In Denver, our poets are activists, bound to speaking truths, uplifting communities and, along the way, putting this town on the cultural map. Bobby LeFebre — a well-decorated performance poet with SlamNuba, actor, TEDx speaker, social worker and founder of Denver’s Latino spoken-word organization Cafe Cultura — is an exemplar of that grassroots model, which he has taken on the road and spread across the nation and abroad. LeFebre recently presented a dramatic reading of one of his latest projects, Northside, a play inspired by the gentrification of Denver’s changing Northside/Highland neighborhood; soon he’ll head to Cuba to share the gospel of the spoken word there. We asked LeFebre, a man with a powerhouse stage presence, to take a break from his breakneck schedule to answer the 100CC questionnaire; here are the results.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Bobby LeFebre: I would assemble Plato, Neruda, Nezahualcoyotl, Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jack Kerouac, Lorca, August Wilson, Oscar Wilde and Miguel Pinero to co-write a play. I would ask Dali, Kahlo, Rothko, Picasso and Siqueiros to do set design. I’d call Kurt Cobain, Tupac, J-Dilla, Amy Winehouse, Ritchie Valens, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Biggie, Bob Marley and Big Pun to do the music. Cantinflas, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Charlie Chaplin would have the lead roles. Why? Because I think it would be dope!
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
Elier Alvarez is a spoken word artist and the Executive Director of Caminos de Palabras, an arts organization in Havana dedicated to the development and dissemination of spoken word in Cuba. Elier’s work — and the social, political, and cultural environment that surrounds it — is very interesting to me right now. Spoken word poets in Cuba are hungry to share their story with the rest of the world, and they are working tirelessly with limited resources to make that happen. Elier works to independently produce spoken word events in Havana, which is nearly impossible, as the Cuban government controls all public events and productions through official government agencies. I traveled to Havana in 2012 to build with Caminos de Palabras and was astounded by their passion, hustle and relentless optimism. I will be going back in June of this year with a group of prominent Latino spoken word artists from the U.S., including Paul Flores and Mayda del Valle, to continue engaging in important cultural and artistic exchange. This time I won’t be traveling “illegally”! Now that we are restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, I hope more artists will travel to Cuba to see the island for what it truly is. And I can’t wait until Elier and other talented Cuban artists can come to the U.S. and share their artistry.
P.S. I am also very interested in what the Pope is doing.
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
Art and performance that don’t allow the audience to co-author the experience should be challenged. Passive participation in the arts is boring. Part of the reason we are seeing a decline in public participation in visual and performing arts events is because our audiences are bored. They come to arts events to socialize and learn; the first thing we tell them to do is shut up and simply observe. We should create more entry points for patrons to be involved before, during and after shows and events. In the United States, arts/culture is often viewed as some kind of esoteric giant living in the hillside of museums, galleries and highbrow culture. We need to remind people of the practical, daily applications of art and performance culture.
What's your day job?
I manage a team of six social workers who work with youth. We handle everything from youth on probation to issues of abuse and neglect. I am also the program manager for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, which is a federal program that resettles refugee children and youth from all over the world. Every day we work with Denver’s most vulnerable populations, ensuring they are safe, have access to resources and are getting their needs met. Social work is social-justice work; every day we work tirelessly to ensure we build a stronger and more just community for all of the city’s residents — especially the ones society has marginalized, underserved and/or forgotten.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
First I would call my mom and tell her she doesn’t have to work anymore. I would buy my wife the best camera equipment available and send her around the world doing the two things she loves most. Then I would call all of my artist friends and tell them they can focus solely on creating art as opposed to figuring out how they are going to pay their bills. I would pay off all of the mortgages or buy real estate for all the organizations, non-profits, community groups, galleries and art spaces that have ever given me a chance. I am talking EVERYBODY! Anyone who has ever invited me to speak. Anyone who has asked me to write, read or perform a poem. Anyone who gave me personal or professional advice, anyone who ever helped me grow. I would invest in their dreams, as they did mine.
I would fund schools, classes and arts/performance training programs for youth. I would create scholarships. I would increase the budgets of established arts organizations to allow them to reach the next level. I would invest in Latino arts and culture locally, nationally and internationally. I would invest in arts-organizations-of-color across the country to level the inequities we face being underserved and underfunded. I would buy a classic car collection for my pops that would make Jay Leno jealous. I would save some. I would buy a ton of real estate in North Denver and bring back anyone who has had to leave, but wishes to come back. I would do some cool things for myself too.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Work to make it affordable for artists to be able to actually live and work in the city. Pay artists and creatives what they are worth so the market value increases and artists can actually prosper. It is not merely enough to ask an artist to show, perform, design or showcase “for exposure” or “for the love.” We always create from a place of profound love and desire. And “exposure” is good, but artists can’t buy groceries with it. Artists should be comfortable saying no when they are being taken advantage of.
Say no to the university with a huge budget that wants to offer you $25 for something you should get paid $2000 for. Say no to the corporation that wants to offer you $100 for something that should pay thousands. We also need more live/work spaces.
Gentrification doesn’t care about culture. Artists are the stewards of culture. We will be around after the trends die out.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Tony Garcia at Su Teatro, Ken Arkind, Jennifer McCray Rincon with Visionbox/Denver Academy of Dramatic Arts, Café Cultura, Youth on Record, 2MX2, Jolt, SlamNuba, Suzi Q. Smith, Jeremy Duhon with TEDxMileHigh, Stevon Lucero, The Black Actors Guild, Patty Kingsbaker and Kathey True at Radical Artists Agency, Museo de las Americas, Daniel Chavez, Mariachi Vasquez, Curious Theater, Daniel Luna, CHAC, Cavem Motivation, Cajardo Lindsay, Molina Speaks, Manuel Ramos, Mike Wird, Alan Dominguez, Carlos Mireles, Claudia Hernandez-Ponce, John Moore, Ru Johnson, Mane Rok, Jaime Lujan, Denver Freedom Riders, D.J. Chonz, Bree Davies, Musa Bailey, Opt Won, Joseph Martinez, Pedro Barrios, Jamie Molina, Pablo Kee, Rawh Brand, Jozer Guerrero, The Reminders, Lucifury, Sheila Sears, PJ Damico, Mario Acevedo, Minor Disturbance, Daniel Salazar, Wheelchair Sports Camp, Stephen Malloy Brackett, Colorado Creative Industries, Brian Shea, LadySpeech, RedLine, David Ocelot Garcia, Gamma Acosta, Diego Flores, Servicios de la Raza, Lordz of Finesse, WeAreNorthDenver. And everyone else who makes this city look, taste, sound and feel beautiful and interesting.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
I held a public reading of my first play, Northside, at Su Teatro in April. The play tackles the issue of gentrification in North Denver. The reading allowed me to get the piece in front of an audience to see what was working well and what needs further development. Through this public reading and continuous development over the last year, I have learned invaluable lessons about my own process, as well as about the script and characters I have created. I have been living with these characters for a year now, and I am not ready to let them go. I will continue to hone the script and hope to do a full production of the piece at some point in the future.
In addition to the play, I will continue to travel as a performance poet. I will be heading to Cuba again in June to do spoken word development work with Caminos de Palabras. Late this summer, I will be traveling to Paris, Rome, Athens and Istanbul.
Though the play is my primary focus, I will also continue chipping away at building a new poetry manuscript that I will shop around to publishers. I will also continue to work with my colleagues Claudia Hernandez-Ponce and Carlos Mireles, on #WeAreNorthDenver, which is a digital and grassroots campaign created to spark honest dialogue about neighborhood change, promote inclusiveness and strengthen community through social, artistic and educational action across North Denver. Claudia and Carlos are co-founders of #WeAreNorthDenver and Veronica Montoya is a recent addition to our administration team.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in 2015?
I am very excited about the announcement of the first ever Denver Youth Poet Laureate, Toluwanimi Obiwole. The Denver Youth Poet Laureate program identifies young writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement, poetry and performance, and leadership and education. This year Toluwanimi will engage in service projects, creative and artistic development, and serve as the official Youth Poetry Ambassador for literacy, poetry and community for the city. The Denver Youth Poet Laureate is a program of the Denver youth poetry organization Minor Disturbance, alongside Colorado Creative Industries, Youth on Record and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, in partnership with Urban Word and supported by PEN Center USA and the Academy of American Poets.
Toluwanimi states, “I don't want to only inspire new poets, but doctors, visual artists, engineers and everyone else to see that everything they do is poetry.” Toluwanimi will receive a book deal from Penmanship Books and the $2,500 Russell J. Arkind Memorial Scholarship, an annual award presented by Minor Disturbance. Toluwanimi has been holdin’ it down for a while already, but she will definitely have a wider audience with her new position.
Learn more about Bobby LeFebre and We Are North Denver online.