Iconic spoken word performer e.g. bailey emerged in the late 90s, knocking around here, getting his presence felt there, and made a strong impression as part of the performing ensemble Sirius B when they made their 1996 Illusion Theater debut with Monday Morning Body Count, a spotty but compelling work commenting on the rate of homicide among black men. From there, he tirelessly threw his shoulder to the wheel and is now the most vastly accomplished proponent of spoken word in either of the Twin Towns.
As a thumbnail sketch, his achievements include but are far from limited to: original membership in Spine, a writer's collective developed by the Loft and the Walker Art Center and @rkology, a spoken word and music collective chosen by City Pages as Picked to Click in 1998 and 1999; and co-produced Write On Radio!, a weekly literary radio program on KFAI Fresh Air Radio. Last year he released the very well-received album American Afrikan (Speakeasy Records)
His wife, fellow actor and word-slinger Sha Cage, is pretty tight too, and together they run the MN Spoken Word Association (MNSWA), a force unto itself in creating prose poetry and promoting it on an international scale, including England, Paris, parts of Africa, and all over the U.S.
Bailey is a fairly unassuming sort. Doesn't brag about who is or what he's done and for the most part, when you run into him, doesn't have a whole lot to say. Interview him, though, and it's altogether different. He'll give you chapter and verse about his artistry, what informs it, what it means to him and pretty much everything else that comes to his mind. Which made it a pleasure to catching him sitting still long enough to answer some questions by e-mail.
Any reflections on Sirius B? As you know, Sirius B was a collective that dealt with issues that were not only critical to black men [and] to the Black community, [but to] the community as a whole. We were able to come together, learn, socialize, debate, argue, create, and grow as people from the experiences we shared. When the process that would become Sirius B started, I was still working for Prince. The Friday I handed in my resignation to Paisley Park, I met Michael Chaney at the Reachout Thrift Store. I told him that I was hoping to become a writer, and had just quit my job. He then told me about a mentorship program that he was involved in at the time with the Walker Art Center, Pillsbury House Theatre, and Intermedia Arts. I think back now [on how I got involved with] Michael Chaney. It was through that moment that I would become involved in Sirius B, and would meet Ani Sabare, J. Otis Powell!, Rene Ford, Juan Jackson, Mahmoud El-Kati, Patrick Scully, and so many others who would all be instrumental to my development and work in the Twin Cities for the past 15-plus years. The wonderful thing about Sirius B, other than the camaraderie and the training we received, was the depth and foundation of the philosophy that grounded us and our work. During the residency, we received acting training, movement training in Japanese butoh and South African boot dance among others, history classes from Mahmoud El-Kati, and philosophy dialogues from Juan Jackson—just to name a few. This foundation, combined with training, taught us to look within our communities and identify which issues were plaguing our people and our communities, and address those with our art and our work. That was a powerful combination for us young black men at the time. And the power of it is evidenced by what members of Sirius B have gone on to do and create in their respective fields. St. Paul Slim is one of the best hip-hop artists in the community. Ahanti Young is one of its most talented actors. Sirius B has and always will exist. We are still here, even when you can't see us. It may be another 35 years before you see us together again as a whole but we are still out here.
What prompted you and Sha to start MNSWA? Many people don't know that MN Spoken Word Association (MNSWA) was actually born out of Tru Ruts Endeavors. In the spring of 2000, Sha Cage and I sat down to look at the next five years of our lives, to figure out what we wanted to do, what we wanted to work on and create. We mapped out everything we wanted to do under Tru Ruts. At that time, Tru Ruts existed primarily only in name, as a concept I had created to foster my various artistic interests and endeavors. I had already conceptualized the record label, Speakeasy Records, but it was still in its nascent stages. So we mapped out what we wanted to do in theatre, film, music, radio, producing and others. One of the concepts and projects we were in the process of creating was a performance, dialogue and workshop series that would bring the top spoken word artists in the country to the Twin Cities to present their work and to facilitate a workshop. Having actively been a part of the artistic—and especially the spoken word—community for the previous three years, my hope was to provide a way for the community to continue to develop their skills and talents by being introduced to and working with the best in the field. I already felt that the community was very talented but just unrecognized and undervalued, and thought that by creating such a series, the community would not only grow but could one day become one of the strongest spoken word communities in the country. Laurie Carlos was gracious enough to give us the opportunity to produce our first event, allowing us to curate one of the evenings in her Late Nite Series. With the grant writing experience I had learned from Ani Sabare in Sirius B, we submitted several grants. Our first grant was from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, followed by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. We were able to garner more funding, cosponsorships and support, and with that, finally a year later, we officially kick off the organization with the Singers of Daybreak conference on August 17th, 2001.
Did you actually anticipate the runaway success it has become? I have never anticipated the success of the things I've done. You hope for success and you work for it with everything you can and everything you have. But whether it will be a success or not is often out of your power. I believe working on what is within your power to control, and that is to create the best event or work or art that you can, and imbuing it with all the potential for success that is possible. From there you release it and leave the rest to the Universe. It may find success, it may find an audience, critics may love it or kill it, but you have done your job. So that year of work and planning, none of us had any idea if anyone was going to be interested, or if anyone was going to come. It was two days of panel discussions, workshops, performance with a final night blowout concert at First Avenue, all centered on spoken word. It had never been done before, so we had no model to follow, nothing to gage against to determine if it would work. We only had faith. We were as shocked as anyone to see that over 1500 people participated, with the closeout concert featuring Carl Hancock Rux, Atmosphere, Edupoetic Enterbrainment and numerous other artists, drawing over 700 people. It was the largest audience that had ever attended a spoken word event in the Twin Cities. It was probably then that we began to realize the potential of not only the organization but of the spoken word community in Minnesota. We always believed in the spoken word community here, but weren't always sure it believed in itself, its potential or that there was such a large audience here hungry for it. Also, I believed that the community as a whole started to understand for the first time why this art form was so important to us, and began to value and appreciate it in a different way than before. We opened eyes to the many aspects of the art form and to the tradition that it carries forth. We have since continued to innovate, creating things that others are not thinking of or doing with spoken word, or think can't be done with spoken word. Also we have been determined to not allow spoken word to be a fad in Minnesota. We said from the beginning that we didn't want to look back years later and talk about back in the day when we were doing that "spoken word thang." So a primary goal for the organization was to teach and foster the following generations of spoken word artists, so that the spoken word community would always be a vital contributor to the people and the life here. That is why it's been important for us to go into the school systems on every level from grade school to universities, after school programs or community centers, even churches, to teach spoken word. At the same time, continuing to develop and produce projects and programs that could reach various areas of the community from youth to adults including the Quest for the Voice series, to the radio shows, to the Urban Griots Awards. Overall, throughout the years, the response has been incredible and amount of work has been tremendous. But in the end, the legacy of the MN Spoken Word Association may not be so much the resume of things we have done and the specific success of those things, but number of people we have touched and the work we have done to foster artists, youth and the community, in addition to helping to bring it to the forefront of the spoken word art form, where it is becoming recognized as one of the strongest spoken word communities in the country.
What is it like, fitting two highly driven creative individuals in the same marriage? Well the easy answer is that it's not easy. Sometimes it's like two bulls in a ring. I say that really in jest—but it is all about compromise, not only compromising between each other in terms of what we want and can do. It is also what we ourselves are willing to compromise for ourself and our art. We go through a great deal of planning and dialogue and negotiation. Often we are planning six months to a year, sometimes two years ahead. There are sacrifices we've had to make, projects we've had to let go or opportunities we've had to turn down, especially now that we are building a family. But these are sacrifices that we gladly make because our first responsibility now is family. We have not always operated this way because for years we have sacrificed much of ourselves, our art and even our well being in order to support, build and contribute to the community. But as you build a family and your family grows, you come to realize and understand that if you do not take care of your family, of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else much less the community. This is a shift for two people that have always tried to be the most gracious kinds of hosts, who are always the last to sit down, the last to eat, after everyone one else has been taken care of.
Any plans to do a follow-up CD to American Afrikan? What's next? I am currently developing the touring version of American Afrikan, working with Sha, Truthmaze, Kahlil Brewington, along with Chris Cox and Bryan Berry, both of Junkyard Empire and twentrythirteen. It is great to work with a group of musicians again on a consistent basis, who also really listen and are so free and open to where you can go with improvisation and experimentation. We go back and forth between calling the group Madiba and god's pager. But whatever it's called, it's a unique sound and energy we're striving for. I can't really think of anything like it that's happening with spoken word right now. The process and freedom it fosters reminds me of the kind of performances that Truthmaze and I would do while on tour. It also harkens back to the work I was doing with Arkology, working from a jazz atheistic foundation where we each had the freedom to shape and guide the music but always in response to what others were creating. Even when a piece is structured, it could take a left turn at any moment and we would all go with it. It's my favorite way to perform spoken word with music, the ever changing constant. I'm also developing the next spoken word album. I have a concept and a title but can't reveal it yet. Along with that, I'm working on a few one-off tracks, collaborations and remixes. One is with a producer from the UK, that is dark and apocalyptic, and will feature Molina Soleil and Guante. But you know I can't stay still, so in addition I'm producing some radio documentaries, plus a few odds and ends music and audio projects that will probably not be official releases but available online. Finally, I'm developing a stage version of Amiri Baraka's epic poem cycle "Wise Whys Ys" that mixes spoken word with jazz, movement and film. In the meantime, we will continue to develop American Afrikan, take it to colleges, get it out there as much as possible. But we also have some other long-form spoken word with music pieces that we're planning on developing, some that involve other artists' work. We'll see. As always, it will be an adventure.
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Dwight Hobbes (dwight [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.
As an emerging artist who is still experiencing an unsettled change in style and content, I understand that this change is as exciting as it is terrifying—like a creative puberty. It is one thing to observe such a change while in its midst, but there is nothing quite as mesmerizing as viewing this metamorphosis as it happens to someone else.
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