WAMFEST Week in Review with Michael Gray, Keorapetse Kgotsitsile, David Henderson, Jeffery Renard Allen, Siphiwo Mahala, Talib Kweli and Quincy Troupe

Many thanks to our incredibly talented performers, our wonderful Artist in Residence Wesley Stace, our enthusiastic and supportive fans and our gracious sponsors Bob and Patricia Pures.  Enjoy the reviews and photos below – see you next year!

Tuesday, April 17th: A Conversation with Author Michael Gray, the World Authority on Bob Dylan

Words by Kiera Lanier.  All photos by Dan Landau.

The event was phenomenal – taking the audience on a journey through the life and successes of Bob Dylan. If you didn’t know about Dylan before, you became an expert on him through the discussion of his influence on author Michael Gray.

The uniqueness of how Dylan wrote – using a compilation of lyrics from previous songs rather than words that he thought on his own – was genius. He always acknowledged that they weren’t his own lyrics but rather a combination of lyrics from previous songs by other artists who he admired (this can be seen on the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it Back Home where the titles hint at a reference of past songs where Dylan gives tribute). He also brilliantly snuck in lyrics from old blues songs that weren’t structured as blues songs.

“He is so specific and critical.  Dylan does a style and incorporates it once and once only in a way where he makes it impossible for anyone else to even attempt to do what he does,” said Gray, astonished at his unfailing efforts of setting himself apart from every other musically talented artist. Most radically, Dylan relied solely on the blues throughout all of his work, which is weirdly twisted in a fantastic way and became all the more fantastic in Michael Gray’s telling of it.

Gray couldn’t have had a better, more avid audience; they ate up the stories of his beginnings as an artist and the art he is currently making. And, overall, they were given a better sense and understanding of who he is and what he hoped to accomplish with music.

“The purpose of blues music is to express the concerns of the community,” he said. And through Gray’s interview, the audience of FDU students were given the big picture of the community both Dylan and Gray have made themselves apart of.


Wednesday, April 18th: A Reading and Conversation with South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgotsitsile, Poet and Jimi Hendrix Biographer David Henderson, Author  Siphiwo Mahala and Author Jeffery Renard Allen

Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets.

Keorapetse Kgotsitsile began this amazing event with a reading from his poetry collection, This Way I Salute You.  His rhythm and pacing, the multiple tones ringing together in his beautiful reading voice, the way he held out the ends of his words and accented unusual syllables, all made his poems feel more like pieces of music than words on a page; one could almost hear the instruments supporting him in the background.

“Without music, there would be no poetry,” he said during the lively Q&A that followed the readings.  “Poetry is at its best when it approaches ritual… aspires to be sung, aspires to be music.”  His own poems truly capture this concept; lines like, “How you sound is who you are… even in this place of strange and brutal design,” took on a very melodic and mysterious feel as he read them.

“There is music that’s music but there is also the music of language,” he said.  “I think the separation between the two was created in the classroom.  Otherwise, they’re organically related.  When I’m writing, I don’t think.  I think away from writing.  To create music at that moment, I sit down to make my poem, not think it.”

David Henderson immediately agreed, adding, “You just sit down, you get the inspiration and you start writing.”

Before the questions flowed, Henderson shared sections from his biography on long-time friend and musical icon Jimi Hendrix.  From menage a trois to uprooting London society to writing a song alone at night to supporting the Black Panthers and Anti-Vietnam movements, Hendrix led a busy and influential life that Henderson completely captured through a mix of straight-forward language, humor and poetic prose.

Siphiwo Mahala read a short story from his latest collection that sounded much like a night out with Hendrix complete with drinking, dancing and flirting.  Mahala’s sometimes surreal descriptions combined with very physical passages and funny dialogue brought laughter from the audience while also painting a sexy and sensual scene many listeners could relate to.  When asked how music affects his writing process, Mahala said that he “tries to capture sounds more than just music.”  He then went on to describe how he uses the presence of sounds in comparison to silence in order to guide some of his characters and plots.

Jeffery Renard Allen, on the other hand, has completely melded the two forms in his latest book on Blind Tom, a musical prodigy from the late 19th century.  His writing felt more like poetry than a biography or even a story; the words flowed like a song that depicted the idea of Blind Tom, his aura and mystique, rather than blunt descriptions of his life and personality.

“I like the musicality of language,” Allen said when asked about how the two media influence his process.  “Blind Tom played before there were recordings so I have to imagine the music while I’m writing.”

As both Kgotsitsile and Henderson are remarkable and influential activists, the event ended with a question on the connection between literature and politics.

“The political in my poetry comes in simply because I am political.  I don’t think of writing something political, it’s more organic for me,” Kgotsitsile answered.

“Poetry has always been political, especially in the Black Rights Movement.  We were involved in Civil Rights,” Henderson said.  “There’s so much oppression of information that it has to come out somehow.  I think the poets are driven by this.”

Kgotsile then closed out the afternoon with another incredible poem that included a line I feel truly captures the event:  “And when you talk of justice, did you know it’s just another word for compromise?”


Thursday, April 19th: A Conversation and Performance with Hip Hop Superstar Talib Kweli and Poet Quincy Troupe

Words by Amanda Alford.

Lenfell Hall was packed for Quincy Troupe and Talib Kweli’s performance – and both artists certainly rose to the occasion.

Quincy Troupe had a wealth of incredible stories about rubbing elbows and standing toe-to-toe with such artists and celebrities as Miles Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimi Hendrix and Magic Johnson. Incredible to the point of being fantastic – which prompted Wesley Stace’s question:

“Is there one point I should start assuming you’re making stuff up?” And with a voice like the streets of New Orleans, Troupe replied, “You’re free to do that whenever you want, but it’s all true.”

The completely unassuming appearance Troupe seemed to have when he took the stage fizzled out under the vibrancy of his deep, reaching voice. And it was his voice that brought the melding of iconic street corner jazz and hip hop rhythm to his poetry and stories.

Kweli had all the energy of a natural performer; cool and capable of a personable dialogue between himself and the audience. He talked about his journey through and with rhymes. And how it took a couple of rhyme books before he hit the rhythm and track that had all that he had been doing snapping to attention. His advice?

“You can’t get too caught up in the means to an end or in to the container you’re working in. Because neither poetry nor hip hop is about the rhyme – it’s about the story. Rhythm and rhyme is just a way to reach your audience.”

That idea was made even more explicit in the performances by these artists. As I looked around the room, I saw more tapping hands and feet than still bodies, each and every one of them drawn into dancing along to the beat of poetry and hip hop alike.  All in all, a brilliant end to this year’s WAMFEST.

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