Sound & Vision: Robert Lashley on Music, Growing up in Tacoma, and Black Joy

Sound and Vision
08/10/2020
Emily Fox
photo by KELLY O

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Before Robert Lashley was a poet, he wrote about music. Growing up in Tacoma, his grandmother ran a pool hall for nearly 30 years.

“She always took the best records home. So, by the time I was 12 years old, she had a record collection that that was 2,300 deep,” says Lashley, who studied the history of R&B and Jazz in college. “And I started off as a music critic in order just to kind of make a little bit extra money doing freelance gigs, basically just gleaning off of what I learned as a child. But the idea of the history of music and the history of giving people joy, giving people comfort, also giving people something in art that they see something in themselves.”

Robert Lashley is now the author of two books of poetry: The Homeboy Songs and Up South, both off of Small Doggies Press. He was a Stranger Genius Grant nominee and a Jack Straw Fellow in 2016.

Sound & Vision host Emily Fox spoke with Lashley about his poems and the influences behind them.

On his poem “Funeral Blues For Whitney”:

I'm not alone, Whitney [Houston] was my first crush. And when she passed away, it was so sad and so complicated. And it made me examine my own feelings about heartbreak and disappointment and sadness... You look at the media portrayals of Whitney that focused so much on her beauty at the expense of her art and the expense of her personality. And it's just like, oh, she's an R&B singer, but she's so different. Oh, she's Black, but she looks like a statuesque model. She's from the projects, but she's so elegant. The indicate sentence, that haunting word, in of the sentences that I said is ‘but.’ So much of the pressure that we put on Whitney is the pressure to not be Black.

Funeral Blues For Whitney
(after Auden's “In Memory of W.B Yeats”)
I.
On the day you found what we were missing
us skinny, hungry, thugged out
young boys
stopped dead in front of the boom-box.
Runs were froze. Crap Games almost deserted.
Hood niggas disfigured by public statutes
were transformed by the sound waves
of you back in the day.
On you and your instrument, we young thugs agreed
you were wonderful back in the day.
And far from our projects
little homies dreamed you in evergreen forests
ghetto nerds were transfixed by radio plays
scattered over a thousand stations
scattered—squared—to a thousand more affections
immediately and all at once,
immediately, every time
we heard you and called ourselves
to be better than we were.
Immediately, as we dreamed to be
something grand if not grandiose
if only to win your heart.
If only then, we would scheme up some shit
to unearth the sword from our gravel stones
and win—win you—
and live happily in your kingdom
but the magic dust ate you alive.

II.
Earth, receive a troubled guest.
Whitney Houston is laid to rest.
Let this Newark vessel lie
emptied of our dreams.

For in the nightmare of the dark
all the masks we had of your majesty
ate your face, all our refusals
to look into your blackness
have blinded and scarred our eyes.
Have turned to brown ash
all our crystal strewn pedestals
in a parable of genius and dust.

And now you hang in memory over us
our lady of chemical and too human sorrows
trapped eternally in a crystal cage
only free in the shadow of Sirius,
only free in fleeting notes and electrons
of youth, love and limitless potential

before yours turned slow to a curse.

On growing up in Tacoma:

As a kid, I did have good memories of my grandmother. I have good memories of the neighborhood. But as my father would do progressively worse things under the spell of drugs and the neighborhood will get more dangerous. My mind would just kind of... the lights would go out from me. It was just too much for a human being to really deal with. And let me say, in that context, I was also privileged, like my dad was a kind of a ghetto celebrity. So, they let him off easy and they let me off easy. And certain places that was dangerous for my friends wasn't dangerous for me. And my mom, with help from my grandmother, got me out the 'hood. And so, I had privileges. But also, it was just too much for one human being to take. I have a lot of survivor's guilt.

On writing and healing:

I consider myself a bluesologist and what is healing is the discipline of the blues. Ralph Ellison will talk about the negative capability of the blues, of the blues man or the blues singer as someone who would sing a song that has tremendous agony, but the craft of it is so well done and it's so it's so impeccable that it's a triumph. And so, it's so there's a contrast there. So, I see the alchemy of turning the blues into something of sadness, into something that says it’s art and that's something that's sustainable and that's something that can reach people. And I'm grateful that both of my books have been on the poetry bestseller list. And I'm grateful I'm connected with people.

On Manuel Ellis, a Black Tacoma resident who died from a lack of oxygen while being restrained by police:

In 1989, there was a shootout at Ash Street. And because of that shootout, concerned citizens, regardless of color, regardless of race and regardless of belief, came together and just said, okay, what are we going to do to stop the crime in this neighborhood. I don't care what your belief system, your opinion is, what are we going to do to stop this crime? And they did that with the help of good cops. And the videotape that showed Manny Ellis being choked for nine minutes in Tacoma and the kind of the recent experiences that I've had with police, and the thought of the infiltration of extremist groups in police precincts and on top of that, you had a sort of chain of command malfunction in regards to the truth about Manny Ellis that was so bad that [Attorney General] Robert Ferguson and the governor, Jay Inslee, are reviewing that case and 30 cases as we speak. The idea that Tacoma has always been a sort of a moderate liberal bedrock of let's find the common ground. Let's just try to get something done. There's nothing to get done with Manny Ellis. There is no common ground for Manny Ellis. If Manny Ellis’ killer cops go free, that's basically saying that Black Tacoma is a hunted, occupied territory, in my opinion.

On the Day The Last Black Body Is Shot

there will be burning lavender

and concentric crowns of sage

that fly
above alleys, woodsides, and corner.

And embers that rest around the shadow men
that swing from dead gates
to play tambourine .

Their high notes will be the sign
that refigures everything around them,
that rebreaks and washes clean
every chain and every courtyard
that melts every 44 revelation trumpet
to a moving river of altars.

And the concrete will churn
those who can’t raise.
And Every hood of a deli
and deluxe squad car.
will be replaced by windows with our faces
and Scavengers of our bodies and knee caps
will go blind  
where the shadow men affix their breakbeats.

And the world will be lit
by a neon upper room
With the rosebush thrones
and collonades of sage

And lilies will sweep the dead
 from 10000 valleys,
lit from the lights flashed
on our bodies
charged from the codes
they turned to curses

they will rest on clouds of joy.
They will rest on clouds
They will rest on
They will rest
They will.

On Black Joy:

One of the things that my grandmother taught me is if you can help somebody get through, if you can give somebody something to help them get through their day through art, through music, through life, you should do it. One of my heroes, Gil Scott Heron, used to call his poems and used to call his song survival kits. I feel black imagination is a survival kit, that if freedom isn't something that will be tangible, then we have to find new ways to create our own joy. In my books, I always try to have unorthodox nature poems and love poems that are different because I want to give a capsule of a life. Life isn't one thing. Life isn't I have sorrow and about my sorrow. But life isn't just my sorrow. I like to give sketches of people and write beautifully complex sketches of people and then I hope that they see themselves in it.

When God Lets My Body Be ( After the e.e. cummings Poem Of The Same Name)

When god lets my body be
from each ripped wound shall sprout a tree
of fruit that exists only for you.
My rosary beads will make you a laurel
of crowns, medallions
and alleyway garlands
no one but us can see.

My love, let me be your unknown color.
Let my back beget an afro sun
that turns inner deaths asunder.
That re colors all my ordinary worlds
into beauty from scabs of black
(that hold poisoned rivers).
Then, my love, I will swim into hell
and part out it's ashen seas.

Love, our legs are a nation of labyrinths.
I want to wander with you
with no thought to go home
and no law greater than your conceit.
My riddles and scars
I will lay at your feet
and alchemize into acres of orchids.

 

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