By: Courtney Greve
(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award)
Writing this piece taught me the importance of observation. Scribble down every detail, no matter how silly or small; you never know what will be crucial to the narrative later. Since the subject was a poet, it was crucial to capture not only his passion, but the rhythmic pace of his art. Finally, I learned to list questions to ask the subject later — a lesson that stuck with me.
– Courtney Greve
People listen when he speaks. They might not always agree with him, but they listen. A platform to spread the good Word can be found in any room. At least that’s what 19-year-old Kynshasa Ward believes as he prepares to take center stage at The Red Herring’s Thursday night open mic, where the odd assortment of people in the crowd tend to be more accepting of his churchy topics than your average Joe’s. From his table for one in the back of the room, the University of Illinois sophomore can see everybody as they weave between cliques, lighting clove cigarettes and sipping cappuccino. Body-pierced freaks and long-haired neo-hippies dominate the scene.
Kynshasa Ward knows he doesn’t really fit in with this rag-tag gang and that he will be one of the only people performing poetry. He doesn’t think it matters. He waits more than an hour for his chance to speak and during this time he wonders if God will speak through him tonight and if people will hear His message.
God is not the typical poetry topic for an artistic presentation at the Red Herring. Mostly, performers strum on acoustic guitars and attempt to recreate a Beatles or Doors classic. A rare brave soul might play an original song, complete with sour chords and forgotten words. A performance poet stands apart. Kynshasa only does spirited renditions of original pieces. But there isn’t much of a poetry scene in Champaign. So, for now, Kynshasa settles on the open mics, hoping he can make a few people think for just a minute. He doesn’t worry about the audience reaction. After all, once he starts, the entire scene will eventually disappear until his concentration is broken with the sound of thunderous applause.
“People have an idea about what poetry is from what they learned in school,” Kynshasa says. “It is a set and narrow view of poetry. Some other people have an idea about what this whole spoken word thing is. I perform it. It is not spelled words on paper. Poetry is jotted down thoughts or words in a journal for some people. My poetry is about giving it to someone else.”
Jumping up and down like a runner before a race, Butta, as he is professionally known, psyches himself up for the big event. When he is introduced, he shuffles his ragged-edged papers and pulls the poem he’s performing to the top of the stack. The ink spots and illegible words look like the doodles of a day-dreaming school child. Sometimes Kynshasa can’t even read the messy papers, but he only needs key words to remind him of the important themes. It doesn’t occur to him to be nervous. He wears a white T-shirt and khaki pants. It’s typical attire for a college student, except his shirt has a message:
On his head, a yellow and black striped hat covers his newly forming dreadlocks. His upper lip balances a thin moustache and a goatee supports his lower lip. Six friendship bracelets are tied loosely to his wrist and he has a story for each. He slowly strolls to the stage, adjusts a music stand to prop up his poems, politely greets the audience and then bows his head. With his right knee bent and his hands clenched to his chin, Kynshasa silently asks the Creator to allow His words to flow through his lips. This moment of hesitation has gotten the attention of the talkative audience — silence for the first time all evening. Now, with the deep bass of a throbbing speaker, he squeezes his eyes shut and bursts into the opening lines of “The Whispers in a Crowded Room Finally Found a Microphone!”
DAI-LY I see MA-NY in a state of MEN-TAL CAP-TIVI-TY
Less of an ADDICTION and more of a RELIGION
Too many PEO-PLE worshiping their many different IDOLS
Whether it be brown leaves when smoked
White powder (sniff) when snorted
Green paper when spent
Brown liquids when consumed
Or even easy-to-swallow tablets
The question is, who do you all pray TO?
Kynshasa’s eloquent and calm voice has gradually heightened to match that of a well-trained Southern preacher. Yet, the word “preacher” leaves a bad taste in Kynshasa’s mouth. He fears it elicits a stereotypical image of a black man standing at a pulpit, pointing his finger and demanding certain behaviors from his parishioners. No, Kynshasa Ward is not a preacher. But he does see himself ministering to his audience — in layman’s terms, he’s helping people to see the light. As a devout Christian, he uses the Bible as a sort of “instruction manual” and believes its every word. He does not affiliate himself with any particular religious denomination for the same reason he dislikes the word “preacher”— it’s a bad stereotype. Instead, he attends the Assembly of God Crossroads Campus Church in Champaign every Sunday, because it is non-denominational and because he felt the Holy Spirit the first time he entered the building.
It was during the summer of 1996, while at a Christian Youth Conference, when Kynshasa first accepted the Holy Spirit. A woman began talking to some of the kids about being baptized. Kynshasa didn’t think he was ready. “If not now, when?” the woman asked. At that very moment, he made the decision to profess his faith. Being baptized meant he had to change his life. No more lying about why he stayed out so late on a Tuesday night. No more impure thoughts about the girl sitting two seats ahead wearing a skirt that showed a bit too much thigh. No more ignoring his mother’s requests to go to Sunday service with the family. He admits he still struggles with even the simplest of God’s laws. The difference now, he says, is that he would rather obey them than experience the guilt that comes when he disobeys them.
In the next few years, Kynshasa’s poetry and faith became intertwined. Today, he believes that God is the essence of his every poem. The poem he chose to perform this night is more than a personal insight into the evils of addiction. With a touch of humor, it criticizes people for living vicariously through the fictional characters on TV, rather than living their own lives:
For the past year I have been attending meetings regularly
TWICE WEEKLY, in fact, to assist me with MY withdrawal
From the WORST substance abuse known to mankind:
To all the WEAK-MINDED, sponge for brain zombies you can find
Broadcasted for BREAKFAST-LUNCH-DINNER
And see how fast they get full
Kynshasa wants people to think about what they consider entertainment. In his TV-land, ABC stands for “Absolute Brain Control” and LSD is really “Laser Satellite Dishes.” Television pollutes the brain and sends children the wrong message about sex, violence and drugs. Rap music shares many of these messages. He used to listen to rap. In fact, he began rapping in the third grade. It was easy to think of a few words that rhymed and then find an idea to go with the words. But after he accepted God into his life, he began to think about the evils rampant in Rap music.
So he started writing poetry. At first, he exchanged poems with a girl he had a crush on. Her encouragement was enough to prompt Kynshasa to show his work to one of his teachers at Morgan Park High School on the South Side of Chicago. Gradually, he was asked to perform at assemblies, churches, retreats and demonstrations in Grant Park. In Chicago’s poetry scene — Lit-X Bookstore in Wicker Park and the Guilt Complex on Broadway — Kynshasa found inspiration. He met famous performance poets such as Q. Lenear and Danny Buey and began to imagine himself on stage, too.
But college had to come first. He entered the University of Illinois as an engineering major, but found the long hours of studying left no time for writing poetry. And he wanted to explore history, philosophy, literature and music. God blessed him with the ability to understand even the most complicated math, so he became a math major. He believed there must be a reason for this gift: he has been called to teach. After graduation, he plans to be a math teacher and a poet. Neither gift can be ignored. His poetry is another way he can teach others:
In fact television is the only invention we put in our HOMES
and allow folks to speak to us
who we would not normally ALLOW in our homes
Believe me, the TV is intoxicating
With mixtures of mind pollution, of mind brainwashin’
Excuse me, I mean Baywatchin’
Mr. Spelling’s Melrose Waste of Time
Like Beverly Hills 902 one more episode is ONE TOO MANY
By dropping names of pop culture into his poetry, Kynshasa keeps the audience’s attention, gets some laughs and connects them with something familiar. Most people make fun of these television show and then watch them each week when no one is looking. Kynshasa thinks God is looking. As he finishes his last stanza, the Spirit within him rises and his surroundings vanish. He is on the stage with his elbows bent and his hands gripped together above his head. Right now, it is more than poetry — he is engulfed in a confessional to the Creator:
People leave their televisions on so they won’t feel alone
See, with any form of media,
there is always that pressure in feeling connected
But nowadays too many of us are being infected
Once the needle is injected
Instead of LOVE
Instead of bedtime stories
Instead of FAM-I-LY conversations
Our families are being raised on ABC
I realize the minute, the INSTANT, that those resistors and diodes and electrodes
In the back of the IDIOT box, appropriately termed,
You have committed CEREBRAL SUICIDE
I compare it to a BULLET to the HEAD
No, no, more like a CRACK PIPE to the LIPS
The on and off switch on the 150 LB. Zenith remote control
is the lighter
SO PLEASE, not for me, BUT FOR YOU
DECIDE if you would like to get HIGH
and thus POLLUTE your mind,
and thus BRAINWASH your mind,
and thus RANSACK your mind,
and thus DESTROY,
and thus KILL,
and thus VAMP,
and thus POLLUTE,
and thus BRAINWASH,
and thus DESTROY YOUR MIND — FOREVER!
And before Kynshasa has finished the last syllable, the audience is applauding, whistling, shouting. One woman yells, “Praise the Lord!” Strangers walk up to him afterward, after he has come back into this room, and shake his hand and give a hug. They were moved. They were impressed. He barely breaks a smile. The attention after a performance always bothers him. He doesn’t want praise. After all, he can’t take any credit for the words God gave him to speak.
“I said what I came to say,” he says. “I prayed that my message was received by someone. I think it was.”