The stories behind the rhymes: Jai Harris breaks down some of her best poetry
Lil Fresh Sam
Jai Harris was a poet before she even knew it. Hmm...doesn't sound as good in the past tense, but in Harris's case, it really is true. She recalls going to a yard sale with her grandma when she was seven and buying a little book with a poem written on the inside. At the time, she didn't know what a poem was, but she emulated the style to write her own stories. For her, poetry comes naturally, and it shows on her new mixtape, Disconnected, Vol. 1, a collaboration with DJ Vudu Spellz, whose work on Ludacris's "Georgia" was nominated for a Grammy. And while Vudu Spellz's expert sampling provides much of the tape's soul, Jai Harris is the heart.
In 2007, Harris was on the Slam Nuba team that placed fourth in the National Poetry Slam. She's a musician now, but the slam poet spirit is still very present in her music, something like you might an expect an updated Last Poets album to sound like. Harris's poetry is powerful simply because it's real. It deals with the things that are most important to her as a person instead of just as a rapper.
Harris shows plenty of anger in "Rollin' Stone," but here she gives depth to the story by creating an emotional attachment not to the father specifically, but to the loving father figure she has imagined through his pictures and archetypal images of caring, masculine role models. The girl in the poem wants the father to care about her, and if he can't be around, to at least be hurt by that fact.
But she kept in touch with this imaginary dreamed up figure she created
Through his pictures
And she was never even mad that he ditched her
She just wondered if he missed her
The song "was like my letter to my parents," she reveals. "Not only my dad because my mom -- she has a drug addiction. That poem, to me, was like, what would I say to them, you know, if they gave me the opportunity to tell them how I feel, how their absence or how their behavior has affected me?
"When I did actually meet [my father], he wasn't what I expected," she goes on. "He wasn't this man who was going to save me or this fairy tale. He definitely had a lot more flaws than I expected. And it was one of those things where it was like I was blessed to probably not have him in my life...That whole something to look foreword to got stripped from me, so at that point, I was kinda able to move on. I stopped dwelling on the past. I started being able to say, 'Fuck it.' But where do I go from there?"
Some segments of our society have a problem with respecting older people, but on the track "On Their Shoulders," Harris acknowledges their strength. Here, she longs for the community of a society faced against the common enemy of injustice and demonstrates viscerally how the legacy of her elders remains are a part of who she is. The very earthly quality she gives this spiritual connection is almost magical. For a moment, just by listening, the vision of a wiser, more experienced generation comes into view.
I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me
I digest their every words and I exhale poetry
Time traveling, changing scenery
To a time when things seemed to be
More focused on the community
Hearing stories of their unity
Wishing we could go back to the way things used to be
"I think the biggest thing we could do right now is embrace our elders." declares Harris.
"That's probably the most important thing because there's so many tools that they have, so many experiences that they've gone through that we can't even fathom.
"To me, I felt like [my poetry] was a reflection of my ancestors working through me," Harris continues. "Nobody had to formally train me to write something because it's something that was natural, something that was given to me as a gift. I studied Sonia Sanchez, and I was transcribing an interview of hers, and she mentioned that when she writes, she sees white lights sometimes, and it's blank almost, and she'll wake up the next day, and she'll read what she wrote, and she's just kind of dumbfounded.
"I've had those moments where I'll get up the next day, like, 'I wrote this? That's crazy.' So, to me, that's my anscestors, that's God, that's a higher power that's working through me to tell these stories and continue this legacy because that form of storytelling is entertaining, it's educating, and it can live forever"
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