If you stand on any corner in our nation’s capital, close your eyes and listen to your heartbeat. You will feel the blend of funk, rhythm and blues, and old school hip-hop…the pulse of Go-Go.
By: London, Grade 10
My mother was always a stickler for proper grammar when I was growing up. She would correct me to “yes” when I said “yeah” or “do not” when I said “don’t.” These habits followed me to where I am today, and according to family and fellow peers, they are detectable in my speech.
Throughout my life, I have been constantly told that I speak proper, or like a white person. I am African American, and my ethnicity has always been questioned because of the way I speak. I have always been seen by nmy peers and even family members as mixed or an “Oreo.” All of my life I have seen this as a deficit because of the taunting I received.
As I continued to grow, I thought that I should change the way I spoke due to comments from other people. I decided that if I spoke “slang” more often I could change the way I sounded. I tried to engage in conversation with peers in slang, but they told me that I did not sound right saying it. For example, when agreeing with someone I would say “kill moe,” and everyone would stare in silence. I thought that the way I spoke was a curse that my mother had plagued me with. I wanted to change the way I spoke badly so I could fit in with other people.
I constantly felt as if I was losing parts of myself, and I was not the only person who saw the metamorphosis I was going through. I received remarks from adults and peers regarding how I changed. I knew it was wrong, but I desperately wanted to fit in and not feel like the black sheep of the herd. I thought that changing my speech would make me feel like I was accepted, but I only felt more like an outcast.
It took me awhile and a lot of soul searching to finally find out who I was and what I wanted. I discovered that the way I speak is part of me, and that I should embrace it instead of shunning it away.
Originally published in Having To Tell Your Mother Is The Hardest Part.
By: Treseat, Grade 10
In my city, Washington D.C., the buildings that crowd our streets are often colored. They have been, at times, temporarily decorated in the bright colors of Shepard Fairey’s famous stencil of President Obama; or otherwise come to be part of the very fabric of the city – John Bailey’s mural of Marilyn Monroe in Woodley Park comes to mind, as well Byron Pecks’ icon image of Duke Ellington on the True Reformer building overlooking the U-Street corridor. Yet despite all of the color and street art, Washington’s most famous urban artist didn’t do murals. He simply sprayed the name of his moniker, his alter ego, and left his mark on every part of the city at a time when graffiti as an art form and means of expression was just emerging. This is how the legend of “Cool Disco Dan,” was born.
His work is simple and immediately recognizable, his name in uppercase, encased in quotation marks. He would spray it in black or at times in red, and that was as about as colorful as he got. What really set Cool Disco Dan apart was his prolific output; there was a time in the 1980s where you could not go two to four blocks without seeing his name.
Cool Disco Dan emerged on the graffiti scene back when D.C. was Chocolate City, the murder capital, gang violence and the crack cocaine epidemic swept the city. Born east of the Anacostia river, he was raised in an impoverished community yet, in spite all of the adversity, it was a time when the streets were experiencing a cultural revival. A new rendition of hip-hop was making its way through the city’s streets; a cool mix between disco and funk dubbed “Go Go” arrived and was here to stay. Dan, like many other teens at this time, found himself caught up in it all, attending “Go Gos” and other parties that played the music. D.C. was making a name for itself throughout the country and Dan was there to bear it all.
“When D.C. was the murder capital, its was a lot more fun,” said an artist affiliated with Words Beats And Life, but who asked to remain unnamed. Word Beats And Life is a non-profit organization based in D.C. that works with the city’s urban youth. ”You could get away with a lot more as a graffiti artist. It felt a little bit freer. But I guess the trade off for that was the violence. I miss the old dirty grimy D.C. That was a cool time to be around.”
Dan began “tagging”, the act of leaving your name behind in different places, in 1984. At a time when graffiti carried heavy consequences, he was known for tagging in places that were open and unconcealed. Yet very few knew the man himself, there was a mystery to him and an attractive sense of intrigue, to know the artist at the time was an honor. If you didn’t know who Dan was you just weren’t in the middle of things, you weren’t cool.
Asad “ULTRA” Walker is also a D.C. based graffiti artist and close friend of Dan. Like his friend, Asad began tagging in the 80’s. “DC was full of graffiti taggers,” and I was hooked by the name-recognition without people knowing who I really was”. Asad brought a small answer to a big question, identity meant nothing, and the tag meant everything. Asad broke down exactly how graffiti in D.C. works. Are tags enough? Asad explained, “tags have as much aesthetic value as pieces. It’s a matter of context.” When asked about Dan, Asad had great things to say about the legend. He described Dan as an “awesome guy” a guy who “struggled” but also a guy that was, he says, “not the type to give up or compromise; I think that’s a major factor in how he got to be as well-known as he is.” Today Dan still sticks to his principles of yesteryear, and this includes remaining incognito. “I would say Dan is almost impossible to reach,” says Asad. “He’s very hard to pin down and we’re really trying to help him change that.” Aside from being an artist, Asad teaches Graffiti, works with at risk youth and has also taught at the D.C. Public School’s Incarcerated Youth Program, a high school inside of the DC jail.
“Dan is up there with the greats. He is one of the few artist in the graffiti world that got massive amounts of respect, without doing crazy pieces,” said the Words Beats And Life artist. “For me he was a ghetto celebrity.” Not everyone felt the same way. Not everyone felt the same way about Cool Disco Dan. “I wanted to get him so bad” said my father, a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Department and a 23-year veteran.
Today, D.C. is going through a transition, some things are better and others are worst. In the midst of this latest ‘revival’ the graffiti artists emerge as repositories for our cultural history, taking us back to a day when Go-go was the city’s theme song. “Graffiti to me is all about making letters look as interesting as possible with the appropriate style, in the appropriate place,” says the Words Beat And Life artist, “You’re just like any other artist, but your canvas is usually walls.”
The eighties are now over, yet Cool Disco Dan should not be considered a washed up graffiti artist. Instead, he is among the last living artifacts of the Chocolate City. Today he can be described as nomad – a phantom of sorts but his story lives on. History repeats itself, the legend doesn’t die out it multiplies itself. Dan serves as an inspiration to other street artists in the city, forever part of the story contributing to the reason why the city’s buildings remain beautifully painted.
Dear Washington Post,
In the United States, police brutality has been an ongoing problem. In recent encounters with the police, victims are left terribly injured or dead. The most recent encounters was in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a forty-year-old African American man named Terrence Crutcher was shot and killed by police while waiting on the road by his broken-down car. After he was shot, the officer left him for two minutes before contacting the ambulance. This recent encounter once again set ablaze the police brutality fire.
The reason why deadly encounters with police continue to occur is due to assumptions and fears from both the police and the community. Police officers shoot first, then ask questions later because they fear their lives might be in danger. The community is afraid of the officer and tends not to make the best decisions in the situation. If the officers were taught to take more precautions when addressing a situation, there would be fewer killings and officers could gain back the community’s trust. If the community is given skills to handle situations with the police, the process would go much more smoothly.
A solution for both parties’ problems is to hold workshops to inform the public and the police. The workshops can teach people in the community how to act when you are approached by an officer. The police officer can get to know the members in their community and get training for how to handle problems more effectively. The workshops should have different members of the law, including lawyers and judges, to give their legal advice. If these steps are taken, there should be a decrease in instances of police brutality because people will have the skills they need to interact with the law.
• 500 grams of assorted meat (cut beef, shaki [cow ripe], oxtail)
• 200 grams of assorted fish (frozen fish [mackerel/titus], dry fish, stockfish)
• 300 grams okra
• 1 tablespoon of crayfish
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 2 handfuls spinach (fresh or frozen optional)
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 tablespoons red palm oil
• Pepper (to taste)
• Salt (to taste)
Before starting the soup:
1. Boil the oxtail, beef, and cow tripe over-night so that the meat is falling off the bone (this step is optional).
2. About two hours before preparing the soup, boil the stockfish for 20 minutes and cover in a pot with hot water.
3. Cut the okra fingers into fine pieces. The tinier you cut the okra, the more it will draw together and stick. To avoid this, you need to make a few vertical cuts followed by horizontal cuts on the okra fingers.
4. Grind the crayfish and the dry pepper.
5. If you use frozen spinach, defrost and cut into tiny pieces.
Preparation of soup:
1. Throughout the process, add water or cooking liquid from beef sparingly because this soup needs to be thick.
2. Add the soaked stockfish and dry fish to the cooked shaki. The length of time it will take to cook shaki depends on the cooking appliance utilized. You can take a bite to confirm this. The meat should be tough, yet a little gummy.
3. Add the beef, onion, and stock cubes and boil together. Then, add the frozen fish and do the same.
4. Pour red palm oil (optional) in another pot and heat the pot to dissolve the oil if it is congealed.
5. Add the diced okra and start frying to kickstart the drawing process. Add some meat stock from time to time until you notice the okra start to draw. This process should take a maximum of 5 minutes to avoid over-cooking the okra.
6. Now add the vegetables and stir well. Add all the meat and fish, crayfish, pepper and salt, to taste. Then, stir well.
7. Cover the cooking pot and leave to simmer until it is ready to be served.
When Americans first try okra soup, they always say it is slimy, sometimes chewy and a little salty, but no one makes it like my mother. I grew up on hers. I always look forward to it because it’s not made often, so when it is, you know it is a special occasion. When I eat okra soup, it tastes heavenly. I love the way it warms me in the winter months and how it’s not taboo to eat with your hands. But, most of all, I love the way every flavor and ingredient seem to flawlessly merge together. It creates one bite with so many flavors and textures that it creates a delicious havoc on your taste buds.
My mom came to this country on Halloween night in 1990 (she still doesn’t understand the purpose of the holiday); it was an experience. She was a petite, wide-eyed eighteen-year-old Nigerian who had never been out of the country, but who was brave enough to go into the unexpected. She was pushing towards another life outside of what her parents expected of her back home. It was dark and cold, and she felt as if the little children in masks were a projection of what she felt inside. She went to her cousin’s house in Rockville, Maryland, and the first thing they tried to feed her was pizza, but she was not having it. There were too many new and unusual flavors that she was not used to all on one slice that she could not handle it. It just tasted artificial. So she made them go out in the middle of the night to get some okra soup because, after such a long journey to a foreign country, she needed something to remind her of home and what she was used to. She needed the sliminess of the okra and the chewiness of the cow skin to let her know, no matter how far away she was from home, no matter how much things changed, she would always have the comfort that the food would always be the same. She came to this country with the prospect of babysitting but has done so much more.
Every holiday my mom makes the same things. They are the perfect mix of who I am, American-Nigerian: my favorite American food, baked macaroni, and my favorite Nigerian food, okra soup. This is also one of the few times my older brother comes around because now he lives with his fiancée and her family in Virginia, and it is too long of a trip to see him as much as I did before. I never met my father, so the closest replacement I had was my brother. Six feet of pure muscle, and a little fat if we’re being honest. You always notice his presence in the room because he just takes so much space and is usually taller than everyone in it. People sometimes confuse him as the father of the family, and our mother as his daughter. Being that he is nine years older than me, he was always my confidant and even my protector when needed. He met his fiancée and eventually moved in with her. I saw him less, talked to him less and, worst of all, had someone to help me less. But his fiancée can’t cook, so when my brother wants traditional Nigerian food like my mother’s famous okra soup, he has to come home and I get my brother again. It may only be for a little while but, in those moments, it’s like he never left. We still joke the same and gang up on my sister together because, let’s face it, that’s the only time I can do it without being scared of the repercussions to follow.
I remember this one time about three or four years ago in our two-bedroom apartment back on Georgia Avenue that we had stuffed with four people. You can only imagine what kind of dynamic that had caused. My sister and I were sharing a room, and two teenagers in that tiny space was a disaster. She is very forceful and opinionated in everything she does. She’s three years older than me, a little taller, and bigger than me so, when we got into fights, I’m sure you know who won. It was bad. We always argue because we are so alike, and it’s hard not to bump heads.
I still remember it exactly to this day. It was a regular school morning but this day my sister and I were arguing more than usual. She had on my shirt and wouldn’t give it back. One second I was yelling and, the next, hands were flying. I felt nothing but pure pain, then the hard, cold floor.
The next second, I was picked up off the ground and looking into the eyes of my savior, my brother. He started yelling at her and doing what I couldn’t, which was defend myself. Things ended with a broken fan and a dent in our room door. When he lived with us he would always be there, until he wasn’t.
To me, okra soup is more than just a dish, but a reason to bring the family together. My brother comes home to eat, and my sister and I stop arguing. She’s allowed to take the cow skin out of my bowl because, for some reason, she loves the stuff. No matter how far apart we may be, or if we were arguing five seconds before, okra soup brings us back together to common ground filled with love than can only be described as a mix of so many great emotions that create havoc in your heart.
Dear Freshman Self,
I know that, reading this letter, you will only be able to understand maybe half of it. This means you have to pay more attention to Mr. Tobron, your first-ever English teacher. Don’t you worry, because you will master that English language and you will be able to say a thousand words a day, instead of just “good morning.” However, the effort will have to come from only you. Find the wanna-learn attitude in you and everything will be fine. The school is changing fast, and so are the people. You will hear it in the news: the fights and killings near the school. You will see and smell it in the hallway: the weed and the pregnant girls. You will get that sour and bitter feeling in your guts.
As the new principal settles in, as the test scores grow higher, the school will mature like a tree that lost its bad fruits in the winter to grow good ones in the spring. Make friends that do not speak the same as you. Don’t stick only with the beginning English learners. I know how much you want to fit in, so you want to be around the ones that speak fluently and have good grades. Join sports teams, and you will receive the MVP Award at the end of your senior year, because I know you’re good at everything you do. Let your style be selective and your mind be reckless. Do not worry about how you look on a daily basis because this will hold you back.
I will fast-forward a bit because your life will get interesting as you move on. You will have someone. She will make you feel handsome when you think otherwise. She will make you laugh when the strong wind outside slaps your lips and freezes them. She is not your mother, nor your sister, but her ravishing inner beauty will attract you more than any of her body parts. Her life story will be inspiring, and she will make you write poems. You will dream of her now and then.
I can imagine your heart pounding as you read this, and it will be helpful if I give more details—but, believe me, her Louisiana accent will be a sweet sound in your ear. She will be your girlfriend. I’m not capable of telling you for how long. I don’t have much time, so I will leave you with this: Your character will make you, but your roots will never be loose.
When I think of my neighborhood I think about food and different restaurants. I wish there were fewer scary people and scary things. I wish that my neighborhood was full of people who helped each other instead of hurting each other. I wish that people could leave their houses at 9:00 pm and not have to carry a knife or a chain or some sort of weapon.
I just wish….
“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.”