After working with The Roots and sharing the stage with Gil Scott Heron and the late, great Nina Simone, poet and spoken word artist Ursula Rucker took time out after busy visits to Germany and France to talk to Sam Hesketh about the Wu Tang, the burden of writing and being labelled as a “conscious artist”.
So let’s start with the basics – when did you start getting into poetry and slams?
Actually, I never got into slams, I don’t really agree with them. I did one, but that was to support friends who were putting it on. But I started writing really young, but didn’t realise I was a poet until I had enough sense to realise it and then started going to readings in little book stores and places like that.
Is it a good scene in Philly for poetry then?
It was, it was really nice when I started because nobody was trippin’ on anything, it was just a natural thing and everybody was friends. I don’t know what its like really now because I’m not in there as much but every once in a while I see a reading in the local paper and I wanna go and do it, just to have that special feeling again.
And the music followed pretty soon after?
Yeah it did. You know, the minute I started having the courage to start sharing my stuff from home publicly, everything kinda fell in with it. It was like “Woah, this is crazy”, and that was 12 years ago!
At the moment there are more poets getting into the hip hop scene, Saul Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah for example, do you think that’s important for poetry?
No, I think its nice that people get introduced to poetry in that way, when they realise it can be acceptable, because it’s really like a community. I mean, you can learn it in school and the teachers tell you its all about rhyme and meters and shit, and that can really turn people off, I mean I don’t operate that way. So yeah, it’s nice, but it’s not necessary.
Listening to your stuff, it seems really powerful because its so different from when you turn on MTV and see the rap stars throwing money at the camera and women shaking their booty in hardly any clothes. Do you consciously go out to be different to that?
I don’t consciously do that, but I am conscious y’know? We get put in a box negatively, I mean people like me, Mos Def, Talib Kweli as “conscious”. I’m just conscious like I’m aware. Different people are pre-destined to see and care about different things, from a young age. I had to grow into being a rebel, because I was shy and I had to be brave enough to make a comment, it’s what’s around you.
So, have you ever felt like, you’ve seen something on TV or in your community and you HAVE to write about it?
Yeah! It’s funny you should say that, I’m sure I’m not alone, many people feel like that, artists or not. I was watching something on the TV and I just thought, why do I let things affect me? Why can’t I turn it off? I just can’t! This morning even I flicked on the news, I saw something saying “30 people blown up in Baghdad”, and everyone is de-sensitised to it now, but it’s still such a heavy thing, and I think about how many were children or women or old people y’know? And I’m included, like you hear it every day and you’re just like [hand over face] this. And that’s what I care about, in an age where phones can do everything for you, be your prom date, all kinds of shit, it’s such a time to call on people to pay attention to people.Even if you don’t share your stuff with any other person, if you know in your heart that you’re that type of person, if your art is personal, you’re still progressing as a human being.
Working with The Roots and sharing the stage with real greats, is there anyone that you would absolutely love to work with?
Always the same answer. I had a list, which I did ages ago and I write his name on it like, if I write it enough it’ll happen for 15 years – The RZA. Since the first time I was recording for an album, which didn’t come out as something happened with Sony, and I had to make a wish list for people to work with and RZA was top then. Even if I haven’t always agreed with everything they’ve said about women, as a unit, they are what hip hop is all about, getting together and keeping it constant with good quality music. I like that whole thing, they always take it to the next level.
Well RZA did a world rap album not long ago, with French and German guys on there, so he’s willing to go places other big names don’t go.
Exactly! You can take that shit from the hood, and I mean seriously the hood, you know they are from where they say they are from! And he takes that and doesn’t change who he is when he goes off. He gives who he is to these other people to work with, I love him.
So, when you write your stuff, I guess the poetry comes first and then the music follows?
It works both ways, I mean in my mind the poetry comes first because that’s the major thing, but sometimes I need some sounds, when I’m working on a project. When I work on personal things, I don’t obviously. When I was on this last project, I was bogged down with life shit, and I wasn’t in the right place to write poetry all the time, so I asked Ant, the guy who did most of my album, that I might need music upfront, but I told him the themes beforehand. For this album, I wrote everything in the studio, the day before we recorded it, because I so gridlocked in life. I had to get it where I could get it, and I’m not even really a spontaneous person.
It must be hard then coming over to Europe when you have four sons then.
Its hard, but most of the time its because I’m trippin’. I’ve done this a few times, one kid, two kids, three kids, four kids. They don’t like it when I leave but its only a short trip this time, but its mostly because I’m trippin’. My eldest son is 11 now but he’s into hip hop and everything so it’s cool.
In my dissertation on “Hip Hop and Communication Theory”, I read a theory that even if you only touch one person, in all the billions of people out there, its worth it. And I always get that from hip hop, do you feel that way about it?
That’s what I always say , it’s important like that.
I mean, even my mum likes the album!
That’s the real shit right there. When people play it to their parents and they dig it, that’s the biggest compliment you can give me!
You’re music touching all sorts of people then!
Well that’s it, if someone asks me to describe my audience, I can’t do it. A lot of people might think because I’m black or a woman or a poet, I’ll have a certain audience. But you can’t put it down like that, especially at a live show. When I go to a reading or a University, I reach people on different levels, its all important and all relevant.I mean, I know poetry isn’t on the radar like other things are, but I’m so happy to be here right now, it’s amazing. I have mentors and I know the long lasting reach of poetry, and it allows me to get my shit off and let people know this is what’s troubling me, or what makes me happy and that’s the best thing. It’s all about that urgency of the moment you’re in and you get to write it down.
It’s cathartic as well to write all that down.
Oh yeah, I can’t stop, I have to chase things down wherever I go. I liken it to if I were a photographer, because you know they carry their cameras around everywhere. Or if they don’t have it, they see something they want a photo of and they’d kill to have it, and it’s that moment I’m into.Well, thanks for talking with me, I hope the rest of the day in London is cool.
Thanks so much, make sure you tell a neighbour about the CD and get to a live show next time I’m over!
After the tape stopped, and Ursula found out this was going on a skating site, she told me that her eldest son was into skating and she’d make sure he’d check out the site. On top of this, as I was leaving, she told me that the skating scene in Philly used to be great as the Love monument was used by all the skaters, but the city then closed that down for skating and she felt it was a shame because it was an awesome community to have around.
Ursula Rucker’s upcoming album, “Ma’At Mama” is out on February 6th, on K7 Records.