Words are powerful, and with the right delivery and flow they can lead individuals down many different paths. Poet Taalam Acey realized at a young age the potential revolutionary force that anyone could carry with the right diction to get a point and even more so a message across. In a time where words seem to be carelessly thrown around for instant gratitude with no thought, passion or meaning behind them, Acey always chooses his words wisely. Whether talking about love, politics, or finding cultural and self-identity, Taalam will speak to anyone willing to listen—which one day could be the masses.
Q: Do you remember your first poem you wrote?
I’ve been writing poetry since about 8 years old. Back then, I was far more interested in rhymes than content. Many years later, in 1997, I wrote my initial spoken word piece while sitting alone in my car in the unlit parking lot behind Bogies in East Orange, NJ; the first performance poetry venue I’d ever attended.
The piece was called, “Dead President Connection” and dealt with the need for black people to patronize each other economically. It also looked at my feelings of disconnection from black people who didn’t realize their own inner power and likewise believed themselves to be helpless victims unable to revolt against a repressive society.
Q: People have different perceptions of spoken word, what does it mean to you?
Spoken word is one of many forms of poetry. What differentiates it from academic poetry and other written forms is the poems are primarily created to be read out loud. Performance poetry is most often done in free verse rather than in a rigid format such as sonnets or sestinas where syllable and stanza lengths are predefined. The focus of a Spoken word piece is its ability to be emotively delivered in a way that compels the crowd to listen. Performance pieces that are solidly written in addition to being well delivered, however, are always superior and far more enduring.
Q: How do you feel about the controversy around the word “Nigger”?
I came up using that word and yet was always aware of its nefarious history. The word itself means “ignorant” and has been used as a derogatory term toward, and in reference to black people for centuries.
There’s a myriad of derogatory terms for every race, all ethnicities and both genders. No matter who or what you are, someone out there has come up with a term to belittle people like you. That, of course, should not compel you to embrace it. If you know you’re not ignorant, it should not concern you that some small-minded person thinks of you as such. However, it also doesn’t make sense that you should begin referring to yourself as “ignorant” whether it be in defiance or not.
This concerns the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. Over the years, I’m unconvinced that referring to oneself and those in your immediate circle as “ignorant” will not retard your will to be socio-economically competitive. The idea whereas identifying with that term may relegate young women and men to believe that they are not as good as everyone else (especially at a time when inner-city dropout rates have begun to exceed 50 percent) makes its continued acceptance irresponsible. Clearly we need to make many adjustments. Calibrating, or perhaps totally overhauling, our self image is one of them.
Q: Men of color seem to be very sensitive when they really dig into their emotions, did you encounter that when you began to write as a youth and/or adult?
I did have plenty of issues in that arena. One of my first spoken word pieces was a poem called, “Insane” wherein I explained why I could never write a love poem because it seemed pointless. Then there was “Morally Bankrupt,” the poem I titled my first 3 CDs after; which discussed a belief that I could never find a woman who would truly love me. The pinnacle of these poems was perhaps “Cult of Divinity,” which analyzed the history of black male emotional tensions. However, the last line in “Divinity” was an attempt to distance myself from that baggage by proclaiming, like the old club hit, “As long as I have you, I have enough.”
Since that point I’ve been able to pen love poems from a sincere, somewhat selfless and vulnerable place. Each piece has been an exercise in identifying fears like abandonment, disloyalty and loss of interest and addressing them rationally, creatively and with unreserved passion.
Much (if not most) of the email correspondence I receive comes from women and men who are thanking me for the colors and textures they experienced within the imagery and atmosphere of my love poems. During live performances some listeners have been known to tear-up. Hopefully those are signs that I’ve overcome fears of digging deep and exposing my most hidden aspirations and ideals.
Q: What guided you towards become a spoken word artist?
It’s been an unavoidable calling. The first time I witnessed spoken word brought about one of the most life altering epiphanies of my existence. At the time, I was a college professor in my mid-20s and a partner in a small business consulting firm. Nevertheless, once I was exposed to spoken word it became undeniably clear that I was born, and perhaps even raised, to be a major player in this genre. Performance poetry has provided the blessing of traveling around the world and sharing my thoughts on politics, social issues, love, spirituality and intimacy; rather than just traveling from classroom to classroom at Rutgers University or from my consulting firm in South Orange to SBA (Small Business Administration) workshops throughout New Jersey where all I ever got to lecture on was accounting and finance.
In fact, no one who knew me was surprised. I was raised on Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets’ albums. My parents were members of Amiri Baraka’s (the final poet laureate of NJ) Committee for A Unified Newark during my early years. From as far back as I can recall, there were plenty of Langston Hughes books, Sonia Sanchez poems and black poet anthologies circulating around my household. I’ve read history books and social analysis ever since I was old enough to read them to myself. Prior to that my mother read books like J. A. Roger’s From Superman to Man to me as bedtime stories. In fact, my written college placement scores were always higher than my math ones. Apparently, my entire life was spent waiting for Spoken Word to present itself to my generation of poets. Now I’m entrenched in it and take writing as serious as life itself.
Q: Talk about your upbringing and educational background, that played a big part in where you are now correct?
I was raised by strong women; the kind with education, books and, sometimes, guns. My maternal great grandmother earned a college degree and taught English. Her daughter earned a college degree and taught English, Spanish and worked as a nurse. Her daughter, my mother, earned a M.S. in math and works as a systems analyst for a top financial institution. My father’s mother also earned a college degree. Though my mother was my primary care giver throughout my youth, the other three women were a huge influence on my early years.
My educational background consists of a B.S. in accounting and an M.B.A. in finance. Both were earned at Rutgers University where I ended up teaching full time. In fact, I began teaching so quickly after graduating that some of my students had previously been my classmates. My plan in college was to eventually become a professor and a principal in a consulting firm. I never expected to achieve both of those goals before I turned 30. So when spoken word came into my life, I needed the challenge. Since then, the genre has provided me with the opportunity to integrate every skill I’ve ever learned for the purpose of pushing the envelope.
Q: What you wrote about as a youth how much has that changed to your current work? What do you find yourself writing most about now?
If by “youth” you mean a decade ago when spoken word and I first found each other, then I’d have to say I wrote about: intimacy, politics, social issues and there was the occasional swagger piece written for no other reason than to impress the crowd.
Today, many of my pieces still fall into those categories. However, these days I write love poems, as well. My writing has also become more circumspect, inclusive and descriptive.
Q: Who were the individuals or writers that you studied that inspired you to focus in on your craft?
I studied the Last Poets to the extent that I played their Chastisement and Madness albums incessantly, beginning at a young age. My mother and I would also take turns reciting Sonia Sanchez’s poems from It’s A New Day. I’m a fan of Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool” and of June Jordan’s masterful word work. In terms of earlier poets, Claude McKay’s work like, If We Must Die, was beautifully crafted. My favorite poem is a short piece by Amiri Baraka entitled “Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note”. The performance poet who amazes me most is Gil Scott-Heron.
Q: Have you accomplished everything you’ve wanted; are there things left you want to do?
I’m not quite sure what I would like to do next. Hopefully, whatever it is, it will still allow me to continue to influence the growth and exposure of spoken word. My books and CDs are in relative high demand and whenever I take something out of print it can sell for as much as ten times its suggested retail price.
I’m nowhere near rich. Nor do I assume that I would do well with the problems that come along with being wealthy. I am comfortable and do not want for much of anything. As long as people continue to seek out, explore and invest in my work, I’ll continue to create the most heartfelt original work my gifts render possible.
Q: How do verses and stories come to you, what inspires you to write and continue to write?
Verses come to me when they choose to do so. They often find me when I’m either walking or out somewhere people watching. I don’t write my performance pieces with pen and paper. Instead, I conceive and edit them, and store them in my head.
My poems rarely start with a title and often the concept itself isn’t apparent to me until the third or fourth line. I always begin with a phrase and midwife it into a full line. Then each successive line dictates the line it wishes to be followed by. My gut provides the quality control. The poem is over when it expresses to my heart that it is satisfied.
Q: Elaborate on your poem “Market for Niggas.” What do individuals in this market have to do to change that market?
Well the “Market” itself is comprised of all the people: white, black and otherwise who want black people to be “Niggas.” The market in question supports any black person who will shuck-n-jive, display a lack of dignity or express unwarranted hatred for other black people, in order to earn a buck. That market will exist as long as racists have money. The point of the poem was to point out that those of us who supply the market via their words and deeds are sellouts. The idea that I should be jealous of the houses, cars and jewelry you purchased by pushing crack, low self-esteem and a truncated future to my children is not progressive. In fact it’s subversive and could be interpreted as a blatant act of aggression against the community perpetrated in search of personal gain.
Q:Your poem “True Lies” appears to be about the perception of fallacy versus reality and how they have been presented to be in their own spectrums but you believe that they are connected and that everything is relative. How do we as consumers, viewers, readers, and citizens learn to see the bigger and real picture?
One of the most bizarre concepts I’ve had to grasp is that so many do not see the obvious. The other day I was watching a Rev. Jeremiah Wright speech on CNN and, though I disagreed with some of the points he made, I was surprised at the disgust the anchors expressed regarding points he made about betrayals like the Tuskegee Experiment and the Trail of Tears. They made it seem like the Bay of Pigs, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, and Beirut never happened. Like the Move Organization in Philly was never bombed.
You could either revel in them or wish they never happened, but these were facts. The idea that the masses don’t know and/or don’t want to know is one of the reasons I exist. Part of my job is to inform, even to the point of saying what people do not wish to hear. I must entertain and agitate at the same time. “True Lies” was about such oxymorons. The idea is that the George Bush tended to call things the very opposite of what they were : “The Patriot Act”-which unravels the constitution, “No Child Left Behind”-which increases the dropout rate in inner-cities, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”-which killed 600,000 Iraqis and occupied their country. None of these things would be possible if the masses were informed and organized.