The North Star with Shaun King
Episode 8: My Microphone Evolution

Episode 8: My Microphone Evolution

This week Donney unpacks the evolution and politics in his poetry

In this final episode of Season 1 of the Word.Life podcast, Donney unpacks his personal journey as a performance poet, the evolution of the politics in his writing, and how writing about race and culture proved to be the true mission statement of his artistry.

With poems that preach, pray, and teach, Donney Rose speaks to America in the moment and in tradition of protest writers who understood the power of political art. Rose listens before he speaks, and lives what he writes. His words matter and they ring loud after we read them.

In 2019 Louisiana Poet Laureate, Jon Warner Smith wrote those words as the prologue to a poem I had published in 64 Parishes, a digital publication that highlights the arts and humanities in Louisiana. Jon was tasked with getting a few select poets whose work he revered to contribute to the publication, and when he asked me I was more than honored to oblige his request. Before sending him my piece titled “A Request for Removal” which dived into the cultural conversation around Confederate monuments being removed from the public sphere, I briefly paused to reflect on the trajectory of my writing that resulted in Louisiana’s first Black male poet laureate to request a piece from me to be included in a noteworthy anthology.

And after Jon confirmed what poem of the few I sent him that he thought we be the best fit, his words in the prologue further affirmed a path I had been on as a writer for roughly the past decade: which was to tell uncompromising truths about the country I lived in, the impact of growing up Black in the American South, and all the nuances my identity held, and the personal and cultural history that informed the writer I was becoming.

My writer/performance poet life, however, did not start from a place of such substance.

I entered the world of spoken word poetry as a college student at Southern University, a historically Black college in Baton Rouge. But before I ever got on a distorted microphone in the student union to read my extra rhymey poems, I was writing lyrical raps in a composition book as a high school student in the mid-to-late 90s and was easily influenced by themes and aesthetics in popular hip hop. My writing came of age in the early era of Biggie, Wu-Tang, Nas, Jay-Z, Snoop, 2Pac, Redman, No Limit and Cash Money Records. I was a southern-born kid with a penchant for East Coast lyricism. I passed around my composition book to homies who would also pen rhymes in hopes to write something as ill as our favorite emcees. We were working middle-class Black boys deeply enamored by the violence, misogyny, sexual objectification, and drug culture referenced in mainstream hip hop. And that admiration was often reflected in the raps we scribbled into our notepads, even though it was not a true depiction of our actual lifestyles.

Back then, we were all focused on who could write the illest lines. We strived to impress each other with how much wordplay and shock value we could squeeze into our bars. This often produced raps that were disparaging to young women, exaggerations about our toughness, or outright embellishments about how fast we were living. Our favorite rappers had a gift of painting sex, murder and mayhem vividly, and we wanted our little notebook verses to be as ill as theirs.

This was my literary foundation.

By the time I got to college, hardly anything had evolved in regards to my approach to writing. I was not writing violently or materialistically as I did in high school, but my earliest poems were peppered with blatant misogyny and sexism, and an overall whimsical outlook on life. I didn’t write this way due to a lack of peer examples as I met a number of friends on the poetry scene that wrote from a place of elevated consciousness and self-awareness. I just wasn’t personally as evolved and was still deeply steeped in a hip hop aesthetic that prioritized being ill on the mic, by any means, over being substantive.

I spent the beginning of the early 2000s as a young poet, trying to resist the label of poet, and the stereotypical tropes that came with being identified as a Black poet. I didn’t want my work to be too pro-Black, or to come off too bohemian, or too revolutionary. I wanted to be the lyrical poetry cat that participated in the genre but didn’t wanna be confused as the ‘peace & blessings’ or ‘power to the people’ archetype.

By the time I start participating in local poetry slam competitions, I thought the best approach to success was to write pieces that would have a universal appeal to all audiences. When I first started slamming in Baton Rouge, the slam scene was predominantly white and the open mic poetry events were predominantly Black. Whatever revolutionary ideas I had for my writing were tempered to try to meet judges in a slam where they were, but moreover, I just did not have a critical enough of lens to properly articulate whatever angst I was feeling. As someone who grew up in a Black neighborhood, attended a Black church, had damn near all Black friends in a deeply segregated environment, my earliest writings did not reflect a need to rail against systemic racism. I understood the surface level oppression and inequity in the city I grew up in, but my world up until my early adulthood was definitively Black, and my art at the time reflected the musings of someone who could not clearly see all the ways white supremacy culture impacted even the blackest aspects of my life.

As the 2010s came around, I began to broaden my worldview in my writing, but still was not heavily focused on issues relating to race and race relations. I wrote poems speaking out against the homophobia and misogyny that plagued my ideology and language growing up, but did not place too much emphasis on race and culture. My writings at the top of the 2010s, specifically as it related to slam poetry, was also a reflection of the local and national scene I was immersed in. At the time, there was a huge movement led by white feminists and queer poets to denounce poems and poets that trafficked in patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia. My politics were undoubtedly evolving, so it’s not like I was writing material that was in opposition to where I was in life, but I was not paying attention to how much matters of race were being minimized to amplify voices that were marginalized on account of gender and orientation.

Or to put it another way, when it came to slam competitions, the feminist voice or work that sought to dismantle the patriarchy had a better chance at success, whereas pieces that spoke against systemic racism or the dehumanization of Black folks was looked at as a relic of the past that had its time in the era of the Last Poets and the Black Arts movement.

Then in 2012, everything changed.

Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in the winter of 2012, and by that summer many Black poets that were participating in regional and national poetry slam tournaments were raising their voices at the dawn of the movement we now know as Black Lives Matter. Over the course of the next few years as the hashtags and news headlines of state-sanctioned and vigilante violence against Black Americans grew, Black slam poets spoke in boldness and truth about what was happening around them. Black page poets or Black poets that mostly created in academia began crafting work reminiscent of poetic elders like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, writing fiercely about the continued legacy of racial subjugation Black folks faced in America, with little to no concern about appealing to the sensibilities of white readers.

Anti-Black violence was a mainstream topic of conversation, and Black poets were at the forefront of speaking truth to power. It was in this moment I also found myself experiencing a paradigm shift creatively.

I remember all the poems that served as transitional points in my writing and performance career. The breakthrough pieces that began moving my aesthetic in a different direction. In 2013 I wrote a poem called “Black Boy Soul Music” that used sound imagery as a means to illustrate the angst of growing up as a Black male in America. I remember performing Black Boy Soul Music in a preliminary bout at the National Poetry Slam in 2013, a move that I would not have thought to make years prior to that, even if I had written it. But at the time, the social climate seemed right for me to put it out there, not just in the hope of getting a good score in the competition, but because it felt like I was living in a moment when the context of it would actually be heard.

By 2015 I released a chapbook of poetry called The Crying Buck, a collection of work that explored the idea of Black male vulnerability. I sought to unpack the idea of the buck, a strong and virile enslaved male as an archetype that was never allowed to exist in the fullness of his humanity, and examines how much of that dehumanization flowed through generations of Black men and boys that were conditioned to hide their tears. The last piece I wrote for The Crying Buck was titled “Last Words,” which told a persona-based narrative of a funeral of a Black boy murdered by police. The Crying Buck chapbook ended up being the most successful poetic merchandise I ever produced, and “Last Words” became one of my most signature pieces of all time.

I was then nearly two decades into my writing and performance career, and for the first time, it felt like I had found my authentic voice.

The following year was a pivotal one for me as a poet and community organizer, as it was the summer of 2016 when state-sanctioned violence came into my community with the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Every poem I wrote and event I organized in the years prior to that incident would serve as the blueprint for advocacy I would engage in on the ground level. That summer I watched police violence go from being an abstract thing I saw on the news, to an actual occurrence that shook the core of my hometown. I wrote a lot through tear-filled eyes while watching many of my beloved community members be met with additional brutality from a police force that was unapologetic about the actions of their comrades, or their methods of attempting to squash our protests.

A couple of years later I would be named a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, a recognition that celebrates artists from around the nation who use their art form to advocate change. The fellowship lasted two years and put in community with some of the most beautiful souls I ever met. In 2020, I completed and debut my most ambitious poetry project ever called The American Audit, a poetry and mapping project that used an extended metaphor of America as a business being audited by Black people 400 years after the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. I performed The American Audit three times for schools on a field trip, and one time as a sold-out general audience show. Three weeks after it debuted, the world shut down for the pandemic. It has not seen a live stage in two years.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have relocated from Baton Rouge to PG County, Maryland, and started mostly writing editorials for The North Star. I still consider myself a spoken word poet and was even able to do a feature set at the legendary Busboys & Poets this past November. I believe my work to still be ever-evolving, but I’m pretty sure that it will keep a focus on the vastness of the Black experience. There are so many ways to tell our American story and so many angles to approach the storytelling from. I am grateful that my artistic journey started from where it did, as it allowed me infinite room to grow artistically and as a human.

That’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

The North Star with Shaun King
Podcast hosted by The North Star's Chief Content Editor and poet, Donney Rose.