Poet, spoken word artist, and rapper Jonathan Brown will be at UC Merced on Friday, Oct. 12 to lead a workshop and a reading.
The one-hour workshop, titled “How Am I Not Myself,” will begin at 3 p.m. in the newest Classroom and Office Building (COB 2), behind the Kolligian Library, in room 265. His reading and musical performance will be from 7 to 8:30 in COB 2, room 140. Sponsored by Arts UC Merced and the Merritt Writing Program as part of its Write, Look, Listen series, the events are free, and the public is encouraged to attend.
A native of New Orleans, Jonathan Brown started his professional life as an English teacher who strove to connect to kids who struggled to feel a sense of belonging. The need to belong, but also to be okay with not belonging, was a “big drive in my teaching career,” Brown said during a recent phone interview.
In a poem entitled “Jake,” Brown admits that sometimes he is “not welcome at the table,” and during the interview he clarified his point.
“I feel more comfortable when I don’t belong. Sometimes I’m too punk for hip hop, too hip hop for academia.”
As a teacher, he found it was his mission to seek out “those kids — the ones not welcome at the table. I became a better teacher when I realized I wasn’t teaching English, I was teaching people.”
Today Brown is a full-time poet and rapper who holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and whose work has appeared in the Nashville Review, the Worcester Review, Indiefeed, and Wordplaysound.
In 2006, Brown took first place in the Bay Area Slam Competition. He has also won the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Slam competition twice, in 2010 and 2012. Brown’s most recent project, “Aggressively Vulnerable,” is a combination of music performance with a short book comprised of lyrics, liner notes, and an essay entitled “Art and Activism in the Age of Fear and Censorship.”
Brown crowdsourced the funds to produce the CD and vinyl of the music. They will be available for purchase, along with the book, on Friday. Speaking of his idea to create a single piece which integrates performance with text, Brown said he got the concept from when he was a child in elementary school. “My favorite time was when we got to lay our heads on our desks and listen to someone reading,” Brown stated. “This is like that, with the book to follow along.”
Brown, whose rap style is both bold and thought-provoking, believes vulnerability is essential to good art. He has said rap artists (and poets in general) must “take off their armor” to achieve true vulnerability, and it is through the process of becoming open and unmasked that artists can profoundly impact audiences.
“Aggressive vulnerability means never closing up, keeping your heart open. I know it sounds silly, but the best way to keep your heart open is to never close it. Like when you see a homeless person. When you ignore him, you can feel your heart closing. It’s physical. One easy example is acknowledging the homeless person, looking him in the eye and saying ‘Hello, I hope you’re okay.’ It means turning the wound into the blade, recognizing each other’s vulnerability. I guess the main thing I want from my art, from a performance, is to let people know that it’s okay to feel.”
When asked about his transformation from poet to hip hop artist, Brown explained the similarity between writing lyrics and writing a sonnet: “A sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, five beats and fourteen lines, and rap is sixteen lines of four beats or bars or measures, per line. It’s a first cousin to sonnets,” unlike spoken word, a genre that “invents its own rules as it progresses.” But Brown believes that rap also relies too frequently on defensive, misogynistic personas, and while he honors and respects most rap artists, he also aims to challenge rap stereotypes. “It’s important to be as authentic as possible,” Brown stated, further asserting that he doesn’t identify with the defensive stance often associated with hip hop artists.
According to Brown’s summary of his workshop, it will be “a lesson in voice and how to write from someone else’s perspective. But it’s really a lesson in exploring . . . subconscious. We’ll figure out how and why we talk to ourselves the way we do . . . We’ll dig in and explore the guiding voice of authority within our minds. We’ll learn how to develop a healthier relationship with our art and with our subconscious. Basically, we will learn to be nicer to ourselves.”
The 7 p.m. reading and performance will feature an open mic and an opportunity to meet Jonathan Brown and ask questions about his work. For more information, please contact Andera Mele at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.