Inua Ellams is a precarious figure to prepare for an interview with. Part throwback to the beat and civil rights poetry of the 20th century. Part nerd, and part scholar, his work ethic is both astonishing and unavoidably apparent as the magnitude of his current projects span the schools of poetry, theatre, and design.
Settling on a focus for the conversation didn’t seem to complement Ellams’ approach to performance, much less match his holistic conceptualisation of art. Segmenting creative avenues into categories, I feared wouldn’t sit well with him.
After a few hiccups and dashing for phone coverage I scrambled and began to second guess what little of an interview topics I had come up with. What if he wanted to talk about graphic design, or painting, or his escape from religious fundamentalism? What if I was missing the point entirely? As the phone rang I contemplated the repercussions of hanging up? At least I’d save some face, right?
…the phone stopped ringing. “Inua?”, I asked hesitantly? From London a voice replied: “Yes?”. “It’s James from District, it’s a pleasure to meet you!”.
He greeted me with a calmness that eased the sound of the city behind him. He replied calmly; “It’s great to hear from you…”, and just like that we began a conversation about one of the universe’s great icebreakers: Music.
As we speak he’s travelling to the International Literature Festival in Dublin to host three separate shows (An Evening with an Immigrant, Catch the Bus, and RAP Party). Click here for more on them.
In the first issue of District Magazine we tackled the issue of home and how quickly the idea of home can become complicated. This is really the central question of your show An Evening with an Immigrant, I think?
Yeah I think so too!
Looking at where and why people call certain places or things home, why do you think lyric, or more specifically poetry is such a capable tool in the communication of these ideas?
I think it’s the case because poetry is always about searching, right? It’s about trying to find the perfect language to communicate an idea. And I think a lot of the time poets fail, leaving us with a vision of a destination that always evades us. I also think that the idea of searching for the space of home is embodied in the plight of a lot of immigrants, as like poetry, the places we find ourselves in or the images we find ourselves being able to communicate, are far from the promised land, and just invoke more issues more often than not.
Really, I think poetry is great for that. In most cases almost implicit in poetry is the failure of poetry to portray the world around us, particularly right now in the west, when we see the rise of nationalism and nativism.
Do you think the importance of poetry is being overlooked?
No. I think there’s a resurgence of people who are coming back to the art and I see the value of the entertainment and the precision (or, the strive towards precision) and therefore the finesse of it. But also, you know, in times of political or economic upheaval which we are living through right now, lots of young people don’t have access to instruments if they wish to express themselves. If you look at what’s happening in the UK, massive cuts the Conservatives are making to the education system make it harder and harder for people from lower and working class backgrounds to get access to art classes in school. So poetry that doesn’t require anything to practice I think is seeing this resurgence.
Staying on this resurgence, Stephanie Convery wrote about your art in her column in The Guardian that while there may not be a hugely political element to your work, there is definitely a resistance that runs through it. In the midst of resurgence in poetry and all that accompanies a large number of people getting involved in something over a relatively short period of time, do you think the nature of this resistance has changed?
I actually don’t think it has. I know what you mean but I don’t think it has changed because I never wrote towards anything specific. When I began writing I was just angry. My journey as writer has been to learn how to fine-tune my voice and to write into other spaces and to figure out how that voice fits. I haven’t become more angry or anything like that, I’ve just figured out better spaces for my work. The topics I wrote about when I began, you know, I still write about them… I’ve just figured out different ways to channel my voice to make it more personal. And I think in doing that you make it more universal.
Was anger the spark to start writing?
The spark was poverty. I couldn’t do anything else here in the UK. It was illegal for me to work, I couldn’t even go to university, and I found myself with a lot of free time so I would just walk around the streets of London thinking to myself and writing to myself.
It was kind of natural to find spaces to perform the poems I wrote you know, and from that other people, other poets sometimes, would give me bits of money to perform these poems. I pretty quickly figured out that the more I wrote the more I could make and really keep my head down and out of trouble. It kept my mind busy. It all comes through this search for space, and like I said, poverty.
There’s a pretty huge resemblance between what you’re describing and the origins of rap music…
You’re performing ‘Rap Party’ this weekend. How did that come about?
Well, when I first came to Europe, to the UK and to Ireland, I wasn’t a fan of hip hop – I hated it! I couldn’t understand why people would create this intricate music, this really beautiful sound, and why people would speak so angrily over these tracks. I don’t know. It just clashed with me or something?
It wasn’t until my English teacher in Dublin, Mr. Nolan, really broke down how poetry worked that I really started to see similarities between what the poets were doing and what the rappers were doing. Creating something from literally nothing, all you have is a voice and some paper. So his teaching really began to grow concurrently in my head and Rap Party is a way of honouring those traditions really – to show how poets are still engaging in hip hop music and still enjoying it and highlighting some of the links with their work.
If you had to pick someone from the hip hop community that influenced you the most, who would it be?
Mos Def I think is the biggest influence on me. His lyricism and the way he breaks lines into time signatures is just fascinating to me. I think it’s really incredible you know? In the UK there’s a guy called Jehst – he’s an old school guy, and he doesn’t do as much work as he used to but the way he works so visually in British everyday urban life is just kind of absolutely incredible to listen to for me.
I think classically people like Taleb Kwali is a huge influence on me, people like Lupe Fiasco. He actually did a lot for me because I’m sort of a nerd like that you know? This dark-skinned guy with glasses… So to see like a rock star almost fill that same space as me physically was just so crazy. It gave me just a lot of confidence. Those are the guys that really come to mind at the moment.
Hip hop has always been trying to find a space in which it can sit comfortably. At times it’s occupied more space than one, and unlike other forms of similar art forms (mainly other types of poetry) the competitive element in it has always been one of the most attention grabbing elements of it. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Are influential rappers next – should they be?
I think if Bob Dylan qualifies for the Nobel, then hip hop artists should qualify, but I don’t think yet. I don’t think anyone has created work to garner that award just yet. I think that maybe five years into the career of Kendrick Lamar we could talk about it in an ‘actual’ way – in a manner that isn’t tokenistic. So I don’t think just yet but I do think that Kendrick Lamar could possibly do that for hip hop.
I do think there is a lot of racism built into the Nobel literature prize – it’s part of its ecosystem. There are some people who should have gotten it before Bob Dylan as far as I’m concerned and this is long before we get to Kendrick.
It’s kind of an odd question, but do you think awards matter?
I think respect matters. I think these things signify excellence. And maybe not to the fans, or maybe not to the artists themselves but it’s good for other people who might be not tuned into the art form so closely. Also, it gives you something to aim for in a sense, you know? For that, I think it matters.
In your work there’s this relentless exploration of space and how space unavoidably influences your reality and your perception of reality. Looking at how the space hip hop has found itself in has changed, moving from a the fringe right into the centre of popular culture how do you think it’s affected the art form?
I’d say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With capitalism comes power and capitalism has corrupted hip hop. That’s my answer to that question. It’s unfortunate to see what it’s become. It’s been hard to watch how it’s veered from education to purely entertainment.
I’m sort of like a purist really and I’m just not pleased with the direction that his gone. I think there’s still an outlier of people trying to bring it back, you know some of the people from New York, like we spoke about earlier Kendrick Lamar, and the J Cole’s of this world. Even I’d argue that Drake has something very few people have. He’s invented a lot with his time signatures and structure and narrative in ways that a lot of the mumble rappers can’t do, and really just don’t care actually. That’s the most important thing you know?
They seem to just want to make money and think that it just doesn’t matter. They’re disengaged. To me that speaks to the sort of disenchanted way lots of millennial view the world. They don’t think about the real ramifications of their actions, they think nothing really matters and just think the world will sort itself and for me that’s tied in with politics. Hundreds of thousands of people voted against the war in Iraq and nothing happened. Young people just think there’s no point in anything because when people raise their voices and just nothing happens.
That whole attitude carries right through to artists to the point where we have art that doesn’t want to say anything, that’s disinterested, that’s disconnected and you ultimately end up with mumble rap. You end up with people who are making music with no respect or awareness of repercussions to what they’re doing.
I guess we take it that we won’t hear much mumble rap at Rap Party?
[Laughs] No, no. Well I hope not! The poet ultimately chooses the music but my co-director and I glance through and look at the type of music that contributes to the type of space we’re trying to create. Most of those will be lyricists first and will hopefully sideline the mumble rappers. I hope so anyway!
To wrap up with the state of hip hop in the world in 2017, if you had to choose one under and one over-rated rap artist who would you go with?
Underrated? There’s a lady called Jean Grae? She’s just hard. I mean and really elegant and delicate but goes really hard. I think she’s really underrated. I’ll go with Grae for someone who’s overlooked, slept on, and generally underrated.
To go with overrated? Eminem… I think the first three albums were scary good. That was stuff no one had ever heard, but I think he’s overrated.
Makes two of us.
Really? Yeah I just really think so. I think since his first three albums he’s lost his focus. And even lyrically like it’s just become and idea of himself that’s just over inflated by now I think. So yeah, Grae and Eminem.
Speaking of inflated ideas, there’s so much capital generating hype in hip hop. With all that’s being written about him, particularly in the last couple of months, is Kendrick the answer to this? Is Kendrick Lamar hip hop’s saviour or have we gone too far down Hype Alley?
I’m not sure about that. I don’t think he’s hip hop’s saviour. There’s something the poet Saul Williams said. He said that ‘to each age there is a new language’ and I think Kendrick Lamar is speaking the language of the current age we are in so I think while he may be saving it at the moment, but I don’t think he’s the saviour.
I think someone else will come along. To a certain extent I think Chance the Rapper is a saviour through his take on gospel and bringing hip hop to people who usually turn that stuff down. And the fact that he’s doing it without a label I think is really interesting as well! I think he’s saving hip hop in a way Kendrick is but it’s all different. I think the same about Childish Gambino, who just released like a soul-funk record. Lyrically his freestyles on Hot 97 were just incredible. It was like air. He sounds so normal so down to earth but crazy lyrically.
Kendrick might have the biggest track at the moment but I think there are lots of people expanding the limits of what hip hop can be. I don’t think he’s the only one but he’s a massive aspect of it right now – a really exciting one!
Catch Inua during his ILFD programme at The Complex Smithfield, Saturday May 20, 8pm (An Evening with an Immigrant), Smock Alley Theatre, Sunday May 21, 3pm (Catch the Bus), and The Liquor Rooms, Monday May 22, 8pm (R.A.P Party). Click here for more.