Ise Lyfe has become one of the preeminent spoken word artists of this generation, as well as being a highly regarded emcee, Hip Hop theater writer and performer, and social activist. Through his recordings SPREAD THE WORD and THE PRINCE COMETH, and his stage productions IS EVERYBODY STUPID(?), and WHO’S KRAZY, Ise uses the power of words as a mirror held up to society for us to really take a close look at ourselves. Last March Ise released his first book, PISTOLS AND PRAYERS, and now a year later he’s made PISTOL AND PRAYERS available as an audio book. Ise and I had the opportunity to talk about PISTOLS AND PRAYERS, and it went a little something like this…
G1: Congratulations on the book. This adds another title to your resume. Folks have seen you on stage doing Spoken Word, Hip Hop and Hip Hop theater… How does Pistols And Prayers differ from what you’ve brought to the stage before?
Ise: People ask me all the time “what’s the difference between spoken word and poetry?” I think Spoken Word brings the poetry off the stage and as a performance. This book is a collection of poems, prayers, essays, journal entries, anecdotes and rhymes. When I was first started putting the book together it was just going to be a collection of my writings. What I realized though, as I was putting things in there and I was reading the pieces, there’s certain vulnerability that exists in that, and instead of running from it I thought it might be cool before I, and this was easy to do when I wasn’t sure if I’d put it out or not, I would add personal journal entries, I would add prayers. Not only have I never performed these prayers that I write, I’ve never even told anyone that I write prayers. So I’m just kind of exploring this thing with myself as an artist and sharing very personal things. So the book , it slowed down. It’s not as fast as me being on stage. It’s not anything I could just get off and then go and walk off stage from, it sits there. I also think it’s a dope educational tool. People come up to me and ask me sometimes “do you have this written down anywhere?” and now we do.
G1: The fact that it’s written down and in book form made me wonder… You hear all this talk about people reading less, people buying books less; there’s a certain amount of bravery, I think now, in people who are still putting out hard copy books. What made you put it out this way instead of as another cd or an e-book or something like that?
Ise: We’re getting into about a two year mark since my last record (The Prince Cometh) was released, and I’m getting in the studio about to record the next record. I like to counter the things that I hear people saying all the time. For example, even in Hip Hop, as a Hip Hop artist, rappers all the time brag about “You know I don’t write it down, I just get in the studio and I do it” . Well, not writing, that’s illiteracy… You don’t write!?! So I write these things down. Recently I did this remix thing with India.Airie and Stevie Wonder and I was listening to the brother sing and he wrote that down and that’s amazing, you know, that he writes this music.
G1: You mention a certain vulnerability; I know with your prayers and pieces that people haven’t seen or heard you do before, that does lend itself to vulnerability, but with pieces that people have heard from you before that you’ve included in the book do you find that there’s more of a vulnerability with people being able to hold and read the written word than actually seeing you perform it where they see it, it’s done and that’s it?
Ise: Yeah. Folks who don’t know me personally don’t know about Me. It’s easy when I’m on stage, but I’m relatively shy Brother. It’s a weird type of shyness but I definitely battle with that. When I’m on stage I’m very conscious of people picking apart what I’m saying. Well, imagine when people can just hold the book forever and look at it and analyze it, you know. This is something that’s fresh to that but it’s also something that challenges me. I think one thing that’s necessary is for artists who are good at what we do, and I humbly feel that I’m good at what I do, that we step into arenas that bend our comfort zone and we open up a little, especially to the people who we gain our stories from to share on platforms.
G1: Tell me about the selection process for PISTOLS AND PRAYERS… how you decided what was going to be in, what was going to be left out, and if there were any things there that you had second or even third thoughts about putting in that still wound up in the book.
Ise: There’s an aspect in the writings… I’m going through all my journals, and I write a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. I write. I don’t write for stage, I just write. As I started digging through stuff and looking through I even found love letters that I had written, or even dialogs between me and a significant other, and I was like it would be dope to put this in a book, you know, or let people see this…
G1: Now that is opening yourself up
Ise: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then there’s a piece in this book called Safe Landing that’s about how hard it is sometimes for me to engage one on one with folks because my mind is always dealing with… so for example, that piece talks about me walking down the street in D.C. and it being 10 degrees, and me watching these brothers in a corridor stacking themselves on top of each other in sleeping bags to keep warm. I got back to the hotel and I was thinking about that. I had a date the next morning for breakfast. When I woke up though I was staring at the wall and thinking about the night before, you know. I was thinking about how we tell people don’t rob, don’t be violent, “don’t do things that are gonna get you incarcerated Brother” and all of that, but I’ll be damned if I was laying on the pavement in 10 degree weather that I’m gonna wake up in the morning, trek down to junior college and try to find a way for myself. I was thinking about those things, and I looked up and it was 10 minutes before I was supposed to be at my breakfast date. So I got up and got ready and I was 20 minutes late. I walked in and the sister’s totally oblivious to what it was that I was dealing with, so the letter to her is in this book. There’s a piece in here about my grandmother dying. My grandmother was a white woman, she was an Irish immigrant, and she grew up poor in a farm town. So growing up, me, the social justice advocate, rapper man, my first best friend was this old white lady, my grandma. So the piece talks about that, talks about growing up with her and the stuff she would listen to on the radio and it’s funny at first. Then it talks about people in the neighborhood talking about how all white people are racist, and I didn’t want to hear that. I was like, naw my grandmother is white and married to a Black man and has Black children and grandchildren, you know. When I was 14 years old though, my grandmother called my little sister a nigger, and… there’s something in the text that says something like what died in me was something I was holding on to with all of my young might, which was the idea that I didn’t live in a world that was like that, and surely that my grandmother wouldn’t think something like that about me…,and how that morphs my understanding of humanity, you know. So those kind of pieces are in this book, and that’s not something that’s easy to talk about, or even write about, and especially to just give to somebody and have them look at and read it. For me, I was looking at the pre-orders, a lot of people are going to have this book…
G1: Some people who already know you, some who don’t…
Ise: Yeah, yeah, yeah so I’m grateful for it, but it’s definitely an interesting process.
G1: If there’s any particular types of reactions you’re looking for from people what are those?
Ise: I hope that people can read this book and see that they’re not alone. You know, when I look at my success thus far as an artist I think more than it speaks to how “cool” I am it speaks to how many people are thinking the same thing I’m thinking, but there’s not a lot of people saying what I’m saying.
G1: At least not out loud
Ise: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I think when people come to an event that I’m doing I feel like that’s a statement in itself, you know. And I hope that people can read the book and relate to it and see that they’re not alone and that there are millions of us that are thinking this way and aren’t with the regular nonsense that’s out there. I also hope that um… I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece where I’m hoping that folks read it and consider me, you know. I love when I read books from artists or anyone who I really respect and then I consider them in a different way, and so I hope that happens too.
G1: With that type of consideration it seems that barriers are brought down; with most performers there’s a barrier between performer and audience, but this kind of brings the barrier down, and, as we mentioned, that word vulnerability comes up… are you prepared for that?
Ise: Oh, I don’t have a choice now (laughing). I think I am… and another thing that I wanted to say is that putting this book out closes the first chapter of what I think will become a very long catalog for me. I read once that when people are dealing with sickness, like when they get a terminal illness, there’s these stages that they go through. The first one is denial, and then the next one is anger, the next one is acceptance, and then the next one is healing and the last is rejoicing. I think that when I first came into an understanding of the world and social justice first I was in denial as a kid. You know, I was 16, 17 years old and I didn’t want to hear all that; then something hit me, and you know, and then you’re outraged… “We gotta stand up and fight against this and…!!!” and that was big in me and very necessary, this piece that was very analytical, very critical of society, of myself, of the people, of Hip Hop, of media and all that is necessary. Like if you ask me to come and perform at an event that is dealing with the issues of societal ills I have a bunch of stuff for that. But you know what I realized Brother, let’s say that you were getting married and you called me and said Ise I want you to come and do a piece at my wedding, well I’d have to write that… I don’t just have something in my pocket about love, or about rejoicing, or about relationships, or about happiness, or about resilience. I don’t have a lot of that even though it’s in me. And so I’m glad to have this down and out so that I can begin to make sure that I document and celebrate our survival and our resilience, you know so that’s another thing that I’m happy about with this book.
G1: This opens up another stage for you. You say it’s the conclusion of one phase, but it opens up something else. I’ve been thinking about the power of the word, how has that helped you deal with life and where it’s lead you to now?
Ise: The stage and spoken word has given me a place to exorcise my angels and demons, you know… to exorcise and get off my chest, and process things that matter to me very much. It also has given me platforms to find and see and give hope in other people, and that’s been the most important thing that it’s given me.
Ise Lyfe not only speaks the words, but also puts them to action. Ise has taught social history at Oakland’s School For Social Justice and Community Development, led the youth component for the Oakland non-profit, Leadership Excellence, and is executive director of the educational-social marketing firm Lyfe Productives, which creates a popular culture of consciousness by finding ways to make both standard and alternative education provocative for inner-city youth. Keep your ears and eyes open for the next chapter of Ise Lyfe. For more information catch Ise at http://www.facebook.com/iselyfenation