Each year, millions of viewers tune in as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Recording Academy) presents one of the United States’ most prestigious music ceremonies: The Grammy Awards.
The Recording Academy sent waves through the poetry world when it announced that its 65th Annual Awards (airing, February 5, 2023) will see several new categories, including a designation specifically for poetry: Best Spoken Word Poetry Album.
Poets were previously housed under the original Best Spoken Word Album category, which served as a catch-all for narrated recordings. That category has now been split into two: #60 Best Audio Book, Narration, and Storytelling Recording and #61 Best Spoken Word Poetry Album. The move honors both the uniqueness of the poetry genre as well as the passionate work of its purveyors.
The five inaugural poetry nominees are: Malcolm-Jamal Warner, J. Ivy, E. Ethelbert Miller, Amanda Gorman and Amir Sulaiman.
The Poet’s List is honored to present our interview with the multi-hyphenate and ever-talented GRAMMY nominee: Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Prior to landing on poetry, what memories do you have of your relationship with literature and writing as a youth?
Poetry pretty much landed on me! My dad went to Lincoln University with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. He was their dorm’s RA. And, he went to Lincoln because Langston went there. So, I came out of the womb listening to them.
One of my favorite books as an elementary school kid was, “Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X.” I used to take it to school and keep it on my desk and kids would tease me like, “Oh, somebody wrote a book about you?” They thought it was funny. But, what occurred to me was that my 5th grade peers didn’t know who Malcolm was, nor were they reading poetry as sophisticated as what I was reading.
My dad had this thick book, “Great American Negroes,” and on my summer vacations he would make me read these chapters on Langston, Richard Wright, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marion Anderson, Lorraine Hansberry, and so on and make me write book reports on them. He was hardcore about connecting me with my history through the arts.
There are so many layers to creating poetry, and several avenues for disseminating. Which aspect of the process excites you the most?
For me: the wordplay, lyricism and crafting the message. I’ve always been a writer and always thought that everyone loved poetry. But, as I got older, I recognized that poetry misses a lot of people because it can often come off as too esoteric. I discovered it was a turn off to a lot of people because it was either legit too deep or poets trying too hard to be deep. My approach was to make poetry accessible to people who might not like poetry.
Growing up as part of the hip-hop community, and being a better poet than emcee, I appreciate great wordplay. But, given my upbringing, I’m also heavy on substance. Great wordplay alone can get tired after a while. And, while hip-hop can be rigid in its subject matter—and often in its execution—the spoken word poetry space allows for more exploration; especially when spoken word artists venture outside of the delivery that has seemed to become synonymous with spoken word.
Because I’m also a musician, there’s an inherent musicality to my writing style. So, I often get quite excited when I can infuse rhythm, wordplay, alliteration, my truth and substance in my writing.
And, because of my theater upbringing, the stage is home for me. So, whether I’m doing poetry with my band, my bass, or just me and a mic, I LOVE being onstage performing my poetry. While I understand poets who don’t like reading their poetry in public, I often tell poets that there’s something about sharing in front of people that completes the circle. But then again, many a great poem has fallen upon def ears because of delivery that doesn’t engage.
Writing and performing are both skills that I find myself consistently honing.
When did you begin to claim the title of poet and how did you first connect with the poetry community?
What’s funny is when I was about 6 or 7 years old—and this was before I had ever taken an acting class—I declared to my parents that I was either going to be a famous actor, a famous poet, or a famous basketball player. We won’t talk about my basketball game, but I do know that—even back then—I considered myself a poet.
It wasn’t until ’93 that I went to my first poetry venue in L.A.—The Juke Joint, run by Roni Walter (@poetronigirl_)—and was hooked. I immediately became very active in the resurgence of the underground spoken word movement in L.A.
Red Sea Poetry, run by Deep Red (@spokenyoga) at the original Lucy Florence Coffee Shop, was the spot everyone in L.A. would go to work out. The Flypoet Showcase and Da Poetry Lounge became the spots any poet worth their salt visiting L.A. would hit up.
Roni and I started a poetry band called Conversation Peace, where I would play electric upright bass and Khalif Bobatoon would play sax behind Roni and other poets, and then I would do poetry myself. Shortly after that, Khalif and I formed our own jazz/funk/spoken word band, Miles Long. And whenever I had personal appearances in other cities, I always found a poetry spot to go work out.
You are most revered and renowned for your exceptional acting career. However, you are also a seasoned director, an established bass player and a breathtaking poet. At your career’s inception, did you anticipate being a multi-faceted creator?
Breathtaking? Hey, bless you. Thank you, I appreciate that! Early on, my mother impressed upon me the importance of diversifying; especially if I was looking at career longevity. So, I started my directing journey at 16, shooting my own short films to music, which led to music videos and ultimately directing my first Cosby episode at 18.
By 23, after a few incidents that gave me experiential knowledge of the politics and instability of the entertainment industry, I recognized that, if I kept all my eggs in the acting and directing baskets, this industry would break my heart. And that’s when I found poetry to be a necessary outlet for me.
A few years later, I started playing bass as another outlet. I had no intentions of starting a band, recording music, or being one of those “corny actor dudes” who suddenly wanted to be a musician. My intent was to just practice scales to a metronome in my dressing room as a meditative outlet to relieve stress. Little did I know where that journey would take me!
But ultimately, becoming a “multi-faceted creator” stemmed from recognizing that I have several avenues of creative expression available to me. As a poet and musician, I can express myself in ways that I can’t as an actor or director. So essentially, I need all of these avenues to express the creativity I’m honored to be fortunate enough to access.
Of your body of poetic work, which piece or collection would you like to serve as your *introduction* for the generations to come?
All my pieces are my babies! And they all represent my truth and levels of me [that] many people don’t necessarily get to see from my public persona. So, I stand by every piece I’ve put out. A big takeaway for people who listen to my body of work is that: I’m not a celebrity who “likes to do poetry.” This is what I do. I am a poet.
If we’re going for a collection, definitely the album, Hiding in Plain View. Because Hiding in Plain View is my most recent offering, it most represents who and where I am now.
In terms of a poem, I’d say, “Dope”—the second track on the album—is a perfect introduction. By sharing my journey to a place of being able to even call myself “dope,” I hope it inspires others to own themselves and love themselves.
(“you don’t have to be famous to relate, right?/how much love in your life have you overlooked and taken for granted simply because you couldn’t stand it that the one you wanted love from the most didn’t love you the way you hoped?/It’s like dope, right?/addicted to what you can’t have…”)
We would love to hear more about, Hiding in Plain View. Please feel free to share as much as you’d like with regards to its creation, its reception and what it means to you. Please also share any available links.
Hiding In Plain View is especially special to me because, for the first time, I did most of the production myself. It started as my quarantine lockdown project. I’ve produced for other poets and some of my own here and there. But, this time, I decided to do all the production on this album myself to see what it would look and sound like; and to make me more confident when working with other producers in the future.
But, the problem with doing everything myself—with no real deadline—was accountability. And, as much as I love my creative music space, being a present husband and father takes precedence. So, as I got close to completion, I got cold feet, and it was easy to let other important life things “distract” me from completing the album.
When the GRAMMYs finally created a separate poetry category for us, that gave me a definitive date by which to take the step in completing the album. But, it also meant a time crunch for me. My man, DeAndre Shaifer (@drekingbeats), and I collaborated on “Black Fist Beautiful” and “So I Run.” Dana Johnson (@bigdane1973) engineered the live sessions, did editing and mixing. Though I’ve been heavily involved and have played bass on all my albums, this album has not just my poetic voice, but my bona fide music stamp on it.
Hiding In Plain View is my 4th and, by far, most important album from a social conscious standpoint. I’m known mostly for love/relationship and social consciousness poems. My second album is actually entitled Love & Other Social Issues. This album is for us. Black boys. Black men. Black people. And non-Black people who have the foresight to see our self-healing as an invitation to explore their own necessary healing. I will even be bold enough to say that Hiding in Plain View is one of the most important albums to come out in 2022.
Of course, that’s how strongly I feel about my work. But I say that specifically because, featured on the album is award winning novelist and Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Clark Atlanta University, Dr. Daniel Black. I recorded a conversation with him with the intent of putting an excerpt from him over the long music bed after my poem Asante Sana. But, when I went in to edit our convo and listened to all the knowledge he dropped, I felt compelled to put him throughout the record.
He has such an eloquent and no-nonsense way of sharing his perspective and, because he interacts with young Black students daily, he is a very credible resource. He offers some quite powerful shifts in our perspective with regard to how we raise our Black boys, which will impact how they interact with each other and Black girls. [This] impacts how future Black men and Black women will relate to each other as adults.
The album opens with him saying, “The thing about a Black boy is that you don’t necessarily want to beat a Black boy. What you want to do is love him so fiercely, love him so divinely that your disappointment will kill them.”
He makes some bold and heavy statements that complement the overall messages in my poetry. This link will take listeners to the album and to my artist page where they can listen to my catalogue of music.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner | United Masters
In what ways would you like to see the poetry community grow and evolve in the coming years?
I’d love for the poetry community to be less clique-ish. Before Def Poetry Jam and Lyric Café, we were all out here doing poetry features for free. And, though I’m glad that we are deemed worthy of being paid for our art, the money also seemed to turn the tide a bit with regards to how poets relate with each other.
These cliques started popping up and poets started having beef with each other like hip-hop artists. Because of [my] work and now being a husband and father, I’m no longer in the trenches like I used to be. But I know poet beefs still exist. And maybe beef is just a part of human nature, but I believe poets are a special breed. I’m probably being lofty and idealistic, but I would love to see our spiritual camaraderie keep us above the fray of the beef.
Awards + Advice:
You already hold the esteemed title of “GRAMMY Award winner,” and some may be surprised to know that it is actually for your poetry! However, it was for your work on “Jesus Children” by the Robert Glasper Experiment alongside Lalah Hathaway, so it fell under the Best Traditional R&B Performance category in 2015. How did it feel to be honored that year?
That was monumental! Even though it isn’t a spoken word song, that poem is a significant part of the song. That GRAMMY win is dear to me because I just happened to be hanging out at the studio when Rob was mixing the record. A good friend of his had a daughter who was one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and Rob needed a poem about Sandy Hook. I didn’t have one but told him to give me the track and I’d write one.
So, he gave me his iPod shuffle (remember those?) and I took a pen and pad and went upstairs. After about an hour and some change, he came upstairs and I spit it for him. That was one of those periods when I was constantly writing and was on my A-game. It was definitely a “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready” situation.
Ironically, I put out my 3rd album, ‘Selfless,” shortly after that and submitted it for the following GRAMMY year. It’s also a powerful album featuring Robert, Lalah, Ledisi, Stokley, and Rashaan Patterson. I believe it would have gotten more attention had there been a Best Spoken Word Poetry category back then.
What does it mean to be honored by The Recording Academy as part of the Best Spoken Word Poetry category at this year’s GRAMMY Awards?
As the poetry community knows: This has been a long time coming. We’ve been campaigning for this for a few years and are all grateful to J. Ivy for leading the charge.
I believe it’s only fair that we have a separate category because spoken word poetry is its own art form. Winning with Robert and Lalah was amazing. It’s something I will obviously cherish forever. But to be recognized on this level for my own album where everything is unabashedly me, flaws and all, is an even deeper level of gratification.
I don’t write poetry for validation, but I must say that it is very validating to have my album honored by the Recording Academy. And, it’s also validating from a production standpoint as well. You have no idea how many times I’ve considered quitting music altogether.
How would you describe your fellow cohort of inaugural poets?
I really admire Amanda Gorman. I wasn’t aware of her before she did “The Hill We Climb,” but I was moved enough to do a deep dive of her work. I appreciate her journey and her voice. I even watched her poetry course on Masterclass.com and found myself inspired in many ways. In fact, “Call Us What We Carry” is right here on my bookshelf.
I love J. Ivy’s perspective, his message, and his grind. I call him the “ambassador of inspiration” because when you listen to his body of work, which is extensive, you feel his passion to serve as an inspiration. He makes you feel that he understands what you’re going through and has a way of making you feel good about yourself when you listen to his work. J, as a person, wants everybody to win in life and that is very much reflected in his poetry.
I’ve been a huge fan of Amir “The Sufi Can Rhyme” Sulaiman for the past 20 years easy. His pen game is a beast, only rivaled by his beastly delivery. You don’t just listen to Amir, you feel him. You experience him. He’s the poet who spits and makes me re-examine…everything about life. He is magical. He honestly makes me a better poet.
I also was not familiar with Brother Ethelbert before the nominations but, man, I am so glad that I got turned onto him. His body of work is a masterclass itself. He is a walking history book. For poets and writers reading this, hear me: Ethelbert Miller is a man to study.
What has been the greatest piece of advice you’ve received thus far (poetry related or other)?
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t get caught up in the now. Enjoy the successes, but always keep your big picture in mind. If you want longevity in this business, remember that everything you do today—the good and bad—will follow you forever. No matter how great things are, stay grateful and always be mindful of your actions—because you have no idea who’s watching you or how your influence can impact others.
Please tune into the 65th annual Grammy Awards which will air live on February 5, 2023 on CBS. The winner for Best Spoken Award Poetry Album will be announced during the pre-telecast.
Other: United Masters
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