What if your word was all you had?

by Chela Simone Cranshaw

“I want to teach this art form to as many of our people as I can because if you don’t have an outlet for all those frustrations we face, we end up self-destructing and that ain’t a good feelin.” – Ismail Azeem

Ismail-Azeem, What if your word was all you had?, Culture Currents What would you do if you could change your life completely with the stroke of a pen – the way you choose to be represented to the masses?

What if you could rewrite the world of your choice and tell stories unheard in the overcrowded hallways of show business?

What if you were told the only thing you could do was rap or play ball?

What if you are no good at either, what now?

What if your word was all you had?

Passion is born from necessity. For Ismail Azeem, a poet, an emcee, an author and playwright, words have been his tool to carve a path for himself. Under-programmed by the United States school system, Azeem has accumulated the knowledge of a Harvard scholar through music, words and self-actualization.

Azeem devours books, spending most of his time engulfed in text. He takes every chance he gets to learn something new, explore the alternative and uncover the hidden layers of truth.

To sit with him and discuss the origins of ancient civilizations, biblical scripture, religion or just about what happened in West Oakland last night is like talking with a professor, a Jamaican professor with a New Jersey accent who also happens to be like your “much cooler” big brother. He quotes facts and has layers of evidence to back up his theories.

Though he reached only the seventh grade, this man is no dummy and prides himself on his thirst for knowledge and the deciphering of secret codes in literature and in the human experience.

In 2005 Ismail Azeem made a choice to expand his pathways. In a moment of genius, he took a catalog of his works and developed a visual landscape to repaint his legacy. With a few workshops at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco and a vivid imagination, “Rude Boy, the one man show” was born.

Azeem plays the character Johnny Burke, a struggling “Jamerican.” The performance is a series of shorts dealing with the issues of mental illness, poverty, racism, classism, sexism and just about any other “isms” you can think of.

I was completely transformed after seeing his play back in 2007.The tale of Johnny Burke is heartbreaking and infectiously hilarious. I found myself completely involved with every movement he made on the stage.

When I heard “Rude Boy” was back on the scene in May of 2010, I couldn’t wait to catch up with him and was not at all surprised that the play is better and more refined than ever. Ismail Azeem is a true testament to the inner city griots who still honor the word, and he is here with SF Bay View to rewrite “his story.”

Interview with Ismail Azeem

Chela: Can you give me some background about yourself and how you got started?

Ismail: I grew up mostly in Jersey and Miami. I am the youngest of eight children, which means I got caught doing a lot of things kids my age shouldn’t have been doing. I idolized my older brothers and picked up all their bad habits. This made school boring. I guess I was the class clown. I dropped out in seventh grade.

My father worked for Port Authority in New York and somehow always got free tickets to Broadway plays. I guess that’s where the seeds of being a performer were first planted. At 18, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and I haven’t stopped reading or writing since.

My first real break came after I moved to the Bay and began ghost writing for Michael Franti and Spearhead. I ended up joining the group and touring Europe and the U.S. for two years. Then I quit and began my solo career with my first album, “Garage Opera.”

Chela: Can you tell me what inspired you to transition from music to theater?

Ismail: It’s not really a transition. It’s all fire from the same source. Rapping or lyricism is the most competitive form of creative writing on the planet. If I throw a brick in Oakland, I’d probably hit a rapper. So, if you are able to carve out a name for yourself, and get nods of respect from your peers, it means you’re a %$*#** DON!

A good MC is a song writer, a poet, a storyteller etc. So when we take the talent and passion of our craft and apply it to other forms of creative writing, we shine. Plus, a lot of “rappers” have really fu%$*d up the game. A lot of that corny Huxtable college type stuff with dudes rhymin about back spinning and pyramids with stolen styles. I got tired of being counted amongst that lot.

I’d rather bump “turf rappers.” At least they’re building off reality, even though everybody’s a damn superhero gangsta nowadays.

Chela: If you could list a few things, what do you – or any artist – need to be successful at this transition?

Ismail: That’s the catch. We’re creative and all the good and crazy things that come along with it. But at the end of the day, the little word is SHOW; the big word is BUSINESS. That’s where the “transition” has to take place. It’s a mental chess game you have to play against yourself – to switch from the creative mind frame into a business one. Or you need a really good manager and team.

Our people tend to celebrate a little too often. We will party on a Tuesday afternoon – EARLY – like it’s 1999. So, there is always sacrifice involved with success. Once you start to focus on your business, the things you need to sacrifice will make themselves known. M.O.B. and all that. Y’all know what I’m sayin.

Chela: I hear your family is full of artists. Care to elaborate on that?

Ismail: My grandmother was the first Black woman in Jamaica to be hired by the BBC as a writer and news person. Her son, my father, wrote. My Uncle Tone is a musician and actor, my brother Leith is an actor, my cousin Rudy has written two novels, my cousin is a con artist. She’s quite talented. Cousin Tommy escaped from jail in Kingston – twice. That makes him an escape artist.

Chela: What is your writing process like? Do you have a special ceremony or a lucky pen?

Ismail: Gotta have the old school 70-sheet Mead notebook. And I keep this quote: “I only write when I’m inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired at my desk every morning at 9 a.m.”

Ismail-Azeem-2, What if your word was all you had?, Culture Currents It’s just like anything. If you want to be a great cake baker, make sure you bake cakes every day. Even if you have no training, if you stick to it, you gonna be one hell of a cake maker. It’s that simple. Also, if you are a wordsmith, rapper, poet, song writer, whatever, WORDS are your livelihood.

So you need as many of those as possible. That means you have to READ! It don’t really matter what it is but Marcus Garvey said it shouldn’t be cheap romance sh%*. The more you can master the language and break words up and down, the more ammunition and intelligence you have. The more intelligence you have, the more power. Look at what happened to Malcolm after reading the dictionary.

Chela: How did you devise this play, develop the characters?

Ismail: It was inspired by seeing too many local “poets.” I wanted to change the form of traditional spoken word by joining five poems together into one seamless piece. I performed it at the Hip Hop Theater Festival and got spotted by someone from the Marsh Theater in San Francisco.

They offered to help me develop the piece. It went from a 10 minute abstract display to an hour long story with its own world and legs to stand on. I based it as much as possible on truth: stories from my own life and my cousin Tommy Dred.

The characters that aren’t real basically created themselves and were probably walking around in my head long before I wrote the play. Everybody is crazy like that. Most people just don’t bother trying to write it out.

So, it was kind of like therapy because I was able to release a lot of pent up emotions through the characters. Every time I do the show I feel the release. I want to teach this art form to as many of our people as I can, because if you don’t have an outlet for all those frustrations we face, we end up self-destructing and that ain’t a good feelin. The play allows me to self-destruct every night I perform it without jail or dead people layin around when I’m done.

Chela: Can you tell me what this play means to you, what is your message?

Ismail: The message is the average “ni**a” you see in the streets is more intelligent than you think. The play is a demonstration of what self-education and years of writing hard can do. It’s my story. My family’s story. Black people’s story.

It appeals to everyone from young thugs to old Jewish ladies who cry when my character reveals his crime and the pain he feels. For me, it’s also proof that you don’t have to go through the brainwashing “education system” in order to be educated. It’s a view of the world from the eyes of someone who escaped that process where they redefine all that exists to fit their own agendas and lies. Yeah, all my work is a giant middle finger to the U.S. “education” system.

Chela: Do you find this process as easy as writing a song?

Ismail: There are less rules to this way of writing. Hip Hop has a lot of unspoken rules and if you don’t know em, you ain’t gonna make it. The directors at the Marsh Theater told me not to write the piece. Only go home and imagine it. That freed me up. It’s a longer process but worth it.

Chela: What would you tell another young person who is inspired to create a theater piece?

Ismail: I’d say the story is already written. All they have to do is harvest their own strong memories along with whatever crazy uncle or cousin, add a whole heap of honesty and put some imagination on top. Once you start, don’t stop. Our realities are often so much more complex than those blinded by a “democratic” American dream.

Those polished soft looking people on TV, like “Friends” or some bulls*%. Nah, the world WANTS to hear our stories. Look at that movie “Precious.” If you write with honesty, they can’t deny it.

Chela: Besides theater, what else are you working on?

Ismail: Still touring. Just finished another album called “SoundProof.” Working on a album with DJ Child of PGM. And writing my first autobiographic novel.

Chela: When and where can we see “Rude Boy” again?

Ismail: I’m taking it to the Fringe Festival in Scotland. I’m sure something in the Bay will pop up soon.

Chela: I’ve always wanted to do this, so here goes: The 10 questions originally asked by James Lipton on Bravo’s Inside the Actors.

What is your favorite word?

Ismail: Saturated

Chela: What is your least favorite word?

Ismail: Police

Chela: What turns you on?

Ismail: Confidence

Chela: What turns you off?

Ismail: Overconfidence

Chela: What sound or noise do you love?

Ismail: My daughter’s laughter

Chela: What sound or noise do you hate?

Ismail: The opposite

Chela: What is your favorite curse word?

Ismail: Pussy clot

Chela: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Ismail: Professional surfer

Chela: What profession would you not like to do?

Ismail: Police

Chela: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Ismail: Call security.

Chela Simone Cranshaw, born and raised in Oakland, child of a Panther, a musical misfit and a solder for social justice, can be reached at chelac@gmail.com.