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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Poetic Justice

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A write-or-die guy,Kwabena Antoine Nixon—Chicago native, Milwaukee dweller—was part of the movement that brought spoken word to the forefront of the city. He meanders through clubs and cafes with Poetry Unplugged open mic nights that audiences call “church” and he calls “the ministry.” Nixon is a crusader for justice through poetry—unapologetic, genuine and raw. He’s fraternized with Harry Belafonte; Congresswoman Maxine Waters once tried persuading him to relocate his poetic politics to D.C.; and he’s one of many behind The Children Are Crying calendars and the Campaign Against Violence. This former teacher and “bad boy” says his life was changed after being a mentor at S.I.M.B.A. (Safe In My Brother’s Arms), a support circle for black male teens. Since then he’s worked with youth in detention homes and poetry workshops. Now he’s sharing his inspiration with whoever’s in his reach.

The annual fund-raiser calendar is titled “The Hate that Hate Produced.” Why?
Previous calendars talked about the effects of violence. Last year we talked more specifically about, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” and we talked directly with people who might be involved in that lifestyle who needed to make choices. This year, because so many people say, “Why y’all talk about the violence?” or “Why are people doing this?,” you could go through a number of things and say it’s fathers not being at home, but instead we said the best way to find out the problem is to get to the very root it: “The Hate that Hate Produced.”

How long have you been a poet and doing open mic poetry?
One of the first poems I wrote was during Black History Month. I remember [the teacher] put it on the board, and how many of my peers went through reading it. I got attention for the first time in school for something other than trouble. The next poem I wrote was for my father, who was killed when I was 11.

As far as Milwaukee … since about ’98, I’ve been in the city doing my thing. became a host of open mic by default. We were invited to the Main Event [nightclub] for Adekola’s birthday to perform. Nobody got on the mic, and I literally got pushed on stage. The rest is history.

How has poetry and open mic changed people’s lives?
We started our first set at City Club the day Nina Simone died. It was called a “Blues for Nina.” In Harlem Renaissance they talked about a lot of stuff, but Langston Hughes is one of the poets who talked about the condition of black people. By the time you get done reading everybody else’s poetry, you’d think everybody was walking around Harlem listening to jazz and walked with Marcus Garvey. It’s a whole ’nother world, and Hughes’ poetry talked about that—people getting evicted, etc.—so his poetry was against the grain. We took more seriously. It wasn’t the average poetry set no more. A woman said after she heard Jazzy do the poem “No More Blues,” she went home immediately and left the dude who was abusing her. So the poets were bringing another language. It wasn’t just poetry anymore; it was poetry unplugged. It became a serious movement, in my opinion.

Moving the open mic from Onyx to Soche was a huge success. Why’d you do it?
I went to Soche because they offered me the entertainment director position. Soche was in Bronzeville, and I wanted to be a part of that. I knew the owner was selling it. It was the opinion of the person he sold it to: We do not need a Water Street on King Drive and we do not need an Elsa’s on North Avenue. We need King Drive, and we need a Soche.

What’s on the horizon?
The play The Hate that Hate Produced; the spoken word tour “What’s Your Life Worth?”—we’re working on the CD; the documentary “The Power of Words” (showcasing Milwaukee spoken word artists on stage, and the everyday life of poet); my poetry book, I Write What I See. We got to get our voice out, and that’s what we’re trying to do. My motto is, “Together, we can build this.”

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