If you ask poet, Toni Blackman about the state of the black spoken word movement, she’ll tell you it doesn’t really exist anymore. The dwindling scene once thrived under the tutelage of HBO’s hit show, Def Poetry Jam, during Hip Hop’s commercial success in the mid to late 90s, and via countless poetry clubs in major cities. Yet Blackman’s career, which she began crafting since her days at Howard University, has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, she recently made a commitment to scale back and take time to enjoy life and the company of her loved ones.
Blackman got her start in the industry organizing freestyle cyphers and working with Hip Hop MCs. The San Francisco Bay Area native went on to perform with some of the most noted black poets of our time. She was named an American Culture Specialist and the first U.S. Hip Hop Ambassador, which allowed her to travel to over 40 countries, including several in Africa. She currently teaches a songwriting workshop at Carnigie Hall.
I caught up with Blackman, who is scheduled to perform at the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Manhattan Chapter’s upcoming Poetic Justice event. We talked about how her days at Howard University propelled her career, why poets are so important in society, and how she experiences the power of poetry.
When did you first start performing and doing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was like 7-years-old. Then I got serious about it when I was 8-years-old. My aunty who is a poet and an English teacher helped me put together my first book when I w as in the third grade. I started reciting other people’s poetry when I was like 9-years-old; and doing a lot of public performances. When I was about 13 I would perform at all the cultural events. The standard Phenomenal Woman, Still I Rise, Nikki Giovanni’s Ego Tripping.
When did you decide that it would be your profession?
I was in college. I was studying communications, broadcast productions. Then I had to take general ED courses. I didn’t have a lot of study skills because my public school education in California—I wasn’t prepared for college. So it was very very hard, although I did want to be there, I had to work very, very hard. My escape was poetry. Sometimes I would cut class and go to the library, and I would spend my time being on research center at Howard reading classic literature then I would go upstairs to the African American Resource Center. There was a man by the name of E. Ethelbert Miller who is a poet and a cultural archivist who knows every black poet in the world. They all respect him, they all adore him. Ethelbert would just have book waiting for me with my name on them: ‘You need to read this, you need to look at this.’ In college is when I became serious about doing poetry. It was because of him.
How do you experience the power of poetry?
I paid for college. I put myself through school and I was a scholarship competitor on the forensics individual events team. It’s like speech and drama team. I competed in poetry interpretation. One of the things that’s a part of our tradition, because I went to a historically black college, was knowing classic poems. I feel like I got hazed as a youngin’ on the team. Part of the hazing was you were supposed to know “A Dream Deferred.” It was like, ‘Why don’t you know A Dream Deferred. You’re supposed to know Langston Hughes.’ ‘What do you mean you don’t know who Pat Parker is?’ ‘What do you mean you haven’t read June Jordan?’ You should know these pieces.’
So for me the power of poetry, it became about the power of the word and how we can use a few words to say so much. I think poetry gives us access to the ability to paint word pictures and to create visuals in a very short amount of time. Poetry for many poets is a ministry because the poets I know use poetry to touch people, to move people, to change people. Particularly in this climate we’re living in, many poets are using poetry as a call to action. I have a few big brothers in poetry. There were two in D.C.: Kenneth Carol who is still teaching young poets, and Brian Gilmore. Both of them used to say poets are the conscience of the people and it still rings to be true. You can’t argue it or debate it. That’s what poets do. Poets speak the truth and they do it in a way where it’s digestible. Sometimes it shocks you, sometimes it hits you in the gut, sometimes it makes you want to cry, and sometimes it makes you laugh out loud. Just words written on a page can do that to people. That’s the true essence of poetry. These little things: these letters, these words. They can create paradigm shifts in one line. Ten words can cause a person to pause and change their life.
You’re going to be one of the performers at NCBW, Manhattan’s Poetic Justice event at the Brooklyn Museum. How do you feel about the Coalition and what you’re doing and how you participated in the past?
I’m really excited about participating this year because I feel like last year was a very rough year transition for me and I experienced a very sincere burnout. Completely affirmed about who and what I am, I took a month off and spent my break in Dakar, Senegal, which is one of my homes. It was just amazing for me because I have a community of mentees who are young enough to be my daughters, but grown. It was just so powerful for me to show up and I could feel that I was showing up differently, so now these young women are showing up differently. The love and gratitude, it was just so, it was beautiful.
What was your big break in poetry?
That’s an odd question for me because I went to Howard at a time…it was a certain era where anybody who was anybody black came to Howard. So anybody I idolized, I either met them and talked to them or I performed with them. That includes Gwendolyn Brooks. I met Yusef Komunyakaa, I’ve worked with Amiri Baraka, I’ve worked with Sonia Sanchez multiple times, I’ve met Nikki [Giovanni], one of my closest friends, Nikki was his mentor and professor and he was very close to her. So I was blessed to do so much. A lot of it I took for granted because I was a young artist because you know when there’s abundance, you don’t realize that this is actually special. It’s not until years later that you realize, ‘oh that was a special moment to be at that person’s house with all of those greats in the same room; or to do that festival with Sekou Sundiata and Lucille Clifton and to be in the green room with them’ and then to have so many friends who are dope, dope, dope poets who I’ve known for years, I don’t know if there’s one key moment. I’ve done the Dodge Festival, the largest poetry festival in North America. I’ve done that a couple of times and then the spoken word festivals and then a couple in Africa.
To the average person it may seem like the spoken word era has faded a bit since the days of Def Poetry Jam. How do you feel about that?
There is no real poetry scene anymore except I think there are some cities where the teenagers are competing in slams and it creates a certain energy around that, but there’s no poetry scene per say anymore. But there are still poets. The beauty of poetry is that poetry is something you can do until the day you die. Most poets are people of a certain level of consciousness, so they are committed to developing and to growing and to having opinions and to sharing them. It goes back to that quote, people forget the importance and significance of poetry. We treat it as this thing over there. Whenever I go somewhere and I talk to people, there’s going to be at least 5 people in the room, if I do a workshop, that say, I used to write poetry. I write poetry, I just don’t share it. I just think the world would be a better place if everybody wrote poetry. I think that we should return to a time where poems were recited at holiday dinners. People don’t dance no mo. There a power to the poem. There’s a power to the spoken word, there’s a power to the written word. Poets are everywhere, it’s just that our society, especially in America, it’s not conducive to poets being acknowledged and celebrated, as they deserve to be. I just think poetry has played a special role in every social movement.
This year Toni Blackman plans to release a Hip Hop spiritual self help book titled, Wisdom of the Cypher, a meditation mixtape series, and she was recently invited to do a freestyle cypher master class at the Apollo. To keep up with the latest on her, check out her website.
You can also purchase tickets to see her perform at the Brooklyn Museum during The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Manhattan Chapter’s Poetic Justice event.