In anticipation of spoken word artist Malik Yusef’s visit to Indianapolis as part of Jill Scott’s “The Real Thing Tour,” I spoke to him about the role poetry has played in his life.
“It’s all poetry,” Yusef says. “Rap is poetry. Dance is poetry in motion.” Not comfortable being pigeonholed “hip-hop poet,” Yusef draws on the history of poetry and music collaborations, naming jazz, blues and gospel as inspirations.
Yusef cites Langston Hughes as one of his biggest influences, and sometimes recites Hughes’ poem “Ballad of the Landlord” during performances. “It’s more relevant today than when he wrote it,” Yusef explains. “Great art increases in value.”
Yusef’s passion for spoken word comes out in every word he speaks. Raised in Chicago’s infamous “Wild Hundreds,” his gift of gab has both saved lives and garnered Grammys. He’s equally comfortable singing unaccompanied, working with R&B tracks, as in Raheem DeVaughn’s current chart topper “Woman I Desire,” or with hard-hitting hip-hop beats, like Kanye West’s “Crack Music.”
“We ain’t trying to prove we’re tougher than you / We’re just trying to prove we’re suffering, too,” Yusef says in his piece “I Spit,” which he recited on an Emmy Award-winning episode of Def Poetry Jam. These lines sum up his general approach to performance, commanding an audience to feel every emotion he puts into his delivery.
Yet he has kept his roots firmly planted. Yusef’s non-profit agency, the For Yourself Foundation, teaches literacy to kids in need. “I go to schools to save me,” Yusef says. “Or who I was formerly.”
Yusef will take the stage alongside two of the most impressive R&B performers of today, Jill Scott and Raheem DeVaughn, Tuesday, March 25, at the Murat Theatre.