Tell me more about your time with the Halcyon Arts Lab. What was your vision/goal for this time? What is your vision for the future of these endeavors?
I came home March 21, 2019, after serving 22 years in prison. I had read about the Halcyon Arts Lab in Capitol Magazine, when I was incarcerated. The application was due 2 weeks after I got out, so I submitted my application my second night out. I received the news that I received the fellowship in April. When I came home, I was just a poet—I’d published these books of poetry. Halcyon asked me to do a spoken word performance at their By the People festival in the summer of 2019. I had never done spoken word before; I did these live performances in chains and an orange jumpsuit, 45 minutes of memorized spoken word. So when I began the fellowship in August 2019, I was a writer/poet, just getting into spoken word; when the fellowship ended, I ended up being a painter.
The blessing of Halcyon was they provided me with income, a condo, and a studio to create—to be around different artists and creators. It augmented my creative process—to be able to express myself in a visual language, not just the written word. The future is continuing to use my creativity whichever way the universe takes me. I have these cool ideas; maybe next year I’ll be producing movies.
I want to use these ideas to bring more love to an unloving world. There’s this big void of love in society. It was assumed that I was a menace to society—that they had to protect society from me; now, back in society, I see that I was being protected from society. I never met so many angry, bitter people in prison as I meet in society—especially online. Everything that comes up is always a source of contention; I want to use my creativity to bring more love to the world.
My thing is giving back and educating people who come from communities like mine—understanding that your talent is a gold mine, and understanding the business of it. Most artists don’t understand the business of it. We can blend the art with the entrepreneur, and somehow use space and talent to support that dichotomy.
How can the arts be a tool for social change? More specifically, how can the arts and entrepreneurship “correct our criminal injustice system”?
I think that everything the artist creates is an extension of the artist. Some people have the resources and the desire to make the world a better place, but they don’t have the lived experience. Even though you have a desire to change the situation, you’ve never lived it. The arts come in and burst bubbles and bring a loving proximity that creates an uncomfortability that drives empathy and change. Most times, we don’t make dramatic change until we’re uncomfortable. If you’ve never experienced poverty, and all the negative ramifications that come with it—like illiteracy and crime and punishment—you’ve never had that lived experience, and I don’t believe you would be effective in bringing about a solution. You can throw money at this and that, but money won’t change the structural elements. The arts allow those who have the resources but not the lived experience to gain a proximity, without actually having to experience something. This proximity makes them uncomfortable with the reality of what’s going on, and it develops an empathy that leads to them being enthusiastic about using that uncomfortability to drive positive change.
There is always pressure to measure the impact of an organization’s work based on traditional metrics like return on investment. As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? When it comes to impact at HAL, how do you effectively build a case for the arts [which other organizations can learn from]?
I haven’t put it in quantitative data form; I’m more a qualitative data person with storytelling. That’s the impact: meeting people who say my story inspires them—my life, my art. So many people honor me by taking my work and putting it in their homes and sharing it with their loved ones in an intimate space. I’ve been blessed to sell a lot of paintings. My sales can be my metrics; but the conversations I have with people, when they tell me how the work makes them feel: that’s the metric for me.
We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based on the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can artists be leaders in this environment?
We have to use our creativity to create environments where people feel safe to come together and feel comfortable being vulnerable. We live in a world where we have made authenticity a vulnerability, because we are so judgmental and so unloving; if someone shares a truth, their truth, and it doesn’t coincide with our truth, we want to attack them, instead of understanding them and accepting them. Artists, we have to be so open-minded, so empathetic, and so strategic on how we use food and music and fashion and paintings and décor and fragrance and architecture and design to create an experience where people feel comfortable just being themselves—they’re not feeling afraid to show up in their authenticity.
Then, having others who are in the experience to be open-minded and willing to accept others—to listen not to respond, but listen to understand, and build upon a common understanding. Even if you don’t agree! Your opinion shouldn’t be rigid. I don’t feel the way that I felt when I was 20, or 30. In two days, I’ll be 41. It’s a possibility when I’m 50, I probably won’t have the same opinions either. I have to give other people the space to grow too, and understand: “Ok, I understand you—I disagree with you, but it may be that somewhere down the line, I may agree with you. Even in my disagreement, I don’t hate you, and I’m not disinclined to work with you if the intent is to love yourself and others.”
What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you?
That’s something I’m recently learning to meter. In the philanthropy world, we talk a lot about metrics. And I realized I was extremely imbalanced—pouring so much out, and I was so used to being alone inside of a cage, that I really felt uncomfortable with people pouring into me. I’m learning now: if my friend says, “Let me bring you something to eat”—even though my wife can cook, allow somebody to treat you! I’m doing a lot of work on understanding that I’m not in prison anymore; I’m not in the street life anymore; when someone offers to help, it doesn’t always come with an ulterior motive—and even if it does, that’s their intention, not mine.
What books have inspired or challenged you?
My four muses are Jean-Michel Basquiat for visual art; music, Jay-Z, as far as hip-hop/rap; instruments is John Coltrane—Love Supreme is my favorite album; and my favorite writer is James Baldwin—No Name in the Street, The Fire Next Time, his essays. I’ve never met a writer who can scathingly indict America with an equal amount of love in the indictment, as well as the critique. The closest thing I see to him right now is Ta-Nehisi Coates—when I read Between the World and Me. Also a big influence on me from a literature perspective is the writings of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, and another New Age writer called Eckhart Tolle—The Power of Now, Stillness Speaks, A New Earth.
What is your mantra?
“We attract what we ARE and not what we WANT.”
“Love is the vaccine.” That’s one of my mantras right now, during the pandemic.