E The Poet Emcee | photo by Indigenous Lens | courtesy of artist
E The Poet Emcee is a conversation-starter
“Spoken word as an art form is an African griot thing. If your art form is spoken word, you use the vernacular of the people because they’re the ones you’re talking to.”– E The Poet Emcee
I got into spoken word ten years ago. I frequently started going to open mics at World Cafe Live every first Monday. Later on that year, they had a spoken word event called The Harvest, and when I went there, that’s when I saw E The Poet Emcee perform for the very first time. He wasn’t like any of the poets that night, his delivery and wordplay were very similar to a deadly skilled lyricist — and to me that was awesome. Rap music inspired me to write, so seeing him bring that type of energy to his poetry encouraged me to get into spoken word even more.
I walked up to him after he was done and introduced myself, told him how nice he was, and that I was new to spoken word and looking for different places to perform at. He invited me to an event that he was hosting called The Art of Conversation. It allowed poets to perform their poetry and their performance started a conversation with the crowd afterward. That provided feedback whether good or bad and it also allowed the poets to defend their work if need be. The conversations only sparked ideas, never heated arguments, so there was no need to feel like you had to be politically correct when you spoke. Since then, poets like him, Lady Sarkazym, Shyster, Ms. Wise, and KP let me know that I could bring that aggressive hip hop attitude along with its witty wordplay into my writing as long as it came from a real place.
That’s what E The Poet Emcee’s art is all about, starting a conversation by being real first.
If you’re familiar with Philadelphia’s spoken word scene like I am, then you’re probably familiar with E The Poet Emcee as well. Whether you’ve seen him at open mic events like Jus Words, Voices In Power, or Breedlove, you know that the Baltimore native has a way of winning over the audience with his words. The moment he read the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” as a kid was when he discovered that writing was his way of creating art. Being a skilled writer means more to E The Poet Emcee than being labeled as a poet, or an MC. As he got older, he started traveling to open mic events in different cities on the east coast and gained a reputation as a writer who created stories by combing lyrical wit and God body wisdom. According to E The Poet Emcee, both his religious practice of Islam and art concepts are about human transformation and self-determination as Black people, and his upcoming project A Thing Called Life is fueled by these theories.
E The Poet Emcee once told me that comedians teach you timing when it comes to your art, and that your subject matter should reflect the times you’re in. During the past couple of months, he has released three new pieces — “Portals,” This Thing Called Life,” and “A Ballad For The Bullet” — that not only mirror the trying times that we’re currently facing, but also prepare us for the release of A Thing Called Life. I recently got a chance to sit and talk with him at Malcolm X Park and discussed a variety of topics such as his early beginnings, how similar his hometown Baltimore and his new home Philly are, Nick Cannon, and much-needed conversations within the black community.
TK: Can you describe the art scene in Baltimore?
E: As a kid growing up in most cities, your art scene is in the neighborhood, school talent shows, and park jams. The art scene in Baltimore is unique, the singers, rappers, and poets don’t sound like anybody else in the country because we’re so insulated. Picture The Wire type environment, cause that was very accurate of what city life in Baltimore was, and trying to be an artist in the midst of that. The artsy guys did the street thing and the art thing and our art had to speak to the streets. We weren’t glamorizing drug culture, but it always had to have some grit to it.
Our female singers have grit to them, like Mumu Fresh. She’s a perfect example of the grittiness of it’s going be what it is but it’s going to have some funk with it. Dru Hill sounded a little like Jodeci but they had an extra bounce to their music because of that Baltimore in there. [laughs] I used to travel to Philly a lot in the late 90s and early 2000s and Philly always reminded of Baltimore if Black people were a little more cohesive. It’s the same type of energy, Philly was always the City of Brotherly Love on some Black type shit to us. That was the difference.
TK: That’s funny because I always felt like there some similarities between Baltimore and Philly, but that was based on the people I’ve met at Temple who was from Baltimore. I feel like both cities have a gritty edge to them, but Baltimore was just the southern cousin. So as a person born and raised in Baltimore who has made Philly is second home what do you say to that?
E: Absolutely, Philly for me right now reminds me of the Baltimore that I grew up in, in a sense like in the 80s in the midst of the crack epidemic there was a more close-knit nest in Baltimore. It was like at the end of the day we like “Hey brother what’s going on,” but as the 80s progressed in the 90s Baltimore just got more and more savage. Like even right now in the midst of all the gentrification in Baltimore, it’s still a dark place. If you from Baltimore, you understand it and you love it, but it’s a very dark place. Baltimore is the southernmost northern city because it’s still technically the south, but more northern than most southern cities. It has all the characteristics of a big city but it still has a very small-town mentality. So as an artist, everything I write has to be those rays of light. Even if most of the artists from Baltimore aren’t talking about its despair, most of our art reflects how rough it is but we going keep our head up and keep it moving. All my art has a very grimey approach because that’s just a Baltimore thing. Our positivity has an edge to it.
TK: I’ve been to the open mic event Jus Words enough to see what that positive grit looks like. [laughs] You know you and the host Shyster were good people, but the crowd was very hard to please and you weren’t going to get their attention just by being on stage. You had to be nice with words and display confidence in your delivery that made the crowd pay attention to you, and once you did, it felt very rewarding because you know you earned that big response. Do you think that grit is what connected you Shyster together?
E: Absolutely. My first time at Jus Words was back in 2008. I was a traveling poet still living in Baltimore at the time, traveling up and down the east coast. And most artists who were traveling artists, we check in with each other to see what spots to go to and who to hit up. So an international poet who travels a lot named Taalam Acey told me to go to Jus Words because I told him that I was trying to get back into Philly. So I remember getting out of my car close to Cecil B Moore and there were shiny buildings and I’m like “Oh this is cool, this is like a college town.” But we realized that we parked too far and started walking down and the further we started going down it got darker and darker and once got to Dowling’s Palace, which was a block up from Broad and Girard, we were like “Oh, we in the hood!”
I knew it was some hood shit because they had a dude at the door patting you down before you went in. When I went upstairs, it was a dark ass bar looking vibe and I’m feeling at home! A lot of people there and the first dude that I meet was the host Shyster. Once he got on stage he was like “I’m Shyster, aka Ms. Betty’s son,” and I’m like “That’s everything I need there!” A dude who calls himself Shyster, which is some street shit, but respects the eldership of the relationship between him and his mother, so he calls himself “Ms. Betty’s Son.” That’s consciousness and street put together, so he and I hit it off as kindred spirits.
What I liked about Jus Words and that space…because in Baltimore most of the open mic spots you had to fight for the attention of the people because most of the open mics were in bars in the beginning days. College kids would rent out the bars because they were the cheapest spots to do so the bar owner would let you do your thing in the back but everybody that was in there was sitting at the bar doing their thing, drinking and talking. You had to approach it a certain type of way to make the people at the bar want to turn around and listen to you. One of the best kinds of compliments we got wasn’t finger-snapping it was when someone turned around and said “Aight young boy, talk that shit!” Our poetry had to have an element of aggressiveness and talking that shit. It was a lot of cursing, a lot of rawness but still filled with high intellect. You had to have that dichotomy in all your work.
TK: The production in “This Thing Called Life” includes Prince’s vocals from “Let’s Go Crazy.” When he passed away, I remember seeing you talk about his influence on you, as well as culture. Can you talk about the influence Prince had on you as an artist?
E: For my generation, the height of Prince was his fifth project Purple Rain, which for me was in my formative years when I was 12 or 13 years old. The teenage years of every artist are their biggest musical influences as an adult, you’re practicing what you do. Prince grew off of Sly and Family Stone and Santana and that’s reflected in his music. For my generation, he’s like Mozart because he was the first multimedia artist. Prince sang, played all the instruments, and created all the music. Then his videos and visuals would change with every album he dropped. He had a different haircut, a different style of clothing to point it was hard to have a “Prince” look because he always kept changing his image and the music sounds totally different.
So Prince was the biggest influence for anybody in my age bracket. Questlove, Erykah Badu, and Maxwell, the reason why we’re so funky and way-out-there was because Prince was the first artist to make you consider all things: your image, album rollouts, and your videos. I approach my art the way he does, most people think I’m just writing a poem but every poem that I’ve written was to music that I produce. Like if you go back to my discography on Bandcamp, 95% of all of that music is me creating it with samples. This particular project has no samples, just me playing the music. In “This Thing Called Life” you hear the guitar sounds, that’s all me. The main thing about Prince’s influence was his approach to sonics, he had a very good understanding of how music is supposed to sound meshing with voices. He’s like a Mozart for my generation were as you learn how to create all of it at the same time
TK: Listening to “This Thing Called Life,” lines like “Movement to rights ain’t moving right,” “So-called freedom with strings,” and “We ain’t outnumbered, we’re unorganized,” remind me of a post you put on Facebook about the problem not being about the quality of Black leaders but more about the quality of Black followers. How do you believe that Black followers can improve in this thing called life?
E: When it comes to our leaders, speakers, and teachers, there’s enough information that has been out there that if you applied those things to your life, you’ll see the quality of your life change. It disturbs me that so many people are fans of Malcolm X, but they’re not applying the things Malcolm said to their lives. During all the police brutality going on, I saw a series of posts saying we need leaders like Malcolm and I’m like “For what, for them to tell you what’s already been said?” Yeah, the police are killing us because we don’t put a premium on our lives. The first power that we need to do for them over-policing us is to police ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going on patrol and make sure nobody is doing nothing, it’s about establishing codes of conduct amongst ourselves. The other day in North Philly a dude shot a pregnant woman right in the head. What do we have in place for that? I don’t give a damn what she did, because that’s not warranted. Where we at with that? And if we’re not policing ourselves, we leave ourselves vulnerable for others to come in and police us how they feel.
Back then I was in the streets and got into things that street kids got into until the rappers started teaching us that “Yo that’s a trick bag, that’s what they want you to do.” KRS One had a song called “Illegal Business” and he broke down how kids getting caught up in the drug trade is the pipeline to prison. They want you to get caught out there thinking that you making money because fast money is a fast way to go to jail. I listened to that and was like “we ain’t doing that no more” to all my friends. “Yo, it’s a trick bag! Black man got to have knowledge of self. Black man got to be on some Black shit and love himself and his brothers. We God by nature!” I heard Minister Farrakhan speak for the first time on June 1st, 1990 when I was 18 years old at the Baltimore arena. Heard that and started changing my life and joined the Nation of Isalm four years later. To go back to the question, I’ve listened to people teach many things, like after I read How to Eat to Live by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, I started disciplining myself to live a lifestyle that prolongs your life and won’t have you getting old out here before your time.
TK: One of the things that upset me about the black community is that it feels like black women want to separate themselves from black men. That’s not to say that we haven’t contributed to the reason for this separation and are completely innocent but I do think that genuine conversations about the relationship between black men and black women need to happen and I think that pieces like “A Ballad For The Bullet” and your old collaborative piece with your wife Lady Sarkazym called “Lost Jawn,” kind of help start those conversations. What are somethings that you think can help mend that relationship?
E: More than anything, we have to listen to each other without prejudgment. Right now black men are feeling that black women are separating themselves from us and we have to deal with that with love. We can’t strike out of that situation with anger. Because of the system of white supremacy for generations, Black men have never been able to function at a hundred percent. Since slavery, we have never been able to function as what a hundred percent man could be to their woman counterpart. So we’ve been coming up short for the longest and with them being our counterpart, they’ve been having to deal with some very inhumane spaces while we’re trying to get this thing together.
Because we’re not women, we don’t know how far in generationally they’ve been dealing with some bullshit coming from us. Now, this is a time period where Black women are asserting themselves and when people start asserting themselves as a group for their first time they’re going to do it clumsily, they’re not going to do it properly. In the late 80s and early 90s, we as Black men started asserting ourselves yelling “The Black Man is God!” Now we did it clumsily, because if the Black man is God then what is the Black woman? Is she God or is she not God?
The 5 percenters would say we were Gods and they were Earth, which makes her a lesser being than the God. Now the Nation of Islam teaches that the feminine side of God is represented in the Black woman and the masculine side is represented in the Black man and to fully be God we have to be together. We teach that a nation can rise no higher than your woman, so until you start to elevate your woman your people will never be right. Sisters right now are talking from hurt, and that hurt is being manipulated by people outside of us. White feminists, white people, LGBT, right now she feels that she has allies in everybody except Black men.
TK: I saw the conversation piece of your poem “Portals” and heard you talk about how we have a tradition of Black leaders who’ve always pushed us into unity being our strength. It seems like during these trying times there’s been plenty of glimpses of Black unity, so what are some things that you believe we can do to improve this unity?
E: The issue with our people is unfortunately we’re only united in a group crisis. When we’re attacked as a group we respond as a group. So for a brief moment, we had a “us against them” kind of thing and that’s beautiful, but the thing is it’s not long-lasting enough. When it doesn’t seem like a crisis is present, we go back to set tripping, we go back into dividing ourselves up as oppose to sticking together as a people.
Take for instance these two women who walked past [in the park], they should feel safe regardless of their background. All these Black people in this park should be looking out for each other. Like if someone ran up and started beating on one of those women, it’s supposed to be an immediate response to everybody to swarm on who’s beating them and stop it. Nine times out of ten we would have that immediate reaction, hopefully.
Now go the other way with Nick Cannon, when I see how divided black people are in this situation. The part that got him into trouble isn’t him talking about white people, it’s about him making anti-Semitic remarks. Now his statements are either historical inaccuracies or historical trues, either one is worthy of a conversation. He even said that “I don’t mean no ill-intent on Jewish people if there’s a conversation to be had let’s all get together as a group, and let’s talk about these things.”
TK: Conversation is the right word. That reminded me of your old events “The Art of Conversation,” where you got to perform a piece and have a conversation about it. That was dope to me because it allowed you to hear what others thought about your ideas as well as defend what you’re talking about if need be. Nowadays it feels regardless of race, sexual orientation, or religion nobody wants to sit down and have a conversation about so-called “sensitive” topics, why do you think that is?
E: A conversation is an art form. I think Nick got caught out there because he didn’t have a full understanding of the information that he had, so it’s kind of hard to defend it. Conversation helps you nuance what you think you know. Social media has made the world very small and cancel culture has made the world even smaller. The algorithms of your social media will only show you the people you interact with. You’ll think you have a viewpoint of what’s going on out here when you’re hearing the same canned opinions over and over again. Cancel culture is everybody is afraid to say the wrong thing to get canceled. It’s an extension of everybody being politically correct and that’s deceptive.
I can be a white racist and hate black people, but I know what things to say and not say that you’ll never know that I am racist. I want to know if you’re racist! It’s a passive bubble, people are so sensitive that they don’t want to be around someone who thinks a different way that they think because it threatens what you think. Now what that does is hold a lot of false concepts in your head because you never engaged in those concepts.
I was able to be open-minded to other religions because I went to a school in PG County, which is outside of Baltimore, and went to school with international kids. I had a close friend who was Hindu and another who was EL Salvadorian and both their religious practices different religions that nuanced my religion. Back then I grew up as a Christian, and I saw that there were other people who weren’t Christian, and thought maybe they weren’t going to burn in Hell because they don’t believe in what I believe in. I was open-minded to the idea that there was more to religion than what I thought.
When it comes to the art of conversation, we can disagree and not be disagreeable. It’s ok to have your ideas challenged.