By Irina Contreras
Spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker, a premier social commentator of our time, has spent the last decade waxing philosophical about everything from slavery and politics to sexuality and womanhood. Writing since she was an adolescent, Rucker started recording her thoughts as a social documenter would and became one of the leading forces behind Philadelphia’s “poetic revival.” But Rucker’s work stands out for its fluid integration of music – hip-hop, jazz, soul and world – mixed under her often understated, but commanding delivery. Ma’at Mama, Rucker’s third album, was released this year and continues with her powerful blend of poetry, hip-hop, and social criticism, with creations that draw from her own experiences as a mother, daughter, and woman of her time. Rucker truly beckons the spirits of Zora Neale Hurston and Frida Kahlo – two of her influences – with the echoes of Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy to create a sound and vibrancy that is all her own.
Clamor had the opportunity to speak with the Ma’at Mama this past spring, in a spirited and inspiring conversation about creative energy, social justice, and the practice of elevating an art form.
Ursula, can you talk a little bit about you came down this path as a writer, performer, and social commentator?
The way that I started writing is not really clear. I knew that I was going to do something in the arts. When I was in college, I realized that the things I was writing in my journal could be considered poetry. King Britt was a friend of mine and I’ve told this story a million times but it’s the only one to tell. He invited me to do a recording and I was like, “oh, cool.” It was nothing I ever really dreamed about, but that’s how it happened.
So, he was a mentor of sorts? Or did you have other mentors?
He is more of a peer. More like an angel that presented something to me and I went with it. If he had never invited me to do it, I don’t know if I would of. But, as far as mentors go, Sonia Sanchez is my favorite poet. I had her as a teacher. She will always be a mentor for me.
The title of your new work, Ma’at Mama comes from the ancient Kemetic concept of universal order. Could you talk about what this means to you?
I call it Ma’at Mama because I really want to focus on truth as the center of what I do, who I love, and who I tell off. In 2006, I take a cab that used to cost me $20 and now costs me $40. Something is not balanced. The cabbie has to raise their prices and everyone is struggling. That’s just one example of how unbalanced things are now. It boggles my mind. I don’t know how it affects other people but it really bothers me…hearing everyday about how many people were killed in a suicide bomb, some exchange of gunfire in Iraq. It’s insane.
Could you talk about how you see hip hop as a guide or vehicle for social change?
Art is a vehicle for social change, so hip hop as art– of course. It’s something that can be used to change the world, but what a lot of people deem as hip hop in this age is not art. It’s not even hip hop. Hip hop was for us. It was really a movement. Even if we weren’t talking about anything political or socially charged, it was a way for us to be heard. And then with PE [Public Enemy], KRS-1, it became something that really could be used for change. I was watching a video of an interview with Harry Belafonte. He made a statement that if you are an artist, and you get to a certain position with your art, you have a certain power, especially as a Black artist or actor…to not say anything, to not use that place is unacceptable. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to accept and understand. So when you look at people like Jay-Z who no doubt is quite intelligent, but doesn’t use his place to say or do anything else.
So, you definitely feel the other sense of it being stagnating as well?
Everything has just become complacent. [They] say, “Oh well, that’s not what I would have chosen, but that’s okay.” And it’s not! People don’t wanna say it’s not okay. I think if you look at things from the grand scheme, there are only a handful of people that are willing to say this is not okay.
It’s a fear of stepping up?
I recognize that fear. I know what it is. I have felt it. But, I am not the kind of person to sit there and just let people do what they want to, to me.
As women involved in the movement, how are we responsible for what we listen and dance to? Do you believe we bring that onto our person in a psychological or spiritual way regardless of whether or not we just think it has a good beat?
Absolutely. I remember Sonia Sanchez and I were doing a reading once at Penn. State University and she was talking about just that. About how women will be up in the club and there will be some song that comes on about “bitches and hoes” or “slappin’ that ass.” And, they’re like “Yeah, this is my song!” I have some friends that when the whole thing with R. Kelly was going on, I remember them saying to me, “But I really like R. Kelly’s album.” And I was like, uh uh. No. As a woman, I can stand firm and say you should not be listening to this and you should not be supporting this. Women definitely need to stop supporting and stop thinking that the stereotypical images played in these videos are for them. If a woman can just sit around and watch one of these videos then that’s not someone I want to be friends with. But, I would like to talk to them and try to change their minds.
When you first became involved in performing, were these some of the aspects that you considered? If so, how have they changed?
I think when I first started I wasn’t really thinking about any of that. It was just all so fresh and new. In my writings, I was in college when I started to move into that area where there was a different level of consciousness. And I always use that movie Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamlan as an example. Even though it was a bit of a Hollywood flick, I think that the main theme of it wasn’t Hollywood. It was that you tap into your highest level of existence. Not to wax all philosophical and spiritual, but I mean it is possible to use a larger percentage of your brain than what you normally use. Know what I mean? And, if you can tap into that and use a larger percentage of your spirit and soul. It’s not that you have to sign up for any religion but it’s that you keep progressing.
Did you or do you want to lend this philosophical or spiritual progression to the art form that you are not hearing?
This is just stuff that I need to get out of my gut and in order to feel like I’m being creative, in order to do my art. It’s not like I always have to– what’s the word? I don’t like to call it conscious just to describe it. It’s just a label to me. I’ve heard it being used many times to describe what artists do, “Oh, they are one of those conscious artists,” as if that is a bad thing. Some people might think, Frida Kahlo is my favorite artist; they might see her paintings or read her journal entries and think, gee could you be a little happier? But, that was her art. And I thank god for it. Because I have been so inspired by her art and who she was.
I listened to “Black Erotica” and “Humbled” recently and took in your descriptions of the female form and the acts being performed. What do you seek to accomplish when you write and perform these pieces?
The whole existence and genre of writing that is Black Erotica is something I have been interested in for a while. And I just think it’s such a beautiful thing ‘cuz historically black people’s sexuality has been warped and marred by the wonderful history of slavery. It’s much easier to me to cuss someone out to the bone then to talk about oral sex, which is what I do on Black Erotica. I would like to possibly write a collection of Black Erotica. If I want to do that, I’ll always have to do it by approaching it with truth and honesty. Whether it is super raw or visually stimulating, which I am sure it will be ‘cuz I always work in images when I write.
Your poems seem to treat women as an entity or a spiritual force. Could you talk a little bit as well about the treatment of women and women’s stories in your work?
One of my many campaigns is that women and black people not be afraid to stand up and tell their stories. We shouldn’t feel guilty, ashamed, or make excuses for our experiences. I got an email this week from what I am assuming was a man. He was like, In response to ’What a Woman Must Do,’ can you complain a little more? Complain, complain, complain. Let me tell you! My first instinct was to tear him a new asshole in an email. But, then I said everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s who I am not afraid to talk to and get into their ear. Oh, you feel like that? Guess what? I don’t care. That’s exactly why I wrote that damn poem: for macho freaks like you.
He should be confronted with your music. You should feel like you were very effective.
It bothered him so much that he had to send me an email. Yeah, right. Thank you!
Many people became familiar with your work through your powerful piece, “The Unlocking” on the Roots album, Do You Want More?!!!??! Could you talk more about the inspiration for “The Unlocking” and message that you intended?
That was a very pivotal point in my writing life. Amir from The Roots really challenged me with that one. He asked me and gave me a guideline for what he was thinking about. He wanted it to be about a woman that was gangbanged. I was like, “Whoa, most of the time I write about something I am familiar with, something I have experienced.” So, recently just before that I had been in a– I wouldn’t even call it a relationship. He was not cool in that I found out that he would get in rooms with his friends and tell them details about what we did together. And, we were grown! I was shocked. I didn’t think he would go off and [say] “Oh homie, guess what we did….” So, I called in that experience. In a way, I was gangbanged in that room or that evening in that room. Who knows how many times it happened.
Looking back now, what do you think of how it and you were perceived?
I went into all that not knowing. Just going with the flow. And, it really changed the way that I wrote. But, I guess I got some feedback from women who would ask me or tell me things like, “I wasn’t cool with it ‘cuz it seemed like you were glorifying a rape scene.” And I would say, “Well no that’s not what it was.” And then when I talked to people and they understood where I was coming from. I loved that; that it created this forum, which is what my art often does. That poem is about victory. It’s not about a woman being raped, but about her coming up the victor in the end. Amir told me, “When you do this, people are gonna ask you questions.” And I was like “Yeah, yeah, whatever, let’s just do it.” I was afraid that if I thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But, he was right. ‘Till now, it will always be that thing that I did that everybody connects me with.
For audio, lyrics and more go to www.ursula-rucker.com.
Irina is a visual artist/writer/shitstarter living in Elysian Park. Come start some shit with her: email@example.com.