Since 1992, discopoet Khari B. has been feeding his audiences his brand of “verbal soul food.” Whether socially arousing or enticingly erotic, Khari’s explosive energy nourishes the ears, minds and souls of all while keeping them wanting more. He’s been personally recognized for his talents by the late great Gwendolyn Brooks and performed with the renowned and revered Last Poets. He’s graced stages all around the world sharing his gift in such places as London, Paris and Rome.
In addition to his captivating performance persona, Khari consistently reaches youth and adults through varying educational programs. He is known for his candid and open discussions in schools around the Chicagoland area. His writing workshops have been received by the Ravinia Festival Program, Verizon, Neighborhood Writing Alliance, along with various public and private schools. Since 2004 he has been Purdue University’s artist-in-residence with his curriculum published in “Balancing the Bias: Cracking the Mind thru Critical Thinking.” Through his nonprofit organization he caters to the literary, educational and artistic needs in his own community and works to mentor growing youth into grand adults. The theme behind his programming is simply “Make it happen.”
This week he takes on his most daunting challenge yet when he performs a one-man show titled, One-Man Show of Art By Negro at the famed DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side. Khari sat down with rolling out to tell us more about the show and what attendees can expect.
Tell us about your background in poetry and art.
I started off as a visual artist at an age too early to actually remember. It was a well nurtured passion of mine through college. I believe that aspect helped my written work, teaching me the importance of creating very vivid pictures for a viewer or listener to connect to. Simultaneously I was an in-the-closet writer. It was a talent that was also nurtured from a bit of prompting by my mother but I pretty much kept that to myself and only shared occasionally with adults in get-well/feel better/birthday cards that I would design and compose instead of purchasing.
The crossroad came in college where I was studying architectural engineering and was outed by a friend of mine as a poet during a class. I was made to perform for the debate class by the teacher, having only done that once before at the age of 9 in church, and found that it felt good. It felt right and suddenly, slowly, I was doing that thing more and more.
After college and unhappily working a “regular job” I decided 2 take a chance on and put faith in this gift to sustain me. I quit the draining job and jumped head first into making a living as an artist. I haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t easy but it’s been great!
Have you always been a fan of the one man/woman show? Any particular favorites?
I haven’t always been a fan of them but I did appreciate the intimacy and vulnerability of these shows. I’ve seen some great work and some equally horrible attempts. It took another level of courage, stamina and comfort to really do it either way. For me, I’ve always preferred the big band thing; more Parliament style shows. This latest endeavor is a new challenge I had to take for myself to really engage my audience on a different level where they could connect deeper with the content.
I remember seeing John Leguizamo’s one man show Freak years ago. I watched amazed and in awe of how he delivered in a totally enrapturing way that never got long or boring. A Huey P. Newton Story starring Roger Guenveur Smith was another one that was wildly fantastic for me. When I began writing for this present show I was coincidently staying in New York at the time and Mike Tyson’s show was going up. I was damn near penniless so I was unable to catch it but I took it as a sign that I was moving in the right direction using Mike as one of the analogies. Interestingly, Spike Lee directed all 3 of those performances. There’s something to being a performer that can solely pull in an audience’s attention and keep it there. It become a test of mettle that I’m ready to do.
Technically, however, this isn’t totally a one-man show (or maybe it is). I’ve got accomplished musicians, Jovia Armstrong on percussion and Renee Baker on violin laying down a gorgeous soundscape for me to recite to and filmmaker Jonathan Woods has composed a visually brilliant video backdrop that is specifically tailored to each poem. I like layers and these artists are helping me to penetrate deeper into the layers beneath the minds of each member in the crowd.
What’s the significance of the title One-Man Show of Art By Negro: A Redo?
One-Man Show of Art By Negro was the headline on the front page of the New York Times highlighting artist Archibald Motley’s exhibit opening in New York in 1928. It was the first time a man of color was on the cover of that paper and only the second time for any artist. To me, it was a stark irony that Motley was still labeled as a Negro while this man’s show was really representative of positively redefining the image of people of color whose image had been largely controlled, misrepresented and defiled by a Caucasian-run mass media (as today). Motley used his talents to illustrate us as we are, not as property but as human beings that worked, played and danced in our many shades of brown. The pejorative “Negro” describes property that is colored black, which is why it became used for enslaved people of African descent. They were considered living property. That same label has since changed forms but even all “updated” versions still allude to property. Motley’s work helped to change that for the world to see but more importantly allowed us to see our own beauty as interpreted by someone who lived the same experience. I relate to that in many ways and decided to use this performance exhibition, this “Redo” as a nod and continuation of Motley’s work in my own medium.
What can fans expect from the show?
I like to say that I’m the poet for people who don’t like poetry. I consider myself more of a musician that uses poetry as an instrument and with that I’m looking to snatch hold of an audience’s entire being. Attendees can expect to have their spirits shook, their minds hyper-stimulated and to leave the show inspired to do greater things with their lives or even continue to push the great things they are already doing further. Maybe that’s what I expect; for the moment to live on as more than just words and manifest itself in people’s physical work to improve the world we live in. Everyone has a part. I write and share to remind, motivate, and inspire every ear that’ll hear me to do just that, including my own.
What’s next for Khari B?
Presently I’m chairing the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which has the distinction of being the oldest “Black” music collective in the world in operation today. We are preparing for our 50th anniversary. This is going to be a year long, worldwide celebration of the influence the organization has had on modern music around the globe. Most of my time now has been spent getting all the pieces for that in place. At the same time I’m working on all my other projects such as this “One-Man…” show that I am angling to tour for a bit. I’ve got an erotic poetry project with a new band that I’m organizing and hoping to debut a sneak peek of that in December at my 10th annual Debauchery Ball (Dec 12th). At the top of 2015 I’m doing some touring through France on a separate project. It’s all more of a mission than a career and I’m enjoying it profusely. Generally I’m working to bring this word to more ears in more places. We’ve got a world to repair. I’m sharing the inspiration and information to get it done.
One-Man Show of Art By Negro: A Redo takes place on Friday, November 21, at the DuSable Museum of African American History located at740 E. 56th Pl. in Chicago. Doors open at 6:30. Showtime at 7:30.
For more information, please visit www.oneman.eventbrite.com.