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Douglas Kearney and Aloe Blacc: Two Kings of L.A. Letters

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Douglas Kearney at CalArts | Jason Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons

Entering April and National Poetry Month, there are many venues, writers, and publishers to spotlight and explore. Before covering the vibrant poetic landscape next week, two recent remarkable releases from two local writer-performer-musicians will be featured here, because they are both breaking boundaries. This week L.A. Letters explicates two remarkable March releases that are making major waves nationally: the book "Patter," by award-winning poet Douglas Kearney, and "Lift Your Spirit," the new record by the singer-songwriter, emcee, and multi-instrumentalist Aloe Blacc. The verisimilitude of these respective releases reveals art is alive and well.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Altadena, poet, performer, professor, and librettist Douglas Kearney is a lightning rod in contemporary American poetry. Kearney read to packed houses in L.A. and New York City within 24 hours in mid-March in celebration of his latest book. Published by Red Hen Press, "Patter" is Kearney's third full-length book of poems, and organic unity drips from every page.

Wielding an undeniable command of the poetic line, Kearney's poems mix humor, irreverence, adventure, and the deeply personal. A playful sensibility couples with his precise phrasing to create poems that, poet Tracy Smith writes, "Run back and forth through the realms of private interiority popular culture and the vast public arena of history, all the while re-inventing what the poetic line is capable of bearing and baring." The 45 poems in the book tackle the trials of new parents, the tragedy of miscarriages and the interior dialogue of a new father.

Poems like "Daddies! On Playgrounds on Wednesdays" and "Every Hard Rapper's Father Ever: Father of the Year," combine social commentary, style, and intimate humanity. The core of the book is organized by five cycles of poems: 1. Father of the Year, 2. Miscarriages, 3. It is designed for Children, 4. Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo, and 5. In the End, They Were Born on TV. The longest series is 11 poems, and the other cycles are between four and ten poems each. Four of the "Father of the Year" poems were recently published in Poetry Magazine.

After Kearney graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1992, he went on to earn his BA at Howard University. Following his undergraduate work, he completed his MFA at Cal Arts, and soon after became a professor there. His first official book, "Fear Some," was published by Red Hen in 2006. In 2007 the Poetry Society of America named him a Notable New American Poet; soon after he won the Whiting Writers Award. He has received fellowships at Idyllwild and Cave Canem, and read in major poetry festivals like "Split This Rock." In 2009 the New York small press Fence Books published his second book, "The Black Automaton." The book won an award and was selected by Catherine Wagner for the venerated National Poetry Series.

Kearney has consistently pushed the envelope through a variety of mediums. In 2010 Corollary Press published his chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP, "Quantum Spit." Simultaneously his live readings have become happenings, as talked about as the potency of his verse and the innovative typography he frequently uses. Skylight Books in Los Feliz was standing room only for his March 13 book release. The following day he read to a packed house at NYU. Over the years Kearney has shared the stage with every range of writers, from luminaries like Terrance Hayes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, David St. John, and Wanda Coleman, to performance poets like Saul Williams. Kearney designs his own books and has even designed books for a few other poets. His meticulous execution manifests both on the page and the stage. Kearney is one of the most progressive poets writing in this age. The poet Tim Seibles writes, "Once under the spell of the sonic-semantic wizardry that pervades Kearney's work, you not only know more, but what you've known before, you know differently."

sunny_J/Flickr/Creative Commons

The singer-songwriter, emcee, and musician Aloe Blacc is another Southern California artist on the same progressive plane as Douglas Kearney. His new album "Lift Your Spirit," recently released by Interscope Records, debuted in the Billboard Top 10 album chart. He was on "Good Morning America" singing in late March, and has made recent appearances on "The Voice" and "Dancing with the Stars." A song he sings and co-wrote, "Wake Me Up," was Number 1 in 22 countries and just won a Grammy a few months ago. Furthermore, his song "The Man" is featured in a series of commercials with athletes like Kevin Garnett, Colin Kaepernick, and Richard Sherman. The song is currently in the Top 10 Singles and continues to rise up the charts.

Aloe Blacc's recent success has been a long time coming. I saw a recent article on a major website that lauded him as a great new artist -- though they are correct in their appraisal of the quality of his work, Aloe Blacc has been paying dues for close to two decades, and his rise is the result of his sincere work and tireless conviction.

Born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins to Panamanian parents in Laguna Beach, Aloe Blacc created his moniker while still in high school back in 1995, after being influenced by Q Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. Fluent in Spanish, his linguistic versatility is one of the hallmarks of his work. Aloe Blacc began his musical career with DJ Exile as a two-man team, recording their first demo together at 17. They formed the group "Emanon" and have done several recordings together over the years, including the 2005 album, "Waiting Room." Though they both have had successful solo careers for several years now, they still perform together sometimes, like their recent showcase at the South by Southwest Music Festival. Aloe Blacc ended up doing 16 performances over the course of the festival.

I first saw Aloe Blacc with DJ Exile at the Root Down in 2001 when the event was held at Gabah, near Melrose and Normandie. He was a charismatic emcee at the time, and I remember thinking they were a great up-and-coming crew. One of their songs, "Act Accordingly" got the crowd going in a feverish spirit of call-and-response. After their set, the late great DJ Dusk enthusiastically commented to the crowd, "I like that 'Act Accordingly.'" Aloe has continued to rise over the years. He graduated from USC in 2001; throughout his collegiate career he performed in the underground hip hop scene with DJ Exile.

Year by year he continued to evolve, performing in hundreds of shows. Joseph Thompson, best known as DJ J-Logic, founder of Sound Lessons and a longtime resident DJ of the seminal club Firecracker, says, "Aloe Blacc is the most talented cat I know. He's a five-tier player, there's no one else in L.A. that can do everything he can." Thompson notes that new artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt are creating important and innovative work, but they do not have the overall renaissance skills that Aloe Blacc does. The five skills, according to Thompson, are his singing ability, rapping, dancing, ability to play multiple instruments, and his public speaking and theatrical skills. Thompson first fell in love with the musicality of Aloe Blacc about a decade ago after seeing him onstage freestyle scatting with the Breakestra funk collective. I also saw Aloe Blacc play his trumpet at a jam session at an after-hours party under the First Street Bridge back in 2004. His ability to experiment and push boundaries is a big reason for his current success. A recent cover he did of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" shows off his undeniable, happy-go-lucky performing spirit.

Back in the day he would sometime show up unannounced at poetry open mics like Besskepp's "A Mic & Dim Lights" to workshop his new work. Besskepp recalls being blown away in 2005 when Aloe Blacc showed up to sing a song he had just written. He had been known exclusively as an emcee at the time, so when he began singing more, it changed the dynamic. Over the last several years Blacc has hosted dance party events, like Sound Lessons and the Do Over. His charismatic presence on the mic has been known to Angelenos for years now.

Somewhere around 2005 Aloe Blacc recorded a Spanish cover of John Legend's "Ordinary People," which became very popular with DJ's around the world. In 2006 his first official solo album, "Shine Through," was released on Stones Throw Records. Mixing both his rapping and singing skills, the album was well received, and featured tracks with producers like Madlib. It was his second album on Stones Throw, "Good Things" from 2010, that really put him on the map. The opening song "I Need a Dollar," became an international anthem. First it was featured as the opening song for an HBO show, and then international fans across the globe connected to the song, whose theme about economic inequality struck a chord with the millions of citizens affected by the recent economic downturn. "Good Things" eventually went on to become double platinum, and Blacc was invited to perform in a number of international music festivals. The record became Stones Throw's best-selling album. This success eventually led to him signing with Interscope Records in 2013.

In recent interviews he has noted that he sees himself now more as a singer-songwriter. His new 10-song record, "Lift Your Spirit," does not include any hip hop songs; deep soul is the record's backbone, and much of the ethos is reminiscent of early 1970s Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron. His songs combine irresistible musicality with potent messages. Lyrics like "be a king when kingdom comes" have ingratiated him with listeners hungry for inspiration. His intention is to make people happy through the tonic of music, while songs like "I Need a Dollar" show that his view is balanced and not filtered through rose colored lens. He is also an activist with his wife Maya Jupiter, working on a variety of issues including malaria in Africa and women's rights.

There's much more to say about the powerful work of Aloe Blacc and Douglas Kearney. These two progressive artists show that it is possible to push creative frontiers and still have commercial success. Their recent creative projects show that poetry and music have the power to uplift and improve the world around us. These two creative trailblazers have produced invaluable gifts for poetry and music aficionados to revel in. Salute to Douglas Kearney and Aloe Blacc, they are two undisputed Kings of L.A. Letters.

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