Taalam Acey: I Chose To Be A Poet When I Lost My Mind

Taalam Acey at Poets & Painters, Silver Spring, MD on March 10, 2007.

hide captionTaalam Acey at Poets & Painters, Silver Spring, MD on March 10, 2007.

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New Jersey-born spoken word artist Taalam Acey has a U.S. following that any performer would covet. Acey rhymes about love, poverty, race, women, fatherhood. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Acey about his work and recent CD "Optix."

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ALLISON KEYES, Host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away on jury duty.

Coming up, another installment in our series marking Father's Day. TELL ME MORE has been airing essays by some of our contributors and guests who are dads. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we enter the world of slam poetry. New Jersey born poet Taalam Acey has a U.S. following that any modern performer would covet. He's won awards at England and Germany and he draws crowds wherever he performs. Acey's rhymes about love, poverty, race, women, fatherhood, about life - everything you can imagine. Let's hear a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAM POETRY)

TAALAM ACEY: It is something about the way she conjures the ancestors. She dances and she walks like she's from the Congo - pure. Congo like Assata Shakur says brothers don't understand this giant's behind her self reliance. She has a tattoo of global Jew and a tattoo of Marcus Garvey on her breast and says you got to have the presence of Martin Delany. It's through hope to have a future in getting past her Malcolm X. She is smooth as the Hennessey she's sipping as we listen to Horace Silver playing our third game of chess. And I can't help but stare into the natural texture of her hair as she compares George Padmore with CLR James.

KEYES: That's from his latest CD "Optics." And Taalam Acey is here with us now. Welcome to the program and to our studios.

ACEY: Thank you very much, Allison. Thank you for the welcome.

KEYES: I've got to start out by asking you, poetry, particularly slam poetry has, you know, achieved some popularity in the last few years, but if you're not in a place like New York or Chicago or L.A., you know, not so many people maybe know about it yet. I wonder how you've managed to make a career out of this.

ACEY: I mean, well, perhaps, but slam poetry is in almost every state, when they have the National Poetry Slam, which they have every August. And they also have slams in Germany. They have slams in London. The funny thing about saying slam poetry though, is that slam really only - is only indicative of a poetry contest.

KEYES: Right.

ACEY: So when you...

KEYES: Like a battle.

ACEY: Right. So to say slam poetry is a little bit odd in a way because it's not what a page or a literary poet thinks it is. Because I've seen people get up with a page. I've seen people get up - most slam poetry is prose. What I'm saying is there may not be a such thing as slam poetry per se. There are poetry slams. I came out of poetry slams. I represent slam poetry in terms of the competitions. But the poems are all over the place.

I could get up in a poetry slam and do a Claude McKay piece. I could do "If We Must Die," you know, and maybe win with it.

KEYES: Right. So it doesn't always have to be a competition. You're up onstage trying to beat down the other poet - be faster, stronger, you know, more ingenuity than the other poet.

ACEY: Usually the people who win - they're talking about, like, how their grandmother died or something.

KEYES: Yikes.

ACEY: You know, cancer and then they give you, like, extreme detail and it's really slow and everybody's crying. And then they say, 10, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Let me go back to my first question. And of course we're not laughing at anyone's grandmother dying.

ACEY: Of course not.

KEYES: Of course not. But let me go back to my first question. How do you support yourself that way? Because I could hear parents, some people's parents, not my parents, not at all, saying, honey, you want to be a poet. That's great. What else are you going to do to pay your bills?

ACEY: Right. Colleges and theaters pay decent amounts of money. I mean, you can make enough money in a college or the type of money in one college show or one theater show that some people don't make in a month, you know. So when those things come up, they're helpful. But the majority of my money is made through product sales.

KEYES: In other words, CDs.

ACEY: Right. It's the CDs. I sell CDs. I sell books. I sell DVDs. And that's the primary source of my income.

KEYES: Who are some of your influences? I think that I've seen a picture of you and the late legendary Gil Scott-Heron together somewhere.

ACEY: Yeah. We were in New York. He had just done a show at SOBs and The Last Poets are influences of mine. I've met them several times and performed with them. Oscar Brown, Jr., I had the opportunity to perform with him before he passed. And Amiri Baraka, I pretty much grew up...

KEYES: Right. In New Jersey, of course.

ACEY: My mother and my father were in his organization.

KEYES: But tell me, Taalam, at what point in your life did you make the decision, I'm going to be a poet? This is what I'm going to be in life. I'm not going to do it part time. This is who I am and what I'm going to present to the world.

ACEY: I would imagine somewhere around the same day that I lost my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: So, moving on. I want to warn our listeners that the content we are about to hear next might be a little bit offensive, so please keep that in mind.

ACEY: Oh my God. What are you're going play? I'm scared.

KEYES: And the poem is called "Market 4 N Words." I'm not saying the actual word. But it criticizes contemporary hip-hop. Let's hear some of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "MARKET 4 NI$$AS")

ACEY: Ya'll should buy my CD because I used to sell crack. Y'all, y'all should buy my CD because I got shot three times. I did a 3 to 9 and all that. See, there's a market for (bleep). There's a market for (bleep) that target figures which purchase $100,000 jewelry. And $200,000 automobiles don't fool me, I know pain when I see it. And he would probably give it all away if he hadn't signed his life away just to realize that $1 million was a small price to pay for his dignity.

KEYES: So it sounds like you are saying that hip-hop artists have sold out and that they're glorifying drug dealing and violence and to sell their albums. But some of them have actually had those life experiences. So are you saying that this isn't fair game for their art?

I'm saying that many hip-hop artists sold out, not all of them, first of all. Second of all, at the time that there was a Public Enemy and a KRS-One doing one thing and there was a Snoop and an Ice Cube doing another thing...

Right.

ACEY: ...I bought all the records. But the thing was there was a balance in the industry. What's happened is that the industry is tilted such that there is no more A Tribe Called Quest or that type of act. That whole...

KEYES: In other words we have something to say...

ACEY: It's shifted.

KEYES: People that have something to say politically as well as just talking where it came from.

ACEY: Right. So it's the balance. I mean I love - I had Snoop's album. I had Ice Cube's album the same way I had Chuck D and KRS-One's album and I loved them both for different reasons. But what's happening now is that it's tilted to the point that you have people who all feel like they have to be from the hood or gangster. And it's irritating because they're less gangster than I. And I can hear it. I mean I know the difference. They're talking about what they haven't even lived and that's different than what NWA was doing, you know. When it's off balance where even the people who should be being Tribe Called Quest now or should be being Chuck D or KRS-One now are turning around, talking about, you know, things that they know nothing about. And I know they know nothing about it because I can listen to it and I've been there. I've lived different lives.

KEYES: Let me jump in here just for a moment and say, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and I'm speaking with the poet Taalam Acey.

You know, you're not purely hard-core, though. You have a soft side...

ACEY: No.

KEYES: ...because I've heard you do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ACEY: Yes. I'm a very nice warm, fuzzy individual.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Fuzzy might be arguable. But you do have a collection of love poems. It's a series called "Aura." What inspired this?

ACEY: Ooh, interesting question. I didn't think you would ask it. "Aura" comes from - you're familiar with the Negro Leagues where, you know, the black ball players, before they were accepted into the Major Leagues where Jackie Robinson and Josh...

KEYES: And we're talking about baseball players, by the way.

ACEY: Right. Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, those people, they used to tour around, just like musicians. And when they would show up to the hotel women would be there. And they were asking a man who was in the Negro Leagues about a situation where he met a woman name Aura and married her and never was seen outside the hotel or outside the ballgame looking for a woman again. And they said well, how did that happen? And he said when I met her everything just changed. But he couldn't explain it, like he didn't have the language to explain it. And as a poet I always felt like that's my job. So I went and did this whole series of poems where I tried to explain what that feeling was that made him stop everything.

KEYES: I wonder if you might be able to do one of them for us. And the one I want to hear...

ACEY: And the one I want to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: I heard you silence a room full of women with one that begins I know where your scarz are.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "SCARZ")

ACEY: (Reading) I can tell where your scarz are just by the way you walk. And every assault that you have endured has ensured your every step. And you are blessed regardless of the animals that have attacked you. And you are pure no matter who has abused you. I know an angel when I see one. And when our kingdom come, it will be you, I and the sun. And we will be one. We will create children and our children will create us. Then every night by the light of the moon I will kiss away your scarz to Abbey Lincoln tunes and I will drink perfume that taste like you out of a vessel with a waist like you. Then I will draw our bath water warm so we can soak till our souls are reborn. And you will be safe and secure in my arms and it will always be this way.

KEYES: Let me ask you briefly what you're working on right now.

ACEY: Right now I'm working on a project called "Modern Aestheticism." And that the Aestheticism Movement was a movement where poets and painters got together in Europe and worked from each other. The painter would paint something. The poet would write a poem about it. The poet would write a poem, the painter would paint and painting about it. So what I did was I got seven and painters to agree to allow me to use two pieces from each of them, seven of them my favorite modern painters, and I've written a poem to each of the paintings. So there's 14 poems that I wrote for the paintings, and that's the next project.

KEYES: When is that coming out?

ACEY: Oddly enough, in about two weeks.

KEYES: OK.

ACEY: It didn't take long. I mean when you've got a painting, I mean finding inspiration is the hardest part. So when you're looking at a painting that you love it's just, you know, it was not hard to do.

KEYES: We were talking briefly about Father's Day, and I know you are a father of three. I wonder if you might share with us one of your poems about fatherhood.

ACEY: (Reading) Blasted out of my sleep 6 o'clock in the morning, some maniac outside leaning on his car horn. Got to go outside and teach him the proper etiquette. Neighborhood bad enough. Can't let it get worse than it already is. You hear me? I need my sleep. That's the only time on this planet that I ever get any peace. I tried that college thing with some American dreams except yet I still live on the same street that I grew up on. Them same streets that I grew up tough on, or my mother hoped that I would surpass at least to middle-class, but yet I'm still stuck on that same mentality. And all those years of college ain't even challenged me. But when I graduated life was right there to put a degree in my hands and a foot on my chest, and here I am dressed in my pajamas and no slippers about to run outside and rip the backbone out this fool.

And ain't got nothing to show for all those years of school but bad credit and even worse decisions. And I live in a neighborhood where people buy food on credit so they finance but they don't just take, and they're making payments on food that they already ate. When you see them on the street they're looking at me like they're about to break and I'm snatching open this door like I'm about to break. And I see my best friend and he's sitting in a minivan with four of those child car seats and he's looking at me with a gun in his hands. Like I can hear his heartbeat. And with his other hand, he takes a swig of liquor from a bottle of scotch. Tops door locks like it in. Moves the pictures of his children off the car seat with his (unintelligible) and everything stops. And we drive, and we drive, and we drive till we get to the part of town which seems like the American dream is still alive. And in my mind I'm playing Nina Simone as I'm looking out the window in the passenger side. And it's like somebody scraping their fingernails along by bones since I feel this grown man cry. And I wonder if he knew that tens of millions of people in this country are depressed but using alcohol or drugs to remain in denial.

I wonder if he knows that there is a suicidal tendency behind almost every smile because no matter how many times you go back to school or how many jobs you work simultaneously they can never seem to permanently change their lifestyle. But somehow they convinced themselves it'll be different for their children. And eventually they realize that that's a fantasy but they need something to believe in until then. And him, he just wants to be a father to his children. But sometimes, y'all, after all the love is gone, children become pawns in a relationship. And his relationship with his children is the vehicle that his ex-wife chooses to take out her frustrations with. And if he's just one day late on a child support she reports it to the court. And what's driving him crazy is yesterday he just got laid off now. Thirty 30 days ago her and the kids just moved in with the new man who drives a Range Rover and plays golf and that's a year ago from the day that my best friend had to go to jail for making her last boyfriend stop telling the children that their father was soft. And right now he feels like everything is lost.

That's why I'm glad he came to me to give me this opportunity to put a few thoughts across. And you see all day and all night we talk. And I tell him a man is judged by what's in his soul and what's in his heart, and not just by what's in his pockets. I tell him me and him are friends through thick and thin and if he's in pain we need to put our brains, time and money together to stop it. I tell him the fact that he doesn't have a lot of money is a problem, then rather than getting fed up, what we need to do is wake up and like Moses and Jacob, whenever we get together just find new ways to profit, because in my eyes our friendship is how we live and how we die. And don't you ever believe that even for a second that I would ever let you slide. Now what I'm about to say I want you to listen with all your pride and sexuality aside. Because as God is my guide, like my own self, I love you.

KEYES: Taalam Acey is an award-winning poet. His new CD "Optix" is just out and he joined us here in Washington, D.C. and his work, as we warned you, is a little raw. Thanks so much for coming in.

ACEY: Thank you for having me. And thank you for welcoming me.

KEYES: If you want to find out more about Taalam Acey and his work, go to our website, npr.org, click on Programs and then TELL ME MORE.

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