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.
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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.