PROF. RAY GRANT literally does it all. As a college professor, songwriter, and stand-up comedian, he's a true triple threat. Add to that arsenal his Master's degree in poetry, and you'll see the Chicago native is all about words. We recently spoke to the featured Verses & Flow performer to find out about his collaboration with Bone Crusher, his time teaching at HBCUs, and the need for a sense of humor.
LA: You got your Master's degree in poetry from the University of Iowa, which literally qualifies you as a master of your craft. It also qualifies you to answer the question, Why is poetry important? What keeps it relevant?
RG: Poetry acts as a historical reference for the voices of a generation. Poetry documents the language of a particular period of time. In 1920s America, we had the "Harlem Renaissance." For example, the poetry of that day by Langston Hughes reflected the way the everyday person spoke. The poetry of today reflects how we speak. One hundred years from now, when today's poetry is read, they will have a better understanding of how the everyday people of our day spoke and what our interests and concerns were.
What drew you to teaching at Historically Black Colleges and Universities?
I attended a predominantly White university for undergraduate and graduate school. In an environment like that, a person of color doesn't get to see a reflection of him or herself on an everyday basis. We project a visual and linguistically positive energy that seems to be returned by a like kind. Therefore, when that energy is not returned, we slowly lose a bit of ourselves. Although I received offers to teach at predominantly White universities, I chose to teach at HBCU's for the energy of self it gave back to me, visually and linguistically.
Has your experience as a stand-up comedian affected your poetry? If so, how?
Yes. Before stand-up comedy, my poetry was always serious. I wrote about so many heavy dilemmas plaguing my environment where I was growing up, raised in the projects on the south side of Chicago. After I began stand-up, I learned to see the humor in everything, even in poverty and death. I have learned that laughter can be like medicine and like a weapon. It can heal and it can wound. Humor can be and usually is more attractive and accepted by everyday people, especially if one can insert a message that is serious underneath.
You performed with Bone Crusher on Verses & Flow. What brought about that collaboration?
In the mid 90's, Bone Crusher was a DJ while I was honing my stand-up in local Atlanta clubs while teaching at Spelman College. Years later, I was visiting Bone's studio and happened to have a copy of my poetry manuscript with me. It had been rejected by several major poetry presses. Their rejection letters all stated that my voice wasn't topical or relevant to what today's poetry market was looking for.
Bone Crusher saw me carrying it and asked me to recite some of it over music tracks. I resisted at first. I respected what he did as a rapper and didn't want to insult him or embarrass myself, so I told him "No." But he insisted, so I opened the manuscript to a poem, put on the headphones, stepped up to the mic and began. After I finished, he just gazed at me whimsically. I was about to apologize for wasting his time when he told me what I had just done was "stupid." I thought, "Wow, how embarrassing." I was nervous and sweating. Then he asked me to do it again and again and again. A month later we'd recorded about 40 songs of my spoken word over music tracks.
At that point, I realized "stupid" was a good thing. And what Bone Crusher and I performed on TVOne's Verses & Flow--"Fresh Air"--was one of the 40 or so songs recorded during that short period of time.
We see that you were once a songwriter on American Idol (during Season 6). If you had to write a song about your career to this point, what would the title be?
I would call it "Original" because I fight very hard to find something different to say outside of the ordinary that will be meaningful yet remembered. My fear is to leave this planet and not be remembered at all. Therefore, if I write something that is good but it is similar to something else I've heard or read before, I scratch it and start over. In fact I will write that song called "Original" now, record it and send you a copy. I will begin writing it tonight. I'll have it done by tomorrow.
for more interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and web-exclusive videos from the
talented poets of "Verses & Flow" in the coming weeks.