Tessa Wiseman Interviews Ken Brown On His Mission To Wield the English Language In a Fight Against Injustice
I sat with Ken Brown at a window table at Red Emma’s, where he works as a bookseller and gets free coffee on the regular. It was Friday evening, and the place was bustling with hipsters of every age. I asked him how he got into poetry.
“I guess the bug just kind of bit, you know, something just snapped. I really, really enjoyed listening to Spoken Word, listening to poetry in that form. I’ve always loved words, loved language,” Brown told me.
When Ken Brown was deciding on a stage name for himself, he was torn between “Analysis” and “AfriKen.” This was nearly seven years ago, when Brown was in Connecticut, out of grant money, and drawn to the coffeehouse scene. He had heard Spoken Word before, but it wasn’t until he was encouraged to get up on stage at a cafe in New Haven that he realized his desire to have a place in the movement. That night in New Haven, Brown (who eventually decided on “Analysis”) performed what he called a brainteaser, or an amalgamation of song titles that the audience must try to pick out. I asked him for a sample of that first performance.
“Remember that night in Tunisia? When they tried to tell us we were too young and we said, so what! That was then, this is now, and I’m still in love. I’ll break out and drive through cross-town traffic in the red rain just to be with you. Like a desert caravan, I’ll make a secret journey just to have tea in the Sahara with you.”
Ken Brown is a native Baltimorean currently seeking justice through poetry. He was born and raised in Baltimore and went to college at American University. After graduation, Brown earned a Master of Divinity from Howard University, and subsequently spent a year in South Africa doing anti-apartheid work. Back in the states, Brown found a job in Cleveland at the national offices of the United Church of Christ working on justice issues, with special attention to young adults. When he moved to Connecticut to work on immigrant aid and anti-nativism, Brown didn’t think he would leave with a newfound love for poetry. At first, he told me, he struggled to find his own voice.
“Part of the way to get into it and develop skills was to take other people’s poems, maybe a classic piece by Hughes or Dunbar, whoever, and try to spit that on the mic. Then, can I take that poem and make it my own? What kind of nuances, what kind of delivery am I going to put on it?” Brown said.
It wasn’t long before Brown’s passions surrounding racial justice began to seep into his writing.
“One of my first poems was an acrostic poem called Immigration Acrostic that looks at zenophobic, nativist hate. Another one of my early poems was about my nephew, who in ’07 was killed by a Frederick County deputy, unjustly. It’s called Poem For Jarrell.”
“Cops copped a life of color, a cat got capped by even cops of color who got copped out and got co-opted into a corrupt conformity that consigns our kind to some crazy contumely. Creating a contempt that ramps up ants to stamp out our community and watts to swat out our attempt to live humanly.”
The themes of justice that Brown confronts in his poetry are vast, from police brutality to discriminatory sports team mascots. Brown credits this vast array of talking points to all he has experienced in his five decades on earth.
“To be a person in one’s fifties and to be a developing artist is an interesting thing,” Brown said. “I’m at a stage in my life where I bring some life experience to my writing, but now that has to fuel what I do with this poetry to make change.”
Brown seeks to make this change through various avenues. He is currently focused on creating something tangible to supplement his words. This means an upcoming album and book. These projects, according to Brown, will “help get my poetry out there, so people can use it in some way. Utilizing the poetry to speak truth to power.”
It is safe to say that over the past few years, Brown has come into his own as a poet and advocate for justice in Baltimore and beyond. Sitting with him at Red Emma’s, his eyes were alight as he spoke about his city, and the unique ways he strives to make a difference.
“One of the fascinating things was discovering that yes, you do really have your own voice to add to this thing called poetry, because for a while I was tempted to slip into the kind of self-deprecating despair of ‘Oh, what am I going to say that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of poets, thousands of poets before me,’” Brown said. “I came to find out that I did have a voice that was unique, that people enjoyed listening to and had something to add to. That is one of the beautiful things about writing, and poetry specifically.”
When Brown isn’t “spitting into the mic” or shedding linguistic light on some of the world’s greatest problems through his craft, he loves watching sports (Brown proudly told me that he is a recent curling aficionado), and chatting with folks from behind the counter at Red Emma’s.
Of Brown’s many inspirations, his evangelical background is at the forefront. For Brown, the word faith is an action verb, and therefore his duty to give voice to the voiceless. He believes that the Scriptures hold a “definitive call for justice.” His main focus, he told me, is “making life on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean for Baltimore?
“Baltimore’s an interesting place, to make an understatement. It’s the best of times and the worst of times in terms of the racism in the city and the economic injustice. At the same time, it has a rich cultural heritage. God knows it has its major issues still.”
For Brown, addressing these issues means more poetry, and presumably many more cups of Red Emma’s coffee.
Tessa Wiseman is a Baltimore-based writer from the Sunshine State.