The Making of a Renaissance Man: Mandlenkosi Dunn

Quadaja

“BEING A POET, I CAN ONLY ATTEMPT TO GIVE YOU A TANGIBLE EXCUSE.”

I’d been waiting 20 minutes at the Chipotle restaurant on Connecticut Ave. before Mandlenkosi Dunn finally arrived. We got in line and he started tap dancing. Tap, tap, tapping as he ordered a burrito, unwrapped in a bowl. The rhythms seemed random, the order seemed strange. The movement was subconscious; he’s been tap dancing since he was five years old and received a scholarship to attend Bishop McNamara High School for their Fine Arts program. As for the food choice, there was a simple explanation: “When faced with a difficult decision, I choose all of the above.”

He wore Converse Chuck Taylors, khaki pants, and a plaid hoodie and proudly sported a five-inch afro. He carried a bundle of books wrapped up in a brown corduroy jacket; he’d forgotten his backpack in his mother’s car that morning and needed something to carry his stuff in. He is a self-proclaimed golden child. Though awkward in demeanor and presentation, nothing about his shabby appearance seemed out of place.

PERFORMERS USUALLY CONSUME POETRY; POETRY HAS CONSUMED HIM.

“This is my ‘feed the children, save the world speech,’” Dunn said once we were seated. Then he carefully outlined his ambitions. “I want to start a youth movement of artists who don’t believe in just art, who refuse to be trapped in a singular art form – renaissance men,” he said. It would be a birth of individuals who build upon their craft by incorporating different methods of expression and using that developed craft to give back to a greater cause. His inspiration stems from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a book his father had given him when he was fifteen. “It changed my perspective on art,” he says. “It allowed me to realize that life is art and we are always creating. And since then, I’ve been an egotist.”

“I like to tell myself every poem is a love poem,” Dunn says jokingly to justify the fact that the first eleven pieces he wrote were expressions of admiration that didn’t do much to help his love life. His life as a spoken word artist began at Busboys & Poets, a popular venue for performance and poetry based in D.C.’s vibrant U Street district. He went there to share his work at an open mic. A member of the audience liked what they’d heard and made it a point to tell him there would be a slam competition, taking place the next day. After that, things just began to take off for Dunn. As we sat in the restaurant, it began to fill up with the frenetic energy of the after school students. We began to raise our voices over the commotion as Dunn explained how his progression over the years has allowed him to realize that literature, whether on paper or verbalized, is where his passion lies. Then suddenly, he leaned forward intently and mellowed his voice:

Last night I couldn’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
And the stars spoke to me from a cloud
But that wouldn’t make my dad love me
So I skipped rocks across a pond
And though of maybe flying again

It sounded so compelling despite the fact that his wording was ridiculous, and I realized this was the point he was trying to make. “It can’t just sound pretty,” he told me. “There has to be life behind what is being said. Don’t abuse spoken word.” This is something that Dunn vehemently stands by – that the way a message is rendered verbally can tamper with your ability to recognize what makes sense and what doesn’t. Apparently, according to Dunn, this is something performance poets do all the time: they ignore the importance of the words on paper and focus mainly on how to pull the audience in with tone of voice and gestures. Doing so only takes away the integrity of the work, Dunn believes. So “don’t abuse spoken word,” he repeats, and it is more than just emphasis; it is a manifesto.

MANDLENKOSI MEANS POWER OF THE LION.

Dunn’s father was born Lindsay Moeletsi Reginald Mkame but adopted the name Dunn in order to improve his chances at having a better education in his native South AFrica. So it was Lindsay Dunn who came to the United States to study when he was just twenty years old, escaping the horrors of apartheid, a system of racial segregation that curtailed the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa and maintained white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule. It was a system enforced through legislation by the National Party governments, which ruled from 1948 to 1994. Having lost his hearing at age sixteen due to scarlet fever, Lindsay went on to study at Gallaudet University and majored in Social Justice and English. He later attended New York University to study education where he met and later married Dunn’s mother, Pauline. Dunn says his mother is originally from the Bronx, New York. “I love [my mother] with the passion of a thousand suns,” he says. “My dad does too, so that’s cool.”

Kosi is the youngest of three children, and the only boy. Thandiwe, who is the eldest, makes jewelry. “She’s an artist too, if anything. Mad Bohemian.” He has a close relationship with his other sister, Jamillah, who he says would be the best man at his wedding if she were equipped with different parts.

AND THERE MUST BE SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO.

Before he emerged as a spoken word artist, there was poetry in its simplest form. Dunn taught himself how to write verse by watching videos on YouTube. One inspiration of his is the award winning Haitian-American performance artist Carvens Lissaint. Dunn says he admires him because he “proclaims a poem, giving his writing power.” When Lissaint performs he stands proud and assertively; he doesn’t distract his audience with unnecessary hand gestures but instead engages them with the few gestures he does use. Dunn tries to imitate this quality that Lissaint has mastered, but says he can’t quite do so because he’s “too tall and [has] to awkwardly bend over to reach the mic.” Apparently, everyone else is over strange miniature height. Then there is Brook Yung (who goes by B. Yung), a member of the New York City slam team. Yung was the first poet he’d ever seen perform and a good source of inspiration, as he has received many accolades and dominated stages internationally while also making a name for himself in the hip-hop world.

“Sometimes rappers are better poets than poets are,” Dunn says, and I consider it a perfectly reasonable statement, since rappers render lyrics to music, if done correctly, in a nimble manner. They capture aspects of life and regurgitate them through a simple yet profound form. Dunn says he’s taken a stab at rapping: “I’m not that good at it but I try anyway.” He also plans to use visual arts as a vehicle of expression. He has begun to teach himself to draw, which he confesses he isn’t very good at, but he tries anyway.

In the meanwhile, while he waits for his portraiture to take shape, Dunn continues to perform at many venues, ranging from the Kennedy Center to Metro stations and street corners. For his more casual performances, Dunn says he usually writes the poems the day he performs them. In preparation, he simply reminds himself of the motions he felt when writing, putting himself in the appropriate mindset. “It’s like storytelling,” he says.

Dunn was on the DC slam team in 2012, which ranked 5th in the Brave New Voices National Competition. the program was created in 1998 by Youth Speaks Inc., a non-profit organization from San Francisco that promotes youth’s intellectual and artistic self-development. This year Dunn has been competing in preliminary slams to be a part of the 2013 team, and so far has made it to the finals.

The interview came to an end and our conversation wound down; with our silence the music and the sound of those around us seemed to grow louder. As we prepared to leave the restaurant, Dunn made a comment about the design on my leggings. I joked that he could borrow them sometime. “Cool,” he said, “I’ll wear them to my next slam. Which you, by obligation, have to attend.”