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Cleveland Artist Spotlights
Poet, vocalist, journalist, educator, youth mentor, lecturer, youth activist… Daniel Gray-Kontar describes his music-making process as “free dirt,” an organic and free method of creation which seems to mirror his demeanor and general philosophy. “If a track tells me to sing, I’ll sing, if it tells me to rap, I’ll rap, if it tells me to poet, I’ll poet.”
In the same fluid way Daniel responds to his environment as an artist, he responds to the needs and voices of his students. “You have to listen to your students,” he says. “My teaching style is organic; I walk in with a plan, but I temper the lesson based on my students’ states of mind and being.” Prior to diving deep into the creative writing process with his students, Daniel works to establish trust for one another through game-playing and community agreements.
His love for art-making, educating and community-responsive action has led him to his newest endeavor, Twelve, a literary and performance incubator space in the Collinwood area. The space, Daniel says, seeks to examine what education can look like, taking the institution out of education. It’s a place where people can co-construct their own reality in working through an idea collectively.
How did you get introduced to your craft?
I think that I was really "introduced" to my craft in 1983 when I first heard the song "Sucker MC's" by Run-DMC. I had already been writing poetry since the age of six, after my mother introduced me to the writing of poet, Langston Hughes. But when I heard that song, it completely changed me in a way that I'll never forget. For me, hip-hop had mostly been about DJing, graffiti, and break dancing. At that time, there were very few people my age rapping. It just wasn't popular. But when I heard that song, it made me realize that there was a place for me in hip-hop culture that I could contribute to in an authentic way. It was like my realization that poets could contribute to the culture in the same way that painters, dancers, or musicians could. It signaled to me that there was a place for writers in the culture. So even today, if I'm not writing rhymes, hip-hop culture is present in my music, in my poetry, in my journalism, in my pedagogical practice, and in my activism. And hip-hop music remains the break beat of my life's story.
Do you have any long-standing influences?
I am deeply influenced by a lot of artists, but I think that there are a few that are the most present in my work. Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest is one of them. The street wisdom present in his lyricism continues to guide me even today. Then there are poets Amiri Baraka, Yusef Komunyaaka, June Jordan, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Sayers Ellis; writers and essayists James Baldwin, bell hooks, Junot Diaz, and Octavia Butler are also pillars of mine. There is really such a wide range, it is hard to list them all. Don't even get me started on the musicians!
Describe your idea of artistic success.
My idea of artistic success is having the capacity to provide a safe space for youth and adults to nurture their writing and performance. It's providing a space where writers can discuss how writing has the power to transform the community in which they live. My idea of artistic success is about helping to build a new generation of artists who understand the power of their words, the power of their ideas, and the power of community.
What is your process for generating new ideas?
Jazz music has always been a sort of conduit for me to generate new ideas. There is something about the music that creates a pathway to my sense of ancestral memory. I'm able to hear something speaking to me without words, and my job is to hear the sounds and colors channeled through the music so that I can lend words to the unspoken messages in the music. Certain jazz compositions give me the space to hear what is beyond this dimension so that I can become a medium through which new
possibilities are expressed.
How do you feel your work affects your audience? (and/or) How do you want your work to affect your audience?
Poetry critic Amy Bracken Sparks once described my work in the following way after watching me perform at Cleveland Public Theatre some years ago: "With sheer spirituality, musicality, reverence for the word and beautiful dance-like motions, Daniel Gray-Kontar takes poetry into another sphere, connecting himself to his race to his audience in a voice both powerful and soothing." I hope that over the course of time, my work continues to have this affect on people, whether it's in the form of performance poetry, lecturing, teaching, or MCing.