Taalam Acey aims ‘to give you what you never thought was possible’ at spoken word event

by CINDY STAGOFF
taalam acey

TAALAM ACEY

“I have always held that spoken word is among the most spiritual and impactful of art forms,” says Taalam Acey. “The best performance poets can move you to laughter and/or tears, and help you find a new lease on life. At the highest level, it’s not recitation or performance. It’s energy transfer.”

Acey will perform at a show titled “Spoken Word Apex” — taking place at the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, Sept. 8 — along with fellow spoken word artists Theresa tha SONGBIRD, K-Love, 13 of Nazareth and Ed Mabrey. They will be joined by DJ Doughboy and visual performance artist Iyaba Ibo Mandingo, and writer and actress Narubi Selah will host.

The point of the show, Acey says, “won’t be to give you what we think you want, but to give you what you never thought was possible.”

The Newark native, who now lives in Georgia, has released 17 albums and eight books. He will curate the event, after curating a “sacred circle” spoken word event for NJPAC in 2011, and a spoken word event at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival that also took place at NJPAC. He has been featured at other NJPAC events as well.

“You have so, so much inspired me with your spoken word,” said Stevie Wonder when Acey appeared as a guest on Wonder’s KLJH (102.3 FM) radio station in Los Angeles, in 2008.

Acey touches on a wide range of topics in his passionate spoken word pieces, including love, mental health, poverty, fatherhood, friendship, hip-hop, racism and more. His cadences create a rhythm that is hard to break from once you start listening to it. I’m drawn into his intense poems and once he takes off, I feel like I’ve held my breath under water until I emerge from them.

TAALAM ACEY

In “Brotherly Love” (listen below), he consoles a friend down on his luck, overwhelmed by his futile efforts to advance himself and desperate to take care of his children. Acey, a father of three, says in this piece: “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 … 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.”

After listening to many of his videos, I wondered which poems resonate the most with him.

“My go-to pieces are ‘God’s Work,’ written to help inspire other spoken word artists,” he said, “and ‘She Conjurez,’ which serves as a lyrical painting of a relationship with a beautiful woman.”

In “God’s Work” (listen below), he suggests that poetry is sacred and that poets are authentic teachers who speak about the realities of people’s lives.

“What if this is God’s work?” he asks in this piece. “What if the poets are closer to Muhammad, Buddha and Jesus than the preachers?”

“She Conjurez” (listen below) reminds me of the delicate beauty, depth and intimacy of Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan’s love songs. Acey’s poetic images create a sense of romance and devotion and the rhythm of his voice is hypnotic and compelling. Who wouldn’t want this poem written about them?

He proclaims in “She Conjurez”:

There is something about the way she conjures the ancestors.
She dances when she walks like she’s from the Congo. Pure. …
She is smooth as the Hennessy 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 …
And as her lips move, I get lost in her rhythm.
And as her thoughts move, I get lost in her wisdom.

Acey’s Aura album, a collection of poems about the power of love, includes “Scarz,” in which writes about the pain that women have endured:

I can tell where your scars 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 …
I know an angel when I see one …
Then every night by the light of the moon I will kiss away your scars to Abbey Lincoln tunes and I will drink perfume that tastes 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.

What inspired him to create Aura?

“A late friend told me the story of a Negro League baseball player who was a bit of a womanizer until he met a woman named Aura whom he married,” Acey said. “Whenever people asked him why he married Aura and stopped entertaining other women on the road, he would say there was just something about Aura, but he could not explain it. The story inspired me to write a series of poems to try and explain what I believe he would have said, had he possessed the right words.”

The cover of the Amiri Baraka album, “Real Song.”

Acey was influenced by the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron (whom he has performed with), James Baldwin (“via his debates and essays”), Toni Morrison (“via her poetic prose”) and Amiri Baraka (“via his life’s work”).

“Amiri Baraka was a major influence for me,” he said. “His poems ‘Dope’ and ‘Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note’ are among my favorite poems, from any artist.

“My parents were both members of his organization, The Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN). When I attended Rutgers, I noticed he liked to hang out at the Jazz Institute, so I’d visit him there sometimes, while trying not to be a bother. Over the years, I visited his home mostly to attend poetry readings, but once because he agreed to let my daughter interview him for a school paper.

“Years later, I got to open for him and also featured at a Harlem Book Fair tribute honoring him at Rutgers University. The year before Amiri Baraka passed, he wrote an essay called ‘A Post-Racial Anthology?’ about Charles Henry Rowell’s ‘Angles of Ascent’ (poetry) anthology. Among his criticisms was that the anthology had left out certain people, one of them being me. I was honored.”

We talked about Mayor Ras Baraka, son of Amiri Baraka. “As a child growing up in CFUN, I spent time at Baraka’s house and Ras and I were about the same age,” Acey said. “We were never close friends but, as it would follow, we have been acquainted for many years. Mayor Ras Baraka (along with his friends Juba and Trevor) also hosted a poetry event at Symphony Hall in the 1990s that I frequented. In addition, I curated a spoken word event for the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Ras was one of my featured performers.”

We discussed his connection to The Last Poets. “I listened to their records throughout my childhood and often stared at the cover for their album Chastisement,” he said. “In my spoken word career, I shared stages with them around the country. In fact, a couple of years back, I interviewed Abiodun Oyewole in Philadelphia and traveled to Flint, Michigan, to interview Umar Bin Hassan for my last book ‘Permission to Speak,’ which honors seven poetry elders.”

Gil Scott-Heron, in a vintage publicity photo.

And what is your connection to Gil Scott-Heron?

“Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s The First Minute of a New Day was another record I grew up enjoying,” he said, adding that ” ‘Winter in America’ and ‘We Beg Your Pardon’ still captivate me. I got to see him perform a couple of times, once at The Knitting Factory and years later at SOB’s, where we got to talk afterward and hang out for a brief moment. In addition, his daughter Gia (the subject of his song ‘Your Daddy Loves You’) and I have been friends for many years.”

Acey began working as a spoken word poet in the ’90s, “selling books of poetry and poetry CDs in poetry cafes, slams and festivals around the country. However, I have been reading and writing poetry since early childhood.” Prior to launching his performance career, he worked as a lecturer in finance and accounting at Rutgers University.

What drew him to spoken word?

“Although poetry had been with me all my life, I began to see its potential when Jessica Care Moore won ‘It’s Showtime at the Apollo’ five times (in 1996) and even more so, when (the movie) ‘Love Jones’ came out the following year. Shortly afterward, I began attending a poetry reading at Bogies on William Street in East Orange that was promoted by a good friend of mine and, before I knew it, I was hooked. By 1999, I was on the Nuyorican National Slam team and making a name for myself throughout the U.S. and abroad.”

What are you are working on these days? What subjects and issues do you currently explore?

“I am always contemplating book ideas somewhere in the back of my mind, but I am pretty sure it will be years before I write another one,” Acey said. “There is a chance that I may make a new album as early as this year, but I have not fully committed to it yet.

“I continue to experiment with rhythm, structure, rhyme and cadence, and try to take the feeling in different directions.

“Favorite topics include sociopolitics, love and inspiration. I even explore depression through many of my love pieces by asking myself: ‘If I were depressed, what would I want someone to say and mean to make it better?’ I also explore social equity and spirituality. There are also some pieces where the focus is just techniques and wordplay. As for my next piece, I’m fairly sure it will be a heartfelt though nontraditional love poem.”

“Spoken Word Apex” takes place at the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m Visit njpac.org or ticketmaster.com.

For more on Acey, visit taalamacey.com.

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