The Legend of Jessi James

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An interview with jessica Care moore

by D. Sands

It might be a good time to close the shutters, because jessica Care moore has a bit of the whirlwind to her. She manifests this both in her poetry and the sheer deluge of her cultural activity.

Now internationally known, moore began raising eyebrows in the 1990s with a string of wins at the Showtime at the Apollo competition. Since then, she’s returned from NYC to Detroit where she continues to stir things up with an impressive range of projects.

In addition to acting, providing arts education to prisoners and producing her own work, she’s the founder of Moore Black Press, which has published works by poets like Saul Williams as well as scholars like Khalid el-Hakim. She’s also the creator of Black Women Rock!, a performance series and movement dedicated to celebrating and encouraging black women in rock-and-roll.

BWR! celebrates its 10th anniversary in Detroit on March 15 and 16, but that’s not all moore has in store over the next few months. She’s also got a book release for “Sunlight Through Bullet Holes,” her new poetry book, in March. Beyond that, she’s gearing for a release of her first music album, “Black TEA: The Legend of Jessi James.”

Critical Moment recently spoke with moore about “Black TEA,” Moore Black Press and her thoughts on artists and social responsibility.

Critical Moment: What can people expect from your new album?

jessica Care moore: This is my first recording, and I don’t think it’s what people would expect from me. I describe it as “me slowed down,” because I’m usually so rapid-fire. It’s very much love and from the heart-of-my-sleeve, but it still has those cuts and those edges that I like to think my work has.

Expect good music. Jon Dixon, he’s a really amazing pianist in town. Nate Winn is on drums. Jon produced most of the songs on the album. This is the first time that I allowed other people to write the music. When I was working on my rock songs in NYC or Detroit, I was writing all my own music. I’m still the producer and hands-on with arrangement and melodies and everything to do with the lyrics and the vocals.

CM: What kind of themes do you explore?

jCm: It’s about the kind of woman I want to be and the kind of mother that I want to be [and] many of the women I’ve been inspired by as far as writers of music and literature. Etta James, Billie Holiday Nina Simone … Whitney Houston, all these women that died from broken hearts. They died from drugs they put in their bodies to curb depression. It’s a hard life being a woman of color and being an independent artist in this country is not easy work. Especially if you’re an artist with integrity.

CM: How would you describe the sound?

jCm: It’s electric jazz. There’s a couple pieces that have a little more bass in it, but it’s for sure a soul/jazz heavy album. What’s funny is I play all this rock-and-roll and funk and do all this rowdy [music].

Jazz was reintroduced to me a few years ago now. I connected with someone I met many years ago, an artist named José James who is on Blue Note [Records] right now. I was a guest at his show in Santa Monica. He blew me away. His sensibility with music was very poetic. We ended up recording something that’s out right now on Japan Blue Note (“Call Our Names”). That’s kind of how I decided to go with a jazz project that could put me in front of a broader audience.

My younger fans will like it, because if they like my poetry they’ll like the work. And I think the older crowd will dig the music. And I’m going to do a wax record with Submerge records and with an independent label I’m starting called Words on Wax. And we will put out a record for DJs, so I’m hoping to get some remixes out of this down the line.

CM: Tell us about Moore Black Press.

jCm: I started it after I won the Apollo. I was young, 22 and I was getting rejection letters left and right from large publishing houses. I pulled myself together and I went to this gig in London. I came back thinking, “I need a book. I need something to sell. People know me in Europe and I don’t have anything to give them.”

So I started with “The Words Won’t Fit in My Mouth,” and I promoted it right, because I had a journalism background. So I wrote the press release and I said: “Yeah, I’m the girl from the Apollo. The one with the braids,” because that’s how everyone knew me. From there, Baker & Taylor, one of the biggest book distributors in the country, contacted me, because people were going into Barnes & Noble looking for “the girl from the Apollo’s books.”

CM: What’s biggest goal with the press?

jCm: To build the institution. This is an institution that’s supported black poets but [also] revolutionary voices. There was just a void in publishing that I saw. I think the blue collar worker in me, the institution builder activist from Detroit, could see that this needed to happen.

To be honest, I’m really glad I did it and [am] doing some more of it. I have an anthology I’m going to be editing called “Call Our Names.” It’s featuring the writers and poets whose lives were connected in NYC. Those were times when some of the baddest writers in the country were living and working in New York City. It was undeniable. The open mics were amazing. That time period where you produced Saul Williams and me and Tony Medina, asha bandele, ras baraka. You had them all in the same room at the same time looking at each others work.

CM: Tell us about your friendship with Sonia Sanchez.

jCm: It started with just being a little baby poet. In the early nineties in the open mics in New York, Sonia and Amiri Baraka would be in our audience, and we’d be about to kick ourselves. We’d play this gigs as the younger poets, and they’d be there, the luminaries. We were all so nervous.

Eventually me and Sonia—I started getting my own gigs. Working the college circuit, they started liking the idea of the intergenerational performance. So me and Sonia were often booked together. I’ve done readings with Nikki [Giovanni] as well. But Sonia and I just connected in a different kind of way. She was a mother, and she had twins. The relationship developed kind of organically, like Haki Madhubuti who was also my mentor. The Last Poets are my mentors. I’m very close to Umar. I talk to them. But Sonia and I have become women friends. So that’s been really exciting for me.

CM: What about Detroit poets? Are there any that influenced you?

jCm: Ron Allen. He had this really great poem. “I Want My Body Back.” Classic. Classic poem. Dudley Randall … his “Black Poets” anthology changed my life.…

Ron Allen, when I was a just young poet in Detroit, he would give me feedback about my work. I used to meet him at Cass Cafe….

And then she’s young, but Aurora Harris, who’s editing my current book right now, “Sunlight Through Bullet Holes.” She’s a great poet. Vievee Francis. I think she brought me to the University of Michigan, one of my first college gigs. So Vievee saw something in me and cultivated that and it worked out for me.

Naomi Long Madgett. I’ll never forget Broadside Press, doing some of their writing workshops. When I was young, I went to a workshop, and she told me about books. She’s been a major influence on me as a book publisher, and she said if you ever publish your own work or you start a press you make sure your books are competitive with other books in bookstores.

“You gotta do a perfect bind. Don’t do it halfway.” I kept that.

When I started my own press, I remembered what Naomi Long Madgett said and I made sure my books had beautiful book covers, perfect binds, the layout was cool. She’s been a big influence. And of course Dudley Randall. That’s where I learned about Haki and Sonia from Broadside Press.

CM: How do politics and poetry intersect in your own life?

jCm:There’s no disconnection from them at all. I’m a student of Amiri Baraka. I think artists, especially artists of color, that say they make art for art’s sake is just full of it, to be honest. And I have no interest in people who don’t think their work is supposed to have some connection to a movement of people. The people, they have too many thing happening to them on the ground for us not to be giving voice to the issues on the ground.

Find more about jessica Care moore and her work at www.mooreblackpress.com.

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