by Jason Bayani
The open slam is back this week at the Berkeley Poetry slam and our feature is Shawn William. He’s been a longtime mainstay in the Bay Area poetry scene and a three time grand slam champion. As a solo artist and member of Fiveology, a collective of poets whose membership boasts NPS champions Rudy Francisco and Javon Johnson, he’s been featured on TV shows such as Arsenio Hall and Verses and Flow and has opened for Jill Scott. He is one of the most commanding poets I’ve seen on stage but what has always impressed me most is his clever, heady approach to the musicality of language and our ability to bend and change it’s meaning. He’s also a Bay Area guy through and through. And that’s important.
I always thought one of the strongest elements of your poems is how there’s a very distinct idea of how it’s supposed to sound. There are cases where you use repetition for musical effect but you don’t rely on those techniques to be able to achieve a distinct rhythm and pacing to your work. When you write how conscious are you of creating a particular sound?
Very good question. I never really considered myself a “Poet” in the form of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and all the other great poets that came before me. My background in writing comes from a Hip Hop/Emcee standpoint. I studied the rhyme schemes of Rakim, Kane, Slick Rick, Black Thought, C-Bo, Ice Cube, Kurrupt (The Dogg Pound), Nas and of course Biggie and used their styles to help create my own. All those rappers that I named, especially Biggie, used their voices as a musical instrument, so when I eventually transitioned to spoken word I kept the same concepts. When rapping was not working out for me, & then I started performing spoken word, I wanted to keep some of the same concepts. If you listen to “Batteries”, “Letter to the Ex” or even “Luke MFers Skywalker” you’re hearing hooks and sometimes a bridge. You’re also hearing me use my voice as a bass and kick drum as well.
Basically the former MC in me writes that way subconsciously.
You had a big year as a member of Fiveology. You performed for BET and opened a couple dates for Jill Scott. There was also an appearance on Arsenio Hall. Do you approach these performances like any other gig or does anything change for you? Especially since you’re working with audiences who more than likely have a different set of expectations than other audiences you might be used to be performing in front of.
Being in front of 18,000 + people at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN., Radio City Music Hall in NYC, or just a studio audience on Arsenio knowing that millions of people will be watching the taping can be overwhelming if you let it, but every time we took the stage I approached it like I was breaking new ground while also creating my own legacy. In the earlier part of my career it used to be all about me “Ripping the mic”, now I look at it as a job interview for my next opportunity while also building on my legacy. Shout out to my Fiveology brothas Prentice Powell, Javon Johnson, Andrew Tyree and Rudy Francisco, Walton Issacson and also Jill Scott for the opportunity
You’ve managed to find great success as an artist while still managing to hold down a full time job. Which kind of runs counter-intuitive for a lot of young artists. But a lot of folks could probably be served to know it’s possible to live that 9-5 life and be an artist at the same time. And you also have a family that requires your attention. How have you personally been able to manage all these different parts of your life and give the proper amount of time and energy to each.
All 3 give me balance. My Wife, Son and family keep me focused and grounded. They don’t care about nerCity, Shawn William or any of that as much as they care about Shawn the husband, father, son, brother and cousin and for that I love them more than they’ll ever understand. The spoken word career keeps me free and creative. It allows me let out any issues I have with myself or the world no matter if they’re negative or positive. My 9-5 keeps my business side sharp and on point. I’ve never been the “I’ll sleep on your couch” so-called “Starving artist” type of person. Not faulting the ones who are, but for me I want my own things and I want them a certain way and borrowing all the time to get them doesn’t work for me. So though I’m fortunate enough to do well monetarily performing, my 9 to 5 gives me the freedom to enjoy the little things in life that some of my fellow artist don’t have. I like calling them “Shopping”, “Vacations”, “Savings accounts” and “A lot of Nice S***”.
I hate to do a question relating to your bio because it’s very hacky but when I read yours I couldn’t help but want to ask this. How do you make the uncomfortable into something that is comfortable through writing?
Ha! caught you looking. It’s all in the presentation. Now here’s the answer to your question and the magic trick that goes along with it: you’ve seen me in poetry venues, where am I? In the back, or over to the side alone doing my introvert thing right? It’s all for comfort and presentation. ‘People watchers’ that don’t know me, see a big black man and depending how I’m dressed are wondering if I’m going to rob the place, meeting someone for a date at a poetry venue, selling bean pies or a b-ball player lost, so when I get on stage they’re wondering “What in the hell is he going to say?” the seed was already placed before I touched the stage. So when I do finally touch the stage looking 7 foot 11, but tell these stories that normally don’t come from someone my size you feel at eased, intrigued, amused, relieved, people empathize and sympathize. I see it all the time, because I’m a ‘people watcher’ on stage. It’s not the writing as much as the presentation and performance that makes people feel comfortable with the uncomfortable.
What are your top 5 songs by artists who were born and raised in the Bay Area? I’m willing to accept all genres of music.
“Dope Fiend Beat”- Too Short
“Catch 22” – Goapele
“Where I’m From”- Christion
“I’m Still”- Adrian Marcel
“It keeps you runnin” – The Doobie Brothers
Honorable Mention- “Loving You” Tony, Toni-Tone
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Also Fiveology at www.wearefiveology.com