand I'm thinking that as long as my work doesn't get mixed up in the Anglo section next to Beowulf then at least it will be easily found. On the other hand though, that type of segregation demonstrates the inabilities inside the mind of the indexer. Says nothing to me about the quality or capacity of my art. I aim to produce the highest creative works human beings are capable of, period.
comfusion: Your poetry mixes and juxtaposes stereotypes, both positive and negative, in ways that encourage reflection upon the society that brings these stereotypes into existence. For instance, the incarcerated black man:
"Still thinking this is a white man's world
"Every night, every night
What is the Poetic/Prophetic Vision that moves behind these juxtapositions? (are you playing with language and images, or is there a more spiritual dimension to your need to portray the images in such a way?)
Taalam: The first statement is a social comment. It's based on Howard Zinn's philosophies of race struggle being used to camouflage class struggle in this country (world). It's, perhaps, more reflective though of Dick Gregory's observation that most white people can't afford to be white. So that quote was the best way to explain those views. The beauty of it to me is that by placing the black man and white man in the same prison cell the comparison becomes so clear. It strips away the clouded idea of unquestionable white privilege; although the cell was just used as a microcosm of society at large. The rich and powerful (the last part is important) transmit racism to protect their self-interest. The color of the people destroyed is not as important as status quo maintenance.
The second quote was primarily imagery. The point was to explain the darkness of the ancestors who sing to me at night. What's most beautiful about this image though is that it's moving. The mind's lens is intended to pan outward from the soot in the crack pipe, to show the dark corner ... then pan out from the corner to show the dark basement ... then pan out from the basement to show the dark crack house ... and to finally pan from there to show the moon in the exact middle of the sky signaling midnight. I figure things get no darker than that.