The Godfather: Interview With The Legendary Spoken Word Artist Ngoma
My first visit to the Nuyorican Poets Café was a life changing event. I am sure that many poets consider the Nuyorican to be the Yankee Stadium of the spoken word arena. Not only was I about to visit this historical café, but I was about to witness a legend at work, the Babe Ruth of poetry. It was an experience that would forever alter my artistic path.
The Nuyorican was packed that night. The crowd was filled with beautiful people making meaningful impressions on my psyche. The hostess announced a break in the slam competition as tonight’s feature took the stage, Ngoma. What a performance! I never knew how impactful the song of words could be. The audience stood enchanted by his use of metaphor and prose, the Sermon on the Mount is for real! All I could think about during my train ride back home was the hook to one of his poems. “This is not a dress rehearsal!” I was born-again. I was saved.
The following week, I kept thinking to myself how I wanted to visit more poetry venues. Not only the beatnik outfits, but the soul spots that I had heard so much about. Lifting my eyes across the street, I could see an older man walking towards me with long locks of wisdom, like the poet that I had seen on stage three days ago. It was him. It was Ngoma. I don’t know if I could approach this dude? He’s a celebrity or something! It was at this time that I reflected on the content of his poem, and remembered that he is an Elder in the community.
You should have seen the expression on his face as I complemented him on his performance. He gave me a list of venues off the top of his head that I could attend. I became a disciple of the spoken word and dedicated myself to the path of poetry. Since this time I have witnessed this poetic god walk on water. Ngoma has healed the sick and given sight to the blind. His activities as an activist, artist, and mentor have changed the lives of thousands of people in the world far and wide.
Although Ngoma sits on top of legendary status, he is still the type of brother that will sit down and have a cup of tea with you. It has been some time since I last saw the general of the ghetto war soldiers. We reconnected recently, first on Facebook, and later in person. I thought you would like to listen to the Wise One, as he returns with his masterpiece Poetry from A Smartphone.
Warlock Asylum: It is a blessing to have an Elder in the community, such as yourself. For some of our subscribers who might not be familiar with the name Ngoma, how do you describe yourself?Ngoma: Ngoma is a kiswahili name. Its’ meaning is music or drum. It also is a term for shaman (a european term) or the (misnomer) bush doctor. The name was given to me as an attribute by Amiri Baraka
Warlock Asylum: After meeting up the other day I must say that it was an amazing experience just listening to some of the history that you lived. When did you first begin writing poetry and what was going in your life that inspired you to do so?
Ngoma: I wrote my first poem in Vietnam where I served for a year as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.The poem was a declaration and a vow that if I survived the experience I would use my skills to raise consciousness and do work to uplift my people. The Vietnam experience shifted my paradigm. I was fortunate to have friends here in the states (who majored in history, political science and sociology)that would send me books and radical periodicals that gave me a better understanding and perspective of what has been and is still going on.
Warlock Asylum: The era that you started writing poetry was also the time period where other noted legends were putting a lot of work in. Among these are Amiri Baraka, Felipe Luciano, and many others. What was your relationship with some of these artists at the time?
Ngoma: I returned home at the beginning of what was coined as “The Black Power Movement” Upon my return I was introduced to the work of Amiri Baraka,The Original Last Poets(Gylan Caine,Felipe Luciano & David Nelson), Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee (now known as Haki Madhabuti), Carolyn Rogers and Askia Muhammad Toure. These artist were the influences for my work. In the early ’70’s I was a member of Amiri Baraka’s organization-The Committee For A Unified New Ark-where I was a member of his theater group “The Spirit House Movers and Players”. During this time I was also fortunate enough to meet,attend lectures and have discussions with the likes of the previously mentioned as well as Dr. Ben Jochanan, C.L.R James,Maulana Karenga, Kwame Toure a.k.a Stokely Carmichael, Dr. John Henrik Clark and Harry Haywood, to name a few.
Warlock Asylum: Aside from your work as an artist, you have contributed much towards the development of the Black community, Civil Rights, Human Rights, and the social equality of all people. If you don’t mind, and with all due respect, I am going to list certain time periods and maybe you can share some of the activities that you were engaged in during these years:
a. Late 1960’s to 1975?
Ngoma: I’m from Richmond ,VA. I came of age in the Black Belt South before integration. My father was a plaintiff in the Brown vs. Board of Education Suit. As a High School Senior, I was a member of the NAACP and participated in the sit in’s and demonstrations in Richmond and also in Petersburg,Va as a student at Va. State University where I majored in instrumental music education. My entre into political art was a role as folk singer in the drama club production of the play “In White America”. Upon leaving school I was drafted and served in the U.S Army in ’68’9. When I returned, I moved to Newark, N.J where I was a member of the Committee For a Unified Newark and it’s national organization, The Congress of Afrikan People. I also taught music and art in the Afrikan Free School.
b 1975 to 1979?
Ngoma: In ’74 I left Newark and returned to Richmond where I worked at General Electric assembling Industrial Computers and trying to organize a union. I also continued to do political work i.e. we organized the first African Liberation Day Event. I also continued to develop my craft as a musician and poet and was fortunate enough to record two poems on the album – Juju Chapter II-Nia on the independent artist cooperative label “Strata East with James “Plunky”Branch and his band “Juju”
c. 1980’s to the Present?
Ngoma: In late’79 I moved to New York and along with my ex-wife Jaribu Hill formed the Contemporary Freedom Song Duo “Serious Bizness: We recorded 2 albums on the Folkways Label(Serious Bizness:For Your Immediate Attention and Serious Bizness:How Many More) owned by the great archivist Moses Asch, which are now part of the Smithsonian Collection, and also released one album (Serious Bizness:Storm Warning) completely on our own. We performed at numerous rallies and events in New York, toured the U.K. twice with the poetry ensemble “The African Dawn”. We also performed at the largest Anti-Nuclear rally in the U.S. in Central Park in ’82 for over a million people. I was a founding member of the National Black United Front that was started at Rev. Herbert Daughtry’s House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn where I co-chaired the cultural arm with Sister Wilhemina Banks .In the summer of ’82 I participated in a month long five city study tour of United Front Work in the Peoples Republic of China, where I lectured at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music on “The Music of Struggle and the Culture of Resistance in the U.S.” In ’95 the marriage and the duo (Serious Bizness) dissolved and I started to do more poetry. I participated in Slam Poetry as a member of the Connecticut Slam Team that competed in the National Poetry Slam Competitions of ‘95,96 and was the winner of the Prop Slam in’97. I was also featured in the P.B.S. Documentary “The Apropoets with Allen Ginburg, Ava Chin and Xavier Cavasos. Since that time I continue to write, record and perform spoken word using the platform of the one man band “Ngoma’s “Not Your Average String Thing” I have also been the curator and host of the poetry slam for the Dr. M.L.K Jr Family Festival of Social and Environmental Justice Social at Yale/Peabody Museum since ’95. In the fall of 2009 I was selected and participated in The Badilisha Poetry Xchange in Capetown, South Africa
Warlock Asylum: Having touched the lives of many through you work as an artist, activist, mentor, it would be interesting to hear what personas have inspired you along your path?
Ngoma: As an artist and activist I am inspired by the work of those that I’ve mentioned previously and continue to be inspired by those from this generation that are doing work such as Suheir Hammad, Taalam Acey, Carlos Andres Gomez, Iyaba Mandingo, Kyle Brooks, Darian Dachaun, Jessica Care Moore, Osunyoyin Alake, Sunni Patterson, Kasim Allah, Saul Williams and Caroline Rothstein just to name a few.
Warlock Asylum: I find it amazing that you are still able to get around well after all this time and people who are half your age seem to tire out quickly. How do you remain so energized? Is there a Ngoma diet that you’re writing a book about? Lol! How have you maintained that youthful vigor for all these years?
Ngoma: I haven’t thought much about writing a book. However I try to live a healthy lifestyle and not to consume food that is detrimental to my body nor info that is detrimental to my mind and spirit. I’m energized by the realization that we as a people are still not free and there is still much work to be done. One of my teachers and mentors, Mr. Joseph Kennedy, once told me that music keeps us young. Other than that I just struggle to stay current, to grow and to evolve so that my work doesn’t become stagnant.
Warlock Asylum: Since your involvement in the world of poetry, what changes have you witnessed?
Ngoma: Obviously styles change and some subject matter is cyclical. We also had a movement to shape our work and experiences that do not exist today. The best thing to happen though is that thru modern technology we have the ability to have more control of what is produced and a better means of distributing it.
Warlock Asylum: Seeing you perform as a solo artist is quite an experience since you have a strong stage presence. However, you spent some time working in a group, how was that experience for you?
Ngoma: I enjoyed working with groups and still do occasionally. In working with groups there is the ability to critique the work and to work off of the collective energy that’s missing from solo work. The advantage to working alone is that the group is not depending on one person’s creativity to get paid. It’s also more convenient to be able to produce whenever one feels like it as opposed to on demand.
Warlock Asylum: Before moving on to your current work, I must ask, what advice would you give to those newly-born artists who are interested in pursuing a path of poetry?
Ngoma: Take a good look at your purpose for writing and be sure that it serves you. Remember that most famous poets don’t write poetry solely for a living. I’d like to see poets writing about more than just themselves and to remember that some of the work will go on into perpetuity so poets should think about how they’d like to be remembered.
Warlock Asylum: Your new CD “Poetry From A Smart Phone” is a classic! The music and the poetry is really what’s up for 2011. The tracks seem to just melt into each other. I can immediately see the difference in your work. Where were you at spiritually while working on this project?
Ngoma: In my lifetime I have explored many expressions of spirituality such as Christianity ( as my parents did), Buddhism, Taoism, and some doctrines not as spiritual such as Kawaida. For awhile I practiced Marxism-Leninism- Maoism, which actually negates spirituality. At present I am exploring traditional African Spirituality by doing such things as setting up an ancestral altar and making offerings at the cross roads. Perhaps you can pick up this imagery in the poems. You could say I’ve come full circle.
Blue Steel’s Review of Poetry From A SmartphoneI’ve heard a lot of Ngoma’s poetry over the years, but I must say that this album is his masterpiece. The packaging is good. The cover art is captivating, and the music and poetry are made for each other.
Track 1: My Pen
This piece is a perfect introduction for the album. It has a real funky bass-line and violin overtones, as the godfather of spoken word makes it known that his pen is gangsta.
Track 2: Conversations With Bumble Bees on Earth Day
Musically the track is simply put together to give the listener time to absorb the depth of the words. Excellent use of prose.
Track 3: Jesus Wept
This track puts me right in the front row of a closed-room venue, a skillful use of overdub vocals and the classic Ngoma flow.
Track 4: String
I must have played this track about seven or eight times before moving to the next selection. The beat is organic and will immediately take you to a golden place. The lyrics are a little lighter than other points of the album, but it works with the music.
Track 5: Ghosts of Harlem Past/babbling On In Babylon
This is definitely a reflection piece. Ngoma guides you like a tour guide to the changes in Harlem over a musical track that seems to sink into the mind like butter on bread. Nice piano chords.
Track 6: Frontin Da Script
The music is a little experimental, but is a good transitional track.
Track 7: Zoology
When I first heard this piece, I knew that it took careful planning to layout this album. This track works without music, but outdoor sounds and reminds the listener there is power in the word. The method of this poem I leave for those who buy the cd to enjoy.
Track 8: Orwell Revisited
This track grew on me. The music is cleverly put together and the poem is very intense, as Ngoma writes about the present state of the world and political despair.
Track 9: This Poem Is Free
After a heavy assessment of the world today, This Poem Is Free, lifts up the listener to another subject. Free and careless, it reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest track off the Low-End Theory album entitled What.
Track 10: A Tip to the Pretty Young Waitress Behind The Bar
I must have listened to this track all weekend long. The music is good and the poem is an exceptional piece. Definitely a message for the ladies.
Track 11: The Crow on the Cradle
Another gem on this album. This is a straight song, but the lyrics are so poetic. It’s a classic piece, one that falls in the same category as Bob Marley’s Redemption Song Overall this album features some of Ngoma’s best work. It is his masterpiece. On a scale from 1 through 5, it’s a five-star album. The Godfather has returned!
For more info on the Spoken Word God, visit his site: http://www.ngomazworld.com/
3 thoughts on “The Godfather: Interview With The Legendary Spoken Word Artist Ngoma”
Great Interview! Eye felt as if eye were there with Ngoma! Keep on keepin it on and helping to raise awesome people who write good poetry.
Thanks for your insights and comments. I look forward to checking out your work as well 🙂
Baba Ngoma is indeed a griot of our times; a messenger and prophet in this modern “Babylon”, this interview is a testament to him “completing the circle”. Thank you for capturing his thoughts and spreading the message.