Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Lola Ogbara is an interdisciplinary artist, sculptor, and arts administrator. Now residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Ogbara currently works as an artist and Registrar for Craft Alliance Center of Art + Design. In 2013, she received a B.A. in Arts Entertainment & Media Management with a concentration in Visual Arts management from Columbia College Chicago and has had her work covered in publications and platforms such as Huffington Post, Billboard, and Netflix. A few weeks back, we found time to chat with the artist about her craft, Chicago’s art scene, and the process behind the book cover and design of Kwabena Foli’s learning rhythm.
Flowered Concrete: Hey Lola, a pleasure to finally chat with you as our last scheduled phone call was a failure. (Laughs) How are you doing today?
Lola Ogbara: I’m pretty good. Enjoying the weather. Gonna go out and hit some art exhibitions a little later.
Flowered Concrete: Sounds great! Okay, let's dive right into it. When I look at your work, I see a lot of confidence. I see self-certainty. Could you possibly elaborate upon the direction in which you guide your art as well as who your demographic is?
Lola Ogbara: So a lot of my work deals with a lot of Body Positivism. I was a part of a notion or stereotype that women of color who didn’t meet these outrageous beauty standards were never seen as being beautiful or sexy or a loving human being. This is in a lot of peoples heads. I didn’t like the stereotypes and didn’t like that they were seen as unhealthy. I wanted to change that. It started with a drawing and then it became a series. It became my body positivism series today. I really just wanted to give women an understanding that you are beautiful if you are a woman of color and this is your body type and that is your body type and you are beautiful and capable of being loved.
Flowered Concrete: You’re obviously a multidisciplinary artist at this stage of the game but how has your attributes as an artist developed over time? Was there a true starting point with any of the disciplines you currently practice?
Lola Ogbara: I always felt true to drawing and illustration. That was my first medium and probably the one I’ll do every day probably until the day I die. But it started off with drawing pictures and I used to write stories with them as a kid. In high school I took art classes and it just kept developing over time. As you get older and you experience new things you experience that there is more than drawing out there. There’s also photography, there’s clay, there’s paper art, collage you know? I was fascinated with all the options and it all made me want to explore more.
Flowered Concrete: How much does your art work usually go far? Are there an array of prices depending on what platform you offer them?
Lola Ogbara: I try to have a wide range of art available for everyone. Right now it can go as far five dollars for a sticker of a drawing to recently two thousand dollars for a thirty-eight by forty-two inch painting that I’ve done so it does range. I try to throw in sales every once in a while for any prints that I may have in my studio and things of that nature but I try to meet every price point.
Flowered Concrete: Did reading play a big role in your life growing up both as an individual and as an artist? Were there any art magazines in addition to art pieces you saw that influenced your come up as an artist?
Lola Ogbara: The reading options I’ve had growing up and as a kid has always been magazines. Ebony magazine, hair magazines, or any magazine with black women in it and all over it. It literally developed into more subjects, books and things of that nature but that was the starting point for me and with the magazine being the starting place that’s what I use in most of my collage work; magazines that have black women in them so a lot of time I’m using black women's bodies and faces as they usually cut from magazines I used to read as a kid.
Flowered Concrete: I noticed that you recently did illustration for Zena White’s book Collective Voices of the Tight Lipped. What was that experience like and was that the first time you designed a book cover?
Lola Ogbara: It was most definitely the first time I’ve designed a book cover. I didn’t know that was actually for me until someone asked if I could do it and I said “Why not?” There was a piece on my Instagram that she had seen and taken a liking to and she wanted it tweaked and wanted a black woman instead of the other women that were in the illustration so I tweaked it to her desire and she loved it and that’s what started my book cover designing.
Flowered Concrete: How did your collaboration with Kwabena Foli come about for Learning Rhythm? Were you guys already connected prior being that you both come from Chicago?
Lola Ogbara: We weren’t actually. I was more connected to his partner LaKeisha. She knows me from school and I know her from Columbia College and I guess she told him that I was doing connection work and I’d be a good source to check out for the book cover and I’m glad she did because it brought out a good collaboration out of it. So it went from there, and when we met, he told me what he was looking for--well not exactly--he told me about his book and then he gave me some writing samples and then I interpreted his book and his writing samples the way I wanted to. I gave him two different options and he chose the more illustrative route which I’m glad he did because he loves and I love it too and it’s one of my best commissioned works that I’ve done so far.
Flowered Concrete: Before I forget, I just wanted to congratulate you on being asked to create an event poster for promo in the Netflix original series “EASY”. Through that experience how is it different creating art pieces for exhibits in comparison to a client such as Netflix? Is your art compromised in any type of way when creating a visual for a show that may already have ideas in place for you to work with?
Lola Ogbara: So the thing about that is that was my first big company commission and I’ve learned a lot through the experience. Some good, some positive, and some negative. It was particularly something that they were needing for the show and they just wanted my particular style on it. So I was happy to do that and it came out good. Everyone liked it, I was paid generously for it and I look forward to working with bigger companies and I do know now that I would do a few things differently.
Flowered Concrete: What does your family think about what you do? Do they think art is a field that they expected for you to excel in and take seriously growing up?
Lola Ogbara: They always knew me as drawing and doing some kind of art or creative thing. I don’t think they realized that it would become that much of a passion for me and a career choice for me as well. I don’t think they realized that until I went to an art school because no one thought I was gonna do too much with this art business degree. But I’m seeming to prove them wrong every day. But they support me and they’re pretty proud of what I’m doing so far.
Flowered Concrete: Were there any mentors or artists growing up that paved the way for you in Chicago? Anyone you admired or was hands on in the development of your craft?
Lola Ogbara: I didn’t have too much mentors growing up. I didn’t realize I needed one or try to seek one out at a young age. It wasn’t until I got into college that I thought that I may need one or realized that I had started admiring other people and their work. You know, there wasn’t a lot of access to different art or social media platforms but I do understand the importance of mentorship now and I do have a few artists that I look up to and people I do seek information and advice from time to time.
Flowered Concrete: Any artists right now on the come up in between Missouri or Chicago that currently look up to you for inspiration that you’re possibly mentoring?
Lola Ogbara: I’m pretty sure I’m inspiring a few people here. It seems to be a really younger crowd. The college kids or the high school kids, because my illustration is very colorful and whenever I do a local show it seems to be a lot of college kids buying up the prints. They come out and by the time I’m there and I’m selling they’ve already realized who I am and they’ve seen my work somewhere so it feels good to have people notice what you’re doing and support that way and tell you and let you know that you inspire them and that they love your work so I do know locally I’m doing a little damage but I’m not sure about the broader range. I don’t know if I’m there quite yet.
Flowered Concrete: In this sociopolitical climate of Trump and his fascist and sexist nature, what do you feel is your role through your art? Is activism and art bridged at all?
Lola Ogbara: Yeah, I think activism plays a bigger and deeper role in art. And I feel what is art without activism you know? It’s a means to create change around social issues. So a lot of my work naturally is speaking up against some type of resistance. Whether it’s affecting my womanhood or being black or being black and woman, whatever I feel connected to. If it’s affecting it then I have something to say about it, at least visually. But yes, I feel that there is a place for activism within my art, most definitely.
Flowered Concrete: In your interview with Girls Club Zine you said something to me that really struck me. You said, “Art is meant to comfort the disrupted and disrupt the comfortable.” I thought that was fascinating. Can you unpack what you meant by that?
Lola Ogbara: Yeah, there’s a need to make people feel comfortable. Especially among black women, we’re seen as that source of comfortability. We’re here to listen to peoples problems, give advice, to solve and to nurture. But that’s not the case for me. That is nice, but on the other hand that is not who I want to be in my art. I want to do the opposite. I want to make people uncomfortable. I want to have the uncomfortable conversation. I want people to realize that we are not going to silence this issue and it’s going to come out whether you like it or not. That’s what my Body Positivism project does on a different level. I aim to discomfort in my work.
Flowered Concrete: What do you want people to ultimately pull away from your work?
Lola Ogbara: A lot of my work has a lot to do with body and how it's seen by others in the public. I guess I’d like for people to take away a sense of realization. For those who may not have known about my work or the subject of my work. I guess I want them to take away the fact that there are other bodies than their own. I want them to take away a sense of confidence in my work the same way I see myself.
Flowered Concrete: For those who are interested, where can they find you and your work online?
Lola Ogbara: I have a website lolaogbara.com They can also find me on Instagram. I have two Instagrams one is personal and the other one where I post my work is an art business profile (laughs)
Flowered Concrete: What would you say to the young kids out there that want to do the work you’re currently doing? How should they go about doing it?
Lola Ogbara: I think first and foremost you have to have the passion and the drive. Because if no one is looking now that doesn’t mean that they won’t be looking in the future. You always want to put out your best work. Another thing I would say is to keep yourself surrounded by people who love you and give you support. Your ideas are important, your beliefs are important. So keep that in mind and you should be good.
Flowered Concrete: Lola, thank you for spending time with us today.
Lola Ogbara: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for wanting to talk with me.
“As a multidisciplinary artist, I pride myself on bringing focus to the delicacy of the human form. I choose to explore sexuality, specifically in the bodies of people of color. In particular, the versatility of femininity within Black femme existence has streamlined my interest. Throughout my sculpture, paintings and illustrations, I gravitate towards a more literal and abstract representation of the female aesthetic. Using sculpture as a material, it brings about a fragility that is needed in this work. I celebrate vulnerability sometimes using my own body as a source of material and am most interested in social standards, body stereotypes, social observance, and activism as it pertains to the body.”
Twitter & Instagram: @leauxism
Born in Belgium and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, Kwabena Foli is no stranger to hard work. The last few years has seen the poet taking time out of his day to be an observer by journaling his most inner thoughts and ideas on life and the world as he sees it. What came out of this journaling is a book that Foli considers to be a biomythography called learning rhythm. Below is a transcription of a conversation we had.
Flowered Concrete: Mr. Kwabena Foli. So happy to have you enter the space of Concrete Conversations. Hope everything is well with you.
Kwabena Foli: Well internally everything is at least lol –lots of things externally in my own world and the world abroad that needs a straightening out.
Flowered Concrete: You have an extraordinary piece of work on your hands with this book learning rhythm. If you don’t mind sharing, what does the title mean exactly?
Kwabena Foli: It was first the title to a new theory I was developing for my work as a teaching artist. For a summer in Chicago I was piloting an arts program and had kids from all over the city. At first it was all crumbling, so one night I stayed up and thought through all the components that makes a community happen: empathy, accountability, space and culture. In a free-flow writing exercise I wrote “together these things create a learning rhythm” and suddenly I had the title. Though it applied to what I was making happen with the kids, I saw that it applied to all relationships. A growing relationship is one where everyone is learning from each other in a flow that works for them.
Flowered Concrete: The three years you took to journal this book was it always understood that the end result would be what the work has become or was it more of a free-flowing cultivating of ideas and thoughts?
Kwabena Foli: Free-flow like all great things that happen in the world. I was more of a medium or conduit. Most times in life you just…end up somewhere. The living part comes in making a home wherever you land.
Flowered Concrete: Your pieces aren’t that long in length. Is there a deliberate reason behind that or do you feel as if the output of your material says all that you need to say within the writing itself?
Kwabena Foli: It’s more so my personality. When I was in graduate school I HATED writing papers because I could say in two pages what they wanted in fifteen. Plus its also my upbringing as an artist. I grew up having text battles with my friends in high school back when Eminem ruled rap. We would write short 16’s and have friends that would vote on who’s pen was the best. In that world, you don’t have time to be misunderstood. So I grew up writing punchlines.
Flowered Concrete: To those of us that have never heard of biomythography can you please explain to use what it generally means and how it’s important to the central construct of the work.
Kwabena Foli: Honestly –read ZAMI by Audre Lorde. After that –read her cancer journals. You’ll have your answer then.
Flowered Concrete: What was your literature experience like growing up? Any genre or kinds of books that you gravitated towards in particular? Was there an adult that played a role in influencing what you read?
Kwabena Foli: Ha! This is a weird question for me because I honestly wasn’t that much of a reader growing up. I’m just now reading all the classics (Zora, Baldwin, Ellison, etc). Growing up I read a lot of horror novels. We had a very very small library that I would run into during shootouts –I figured no one would shoot up a library so I’ll hide there for hours while reading Goosebumps and Fear Street from R.L. Stine. I also would read “The Adventures of Encyclopedia Brown” which is about this boy detective –a miniature Sherlock Holmes in a way. That was my reading as a kid. No adult ever pushed me to read.
Flowered Concrete: You’ve been around for a while now and very active in the Chicago arts and poetry scene. How does the sociopolitical climate of the city and the country at large affect or influence the work of the artists back home?
Kwabena Foli: From my point Chicago is all about tribe and being authentic. It’s a rich city of innovators and because of that the politics are bananas. It’s very easy to have enemies too so you have to strive to be so good that even those enemies cannot deny you. That is what makes Chicago art powerful. Currently I’m in NYC and it amazes me how crowded it is here. If someone doesn’t like your work its okay because you can just so somewhere else in the city and be popping there. Anyone can get on if they move around enough. In Chicago though, you must be good. Take Chance for example –he dropped an album that was so good that it won a Grammy even though it was a mixtape he gave away for free. Every bar is tweetable (and eventually was). That’s Chicago. The best art in the world is there if you ask me.
Flowered Concrete: Are there any art coalitions or movements in Chicago that people should be aware of? Causes where they can contribute to see the improvement and well-being of the city’s citizens?
Kwabena Foli: L.Y.R.I.C. Mentoring for sure co-founded by PHENOM and K Love the Poet. They’ve been taking in kids, encouraging their art, and supporting each other as family for years now and they do it without any government funding. Every summer as the school year closes they host a weeklong arts festival for kids –all free. Plus, they’ve never lost a kid to gun violence. It’s an amazing movement everyone should know about.
Flowered Concrete: Let’s gear our focus to the book for a moment. In learning rhythm you have a cast of recurring characters from sun (blk man), ocean (blk womyn), eclipse (fuckboy), tempest (her), and the great balance (a sort of fusion between the black man and woman). If you don’t mind me asking what drove you to conceptualize a book of writing in which the pieces themselves would be the voices or the embodiment of these entities?
Kwabena Foli: I really wanted to write a modern folktale for the culture. I’m a narrative guy which means I believe stories are everything. That’s what I loved about rap back in the day –the conceptual albums that told a story over 13 tracks. I see it in J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance today. It’s in music, but not so much in literature so I wanted to contribute to that. The thing about a story is –it’s about what you learn in the in-between. It’s about you as much as it is about the work itself. I guess that’s the tribe part about me…I care more about how you’re really feeling and what you’re really experiencing instead of how you personally feel about each thing I write.
Flowered Concrete: On page 11 you write: “I don’t know how to let go/without destroying the world around me/and when I do/only an ocean/can stop the bleeding”. Were you basically trying to convey an analogy of a black man being susceptible to self-destructing and the power a black woman in being there to pick up the pieces and restore his power?
Kwabena Foli: This is exactly why stories matter. I think the response to that piece on the next page answers that question directly. That piece was true for me for a moment, but when you turn the page you’ll see OCEAN correct that myth. I learned something between those two pages and that is where you, as a reader, have to wrestle with how I went from point A to point B.
Flowered Concrete: On page 15 you say: “Negus will never chill while caged – why we must get free”. Do you mind unpacking this statement for us?
Kwabena Foli: I was locked up before and placed in solitary and it really fucked me up for a bit. After that experience, the idea of freedom no longer was a cliché.
Flowered Concrete: What are you currently reading at this point in time? Any books or authors doing the work that we should know about? Any that we may not be aware of flying under the radar?
Kwabena Foli: I’m currently finishing Their Eyes Were Watching God then I’m going to read Beloved by Toni Morrison. As I said earlier, I’m revisiting the classics because I never actually read them. Far as what’s under the radar –I’m editing an anthology of poems called “The Blk Love Mixtape” curated by Real T@lk. Be on the lookout for that.
Flowered Concrete: On page 143 you write: “I’ve caused more tears than smiles/more bad nights than good mornings/you may say: he is a blk man. Still repeating generational curses/others may say: he is a human doing the best he can/truth is: I am between the two. Why was this important for you to put into writing? What are its origins?
Kwabena Foli: Blk masculinity is fluid and many brothers are still figuring out their flow. In order for blk masculinity to evolve, we must acknowledge that there’s space for it to actually do so. Far as its origin…that’s between me and Jah.
Flowered Concrete: Over a year ago you wrote a Facebook status that went viral (with almost 4,000 shares and approximately 7,800 reactions) that talked about Jay-Z’s transition from misogyny and dominance within patriarchy during “Big Pimpin” days to his moment of vulnerability found within Beyonce’s visual for the album Lemonade. Did any of that inspire this work by any chance? If not, could you just briefly share and reflect your thoughts upon that status you wrote a little over one year after the fact?
Kwabena Foli: Well it’s a thought I’ve always had about JAY Z. He’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid. I wanted his cool. Then he drops Blueprint 3 and literally says that all his old shit are exactly that…old shit. Now he’s wearing suits and being monogamous and it hit me that we can all evolve. Evolving is an ever-going process so to see him push the envelope even more was cool to see. Today dude is taking family photos left & right lol. I still think JAY Z is a tangible example that a homie from da block can progress if he puts work into it.
Flowered Concrete: What’s next for you going forward whether it be artistically or personally?
Kwabena Foli: Right now I’m focusing on teaching which is why I don’t post much these days, but I’m halfway through my second afro-folktale already. At the moment though I have some kids in front of me I must attend to. I’m thinking through our education process a lot because I believe we’re really setting up our kids to fail and I refuse to let that happen.
Flowered Concrete: Where can readers purchase learning rhythm and support you?
Kwabena Foli: my website –kwabenafoli.com
Flowered Concrete: Kwabena, we sincerely thank you for your time.
Kwabena Foli: Thanks bro for the convo.
Connect with him online:
L. Michael Gipson seems to be a master of the 24-hour cycle period. An essayist and cultural critic, Gipson’s writing focuses on myriad topics such as race, health, and many aspects of the sociopolitical. Somehow amid a hectic schedule, the writer found some time to chat with us about his work as well as his written foreword in Tai Allen’s No Jewels. Below is a transcription of the conversation we had.
Flowered Concrete: L. Michael Gipson, we are more than thrilled to have you here checking in with us today. Welcome to concrete conversations.
L. Michael Gipson: Thank you, it’s my privilege.
Flowered Concrete: Your resume and bio speaks for itself. And because of that we have a lot to cover today. So If you don’t mind I’ll just jump write into it. You obviously have been very active throughout your career and I wanted to know what do people from the outside looking in label you as? When they first see you what career title are you usually appointed with?
L. Michael Gipson: I think it depends on in what walk of life they’ve met me. I think my talents have had me juggling three interconnected careers over the years. One, as a writer. Two, as an educator. And, three as an advocate. So, I think if you met me in my twenties, the label you would probably most place on me is “advocate” because I was physically very visible all the time in movement work. I think with the invention of social media and me getting older, that has morphed into being considered more of a writer as I'm physically less visible, but my words and behind the scenes deeds are still out there doing the work. Yet, all of that for me—the writing and teaching—are forms of advocacy. Even when I am writing fiction, while I’m not necessarily writing “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” there’s still this part of me that is wanting to share ideas and promoting a discourse that’s going to inspire people to think about things in a different way. So, to say that I don’t have an advocacy agenda even as a writer and that I’m writing “art for art’s sake” would be a lie. Everything is purposeful. Everything I do has a utility. Even though they might say writer or educator, you know, advocacy is still the driving force in my work.
Flowered Concrete: As a public health and youth advocate, you’ve spent the past twenty years working on HIV/AIDS and youth and community development programming on the local, state and national level. What got you into doing this kind of work and why does it specifically matter to you?
L. Michael Gipson: I come from people who serve. My family on both sides have been engaged in either service or the arts in some form. Even when they didn’t know that they were. (Laughs) Even on their working class, blue-collar jobs they still were engaged in acts of service and advocating for fairness. My own personal story of being displaced from my family and my home at age 16 after I came out of the closet as a gay kid and having to fend for myself and having to be out in the world for me was highly influential. I got to experience all the horrors. You name a horror and somehow someway it touched my life. Whether that be a father or stepfather on some type of chemical dependency or being a teen that was molested, having experienced multiple divorces, having a mentally challenged mother, being a part of the street life and engaging in criminal activity, it’s been an experience I’ve had. So, up to roughly age 19, there was definitely a sense of being part of nonstop interpersonal drama, trauma, and confusion that derived from being part of several marginalized classes. So, yeah, this is personal for me. I’m a lifelong advocate for those who’ve gone through, for the underdog as an underdog. I’ll probably be doing some form of protesting and advocating for those of us on the margins, trying to get people to learn about different issues that affect those they aren’t considering or don’t know until the day I die.
Flowered Concrete: One thing that kept popping up as I did my research on you was Faithwalk Enterprises, LLC. Can you possibly explain the work you do with it and describe what it is exactly?
L. Michael Gipson: Yeah, so Faithwalk LLC, is my boutique consulting firm for nonprofit and government institutions. It’s my way to both make a living as an entrepreneur, while also still giving back to my communities. I have never been under the impression that because I serve that I should be poor. (Laughs) And so, you know, for me it’s trying to balance how do I earn enough to live a comfortable life while still engaging in the work that matters most to me? Some of that comes from having the reach and experience of 23 years in various nonprofit, governmental and foundation sectors, and bringing that to the consulting and writing that I do for clients in the way a major firm would without the major firm sticker shock. Eighty percent of my clients are people of color organizations who are working with the most disenfranchised and marginalized communities on the ground, agencies who often cannot afford a major consulting firm to help them grow their work. Having been everything from an outreach worker to an Executive Director, even a grantmaker in the foundation and government realm, I know that nonprofit world from the ground up and inside out. So, my work with them ranges from executive coaching and leadership development to providing training for staff and writing the grants that enable them to prosper. So, that is Faithwalk, LLC. Since 1997 or so, I have off and on gone into working in the nonprofit or government sector and then come back out and worked for myself. It's liberating to know you don't have to be tied to someone else's job to earn a good living. I’ve been really blessed and privileged to live that story and have the freedom of that life.
Flowered Concrete: I find it amazing that you’ve still found the time to be deeply immersed in writing. Do you mind sharing some of the publications you’ve written for and what you generally focus on in regards to themes and points of concern within your writing?
L. Michael Gipson: I am known in different writing sectors. I get bored (Laughs). From writing hard-hitting feature articles about rape in prison to celebrity profiles about Rashaan Patterson, Big Freedia, Avery*Sunshine, and Monifah Carter. I’ve got a long legacy of working in that world of journalism, particularly Black LGBTQ journalism. And, then in another space, in the Independent Soul Music Movement, I have been a critic starting in 2002 for Daniel Gray Kontar’s “Urban Dialect,” which eventually lead to writing and editing gigs with Creative Loafing Atlanta, BET Centric, and as an ongoing, decade-long critic for SoulTracks.com. Writing about this movement iteration of Black independent music maybe about five or six years after its resurgence has taken me to so many places and industry relationships that I wouldn’t have ever expected as a poor kid from Chicago’s South Side. Now I’m writing about these artists for their labels and managers. I’m writing their bios and liner notes for their CDs. I got to briefly manage replife and Marcell and The Truth. So, I got to experience that music industry world from a business perspective too. What’s lesser known, but just as important to me as my music industry work, is my fiction and personal narrative essays that have been published in several anthologies over the years. I’d like to do more of that and be more present in the literary arts scene. I have a collection of stories with Red Dirt Press and I’d love to finish the final edits of those and finally get that long-gestating work out there. That collection has been twenty years in the making, with the first story being written at age 19, but you know because I’ve been so busy, obviously, with all of these other endeavors that I have not always treated my fiction writing as well as I should.
Flowered Concrete: A few years back you were working on a short-story collection called Collisions: a Collection of Intersections. Is that still in the works at all or are you focusing on other potential projects?
L. Michael Gipson: So, that’s the short story collection, "Collisions: A Collection of Intersections." Red Dirt Press and I were right on the cusp of having it come out when I pulled back and shelved it, questioning whether or not the work was still relevant. So much has changed in society around Black gay men's lives, not to mention how much has changed with me since I wrote those stories that even my writing style and voice are dramatically different. I wasn't sure there was still an audience for this work set in another place and time. But, this year, I’ve made a commitment to finish the final edit on those pieces and let the public decide on whether or not the work is relevant and my younger voice is worthy.
Flowered Concrete: You earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College. What was that experience like? Moreover, how has it helped your writing overall since you write in various formats?
L. Michael Gipson: Goddard was incredible for me. They required for every assignment that you write a reflective essay about what you learned in your learning process from the assignment, how you feel about the information you’ve synthesized or work you developed, and what impact that information or work can have on the world. That kind of constant interrogation and self-questioning was tiring, but it refined my thinking and illuminated for me my own thoughts about the issues. Often times when I write something down, I’m struggling with considering both sides of an issue and I’m not totally sure how I feel or where I fall on the topic until I’m writing about it. A lot of my fiction writing is about questions that I’m struggling with and I’m working through the answers for me as I write. The idea that I don't have to know the answers from the gate and that the process of struggle with an idea is just as critical as having solutions is a result of the self-directed, highly introspective learning I received at Goddard. The level of accountability they required of me informs my work and advocacy and makes me proud to be a Goddard grad.
Flowered Concrete: Were you a big reader growing up? If so, what were some of your favorite books?
L. Michael Gipson: I was a tireless reader but unfortunately, I was a tired reader of trash. (Laughs) The only black author I was reading at the time was Maya Angelou. I remember reading everything by Maya Angelou. Tenth grade was when I started getting heavily into it. I would read three to five books a week. But yeah, as a kid I was a voracious reader and was targeted for it as a result.
Flowered Concrete: You wrote the foreword to Tai Allen's "No Jewels" chapbook. Why so? Did the topic and heaviness come from a very personal place? Did it relate to Tai's experience with molestation at a young age?
L. Michael Gipson: Well, first, Tai Allen and I have been brothers for more than a decade now, back when MySpace was a thing. (Laughs). So, if he asks most anything of me, within reason, he gets it. And, knowing how high his standards are, I was honored he invited me to write the foreword for what is one of his most personal works. I also wrote it as a fellow survivor of rape, though mine was once as a teen by a man and was not a prolonged campaign of terror by a woman in the way Tai's experience was. So, yes, it is personal too. When one out of six men will have been raped in his lifetime, I'm invested in us having a national conversation about the vulnerability of boys and teens to sexual predators, both men and women predators. Tai being who he is: an Alpha male, a 6'5-6'6 athlete, a masculine artist, a respected community activist, a reformed womanizer, and a man's man, he brings a certain kind of social capital to this conversation among other straight men that forces them to pay attention and doesn't easily allow them to dismiss this abuse as something to be celebrated or ignored or something that happened to someone because they're considered "soft" as a form of victim blaming, but something that must be seriously contended with that could happen to any male's body. Tai's transparency and willingness to be vulnerable here opens the door for other male survivors who've been victims to own their experience without shame and begin their healing too. To be a part of that is an awesome, awesome privilege. Lastly, anytime I can be part of bridging the gulf between Black gay and straight men to foster brotherhood by illustrating an example of men of different paths working together for a common good, I'm there.
Flowered Concrete: What kind of advice would you give to youth that would like to be sufficient with time? How can they go about exploring multiple avenues in hopes of reaching success or does this really matter at the end of the day?
L. Michael Gipson: I think, if you’re young, try everything. Especially, if you’re under thirty and afraid of "it." Challenge yourself to do whatever "it" is anyway because your interests and passions will naturally narrow over time to reveal your true purpose. I was writing everywhere, an activist on multiple issues, a national trainer, a youth program developer, and modeling for art classes and social marketing campaigns in my twenties. I never said no to anything, to any opportunity that would expand me and reveal to me my ultimate purpose for being here. As you age, there are activities that you were involved in that will eventually fall off, people that will fall off too, and what is the most important to you becomes clear. That came from first saying “yes” and then deciding over the journey whether or not I liked being a part of something or not, certain scenes or not. If you would have asked me in my early twenties, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer on why I am here on this planet, but over time I figured out what my purpose was through the work and now I live it. So, I say to fearlessly say “yes” to everything and over time your purpose and that “no” based on interest, not fear will come organically through experience.
Flowered Concrete: What else do you have going on that we forgot to mention or what would you like for us to be aware of going forward in regards to you work?
L. Michael Gipson: “Indie Soul Journeys” is the name of the docu-series that I’m the Co-Producer and Lead Writer on for 3919 Filmworks Productions. The pilot got its premiere last December as a film short on the film festival circuit. The team, led by Director John Jointer, and I are planning a launch through a PBS affiliate either in the Fall of 2017 or the winter of 2018. That’s still being worked out based on production funding, but we’ve got the green light already for the platform from PBS. At this point, it will be a half-hour docu-series chronicling independent R&B, Soul, and Acid Jazz artists in the framework of an “Unsung” or a VH1 “Behind The Music,” but with a “how I got over” testimonial aspect to it. I’m really invested in sharing with struggling people the narrative tools for how to get through a trial and overcome a circumstance. Even though the overlay is about these talented, indie artists’ music journey and to spotlight their work, the core of the series is how did you get over this valley? So that other folk can find the inspiration or the path to get over their valleys too.
Flowered Concrete: For those who are interested, where can they find you online?
L. Michael Gipson: I am a Facebook junkie. I over-post. (Laughs) L. Michael Gipson, with a P as in Paul. Other than that, I don’t do a lot around the other social media platforms. So, the best way to connect with me is on Facebook or Twitter. I also have a personally curated all music podcast to share my love of independent and adult contemporary soul with listeners through my “LMG Soul Eclectics” show and you can find that on iTunes and Podomatic. I’m about 20 shows in on that quarterly podcast, so subscribe and share!
Flowered Concrete: L. Michael Gibson, we thank you for spending time and sharing some jewels with us today.
L. Michael Gipson: Thank you for having me. (Laughs)
Bio: An award-winning writer and advocate, L. Michael Gipson has worked in journalism, public health, and youth development for 23 years. Throughout, Michael has conducted research and written grants, articles, fact sheets, and issue briefs for major nonprofits. He has facilitated over 100 skills building trainings for over 60 health departments, education agencies, and grassroots CBOs. Michael is also the co-founder of the Beyond Identities Community Center, a multi-focused youth drop-in center that has served the needs of over 3000 youth since 2004. He’s currently the founder of Urban (W)rites, a project-based partnership with the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project to teach the formerly incarcerated creative writing and entrepreneurship skills. Gipson holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Goddard College and a Master of Science in Education Media Design & Technology degree from Full Sail University. He works and resides in Detroit, MI while also managing clients from all over the country.
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Tai Allen is something of a polymath. The artist has been on the scene now providing an impact to everything arts and culture related for over twenty years. Recently, we had the fortunate opportunity to catch up with the Yonkers, NY native in person. Below is a transcription of the conversation we had.
Flowered Concrete: Tai, a pleasure to have you here today discussing your latest work.
Tai Allen: thank you, kindly.
Flowered Concrete: I want to go back a bit and kind of figure out your starting point. And so, when did you start writing poetry and what about the art form gravitated you towards it?
Tai Allen: young! i wrote because my painting skills were lacking. then you add the rise of hip-hop and i fell in love with words.
Flowered Concrete: What were some of your interests growing up? Did any of them factor into poetry at all or lead you down the path perhaps?
Tai Allen: basketball. science. history. music. poetry. style. poetry. girls. poetry. I honestly only recall being in love with poetry and painting; then taking poetry as the main discipline.
Flowered Concrete: Your new chapbook “No Jewels” is centered around sexual abuse and seems to come from a personal place. Did you have any reluctance at all in writing this material?
Tai Allen: Not about sexual abuse. It is about the use of love as a power tool or a carrot to oppress. And, I never felt a reason to write about it. But an elder suggested the idea. Since my mid-twenties, I learned to love myself more than the sins against me.
Flowered Concrete: You write in your acknowledgements section, “Patricia Spears Jones this was your idea”. Talk about that if you can. Was she aware of you writing the book at the time or would you credit her as the perpetuating factor of the work coming to life?
Tai Allen: Patricia read a poem that was part of a different manuscript. It referenced abuse but from a very “eff you” vantage. She felt this could be expanded into a book.
Flowered Concrete: Besides being a poet, you’re an accomplished singer-songwriter and a creative director with Arts+Crafts. How have these other roles influenced your writing and this book? Do they stand alone at all or come together to illustrate one picture?
Tai Allen: All of my art comes from the same place. I do not partition them. Society does. I make things, things is plural to represent the disciplines I can/will use.
Flowered Concrete: In the book’s dedication, you say that “the book exists as a guide to understanding innocence”. In what way, do you see it operating as a guide and how has the content of “No Jewels” guided some of your earliest of readers thus far?
Tai Allen: It should probably say understand the death of innocence. But that thinking is important. Innoncence is what gives a child power. Eventually innocence will fade but it should never be torn away.
Flowered Concrete: In the latter portion of the poem “CISabuse” you write, “I continue with the sock wearing/always ready to exit or escape—time and time again/even the nights my pants leg eat the socks/I remember family/villains are born into someone’s family” It seems as if you’re wrestling with emotions that consist of fleeing your past circumstance while wrestling with the idea that this abuse happened to come from a person of your own flesh and blood. If you don’t mind me asking: How hard is that for anyone, young or old, that goes through this and what’s the mental process like for someone enduring this at the hands of a loved one?
Tai Allen: not wrestling. describing.
i do not know the process for enduring. Totally unsure. I do know that I was able to emerge because I had parents/god-parents who cared; a religion that showed me self-reliance; and, my belief in loving myself.
Flowered Concrete: Walk me through the cover for a moment. In the cover there’s an open palm of someone hand which seems to have diamonds resting in them. What is the meaning behind this imagery and what were you trying to convey?
Tai Allen: No Jewels. Conflict diamonds: are senseless pieces of carbon that ruin lives.
Flowered Concrete: How long did it take to put this project together and why was it necessary for you to publish it at this moment in time?
Tai Allen: 7-8 months. And, cause it is done.
Flowered Concrete: I’ve noticed there’s also a soundtrack to the book. Are you backing the poems with music or are all these tracks original recordings?
Tai Allen: latter.
Flowered Concrete: In your poem “The memory game [#4] you write, “a lil boy will forget/the demons and monsters/are hiding in closets/or waiting under beds/when the serpent of selfish sex/and solo contentment/kisses him on the head/before he walks off to school”. It honestly made me contemplate on how quick our children are forced to grow up because of circumstances such as these that are out of their control. Do you feel that this is necessarily the case or is there another elemental factor to it that we who have never experienced this often miss?
Tai Allen: hard question. I will say it is NOT necessary but is often a reality.
Flowered Concrete: Who else were big contributors to this project and how did they help in its shaping overall?
Tai Allen: Editing by Brad Walrond which means a lot of arguging. With the music, production help from: Vespertine, Jonn Nubian & Dasan Ahanu… with a special guest appearance by Joy Jones.
Flowered Concrete: What’s next on your plate? Are you currently touring? How else do you plan on going about pushing this project in the long run?
Tai Allen: Touring as well as some other things we’ve got lined up that I can’t speak of as of yet. But fear not, they all will be dope!
Flowered Concrete: For those who are interested, where can they pick up your latest work?
Tai Allen: taiallen.com / Amazon / Flowered Concrete / Nkiru Online (Talib Kweli’s ecomm site) and most digital folks. In the real world, various venue options for the physical.
Flowered Concrete: Tai, thank you for spending time and sharing with us today.
Tai Allen: Ditto!! i LOVE questions that force me to think!
Tai Allen is a respected creative who excels in multiple disciplines. The Brooklyn-based creative director is a poet who sings over music he has produced. His poetry has been published in noted tomes (Bomb and African Voices) and his music has been heralded by such publications as SoulTracks, Uptown Magazine and CentricTV. Allen is also creative director for Arts+Crafts, where he curates the annual Tap+Cork Brooklyn Beer & Wine Fest, and creates performance opportunities for emerging artists, deejays and poets.
Connect with him online:
Kevin Anglade is the founder and publisher of Flowered Concrete. Founded in 2012, he plans to bridge the gap between the African-American communities throughout the nation with hopes of reinvigorating a passion for literature.