How Discussing the Call/Response in Jaki Shelton Green’s “The Messengers” Is Inspiring and Producing New Volumes of Poetry in Our Oral Tradition
“Dr.” Don Mizell has been at the game of life for awhile - and he’s played it at a high level, with that black man je ne se qois, that cool swagger. Everywhere he’s went, he’s laid tracks and put up big signs. His name may not be automatically known, but his work is. He graduated Harvard Law School in 1975 and while practicing intellectual property law, developed the successful marketing strategy for the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. In fact, he was the author of Stevie Wonder’s speech launching the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In 1977 and 1978 he coined the term “Jazz Fusion” and then made a record label from the music art form. From 1980 to 2002, he worked in the music industry as producer and artist management, helping to shape the American sound at the end of the 20th century with jazz, reggae and soul artists as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Morris Day, the Braxton Brothers, Kevin Toney and DeBarge.
It’s no secret though, African culture is rooted deep in the oral traditions. Call it poetry slam competitions, church singing or Hip Hop. Matter of fact, writing had not been developed in mankind’s original tradition - didn’t need to be. During one of my many chats with Don, we discussed this too. Those who know, know - African culture, talking and singing have been used to convey systems, beliefs, feelings and life. This is African technology, elemental and original - the acquisition and creative utilization of knowledge - the only one we ever needed. This tradition is as old as time itself. Maybe we call it the world wide music industry which derives itself from our melodies, syllables and rhythms . These days, it’s called Hip Hop but it has also been R&B, jazz, soul, blues, classical and rock and roll. African storytelling, the art of conveying our original culture is American culture and by extension, world culture.
So, when I originally spoke with Mr. Don Mizell and asked him about his return to poetry and the arts from music and his illustrious career, “Doc Don” as he is affectionately known, set the record straight, “I never left poetry for music or returned to it from music. I have continued to read and write poetry since the 8th grade! I have always tried to wax poetic in whatever medium I communicate in. But I stopped doing readings in the 80s and 90s.” This man has been in touch with himself and the master source that is a vibrational frequency within us all for a long, long time.
Doc Don’s alma mater, Swarthmore College positively proofed his early poetic powers with an entry in the 1969 Black Liberation Archive with a first place finish for his work, “...at the Crossroads Now”. And, more often when we speak, touching basis on Jaki Shelton Green, blacks in classical music or his business philosophies (something about enjoying himself), the conversations invariably end in expressions of poetry. “Hey man,” Doc says, licks of fun falling off his tongue, “Hold still. I want to say something to you...” And he will intone, staccatoed, from a voice straight out of time, like the 60’s and those beat poets -
It was cold here,/ And it was getting colder./The ice had scoured long ago./Smothering a warm belly.
So, when the Fire came up,/Came searing and roaring,/ Scorching and soaring,/ I melted in a flash/ From frozen frenzy:
A burnt heart/Aflame/Anew!
And I knew again/What only Lovers know./How Me becomes We./ And Why. --- © Don Mizell
What do you say after something like that? So we laugh, between men, a laugh that is old with knowing and remembering. One of the first times we spoke, introduced by North Carolina artisan and Swathmore alumni, Donata Guerra, we were discussing North Carolina Hall of Fame inductee Jaki Shelton Green’s place as Poet of the People and her work with hundreds of souls through the rhythms of cosmic poetry. Specifically we discussed her work ,”The Messengers”.
who will be the messenger of this land/ count its veins/ speak through the veins/ translate the language of water/ navigate the heels of lineage/ who will carry this land in parcels/ paper, linen, burlap/ who will weep when it bleeds and hardens/ forgets to birth itself
who will be the messenger of this land/ wrapping its stories carefully/ in patois of creole, irish,/ gullah, twe, tuscarora/ stripping its trees for tea/ and pleasure/ who will help this land to/ remember its birthdays, baptisms/ weddings, funerals, its rituals/ denials, disappointments,/ and sacrifices
who will be the messengers of this land/ harvesting its truths/ bearing unleavened bread/ burying mutilated crops beneath/ its breasts
who will remember/ to unbury the unborn seeds/ that arrived/ in captivity/ shackled, folded,/ bent, layered/ in its bowels
we are their messengers/ with singing hoes/ and dancing plows/ with fingers that snap/ beans, arms that/ raise corn, feet that/ cover the dew falling from okra, beans, tomatoes/ we are these messengers/ whose ears alone choose/ which spices/ whose eyes alone name/ basil, nutmeg, fennel, ginger,/ cardamom, sassafras/ whose tongues alone carry/ hemlock, blood root, valerian, damiana, st. john's wort these roots that contain its pleasures its languages its secrets
we are the messengers/ new messengers arriving as mutations of ourselves/ we are these messengers/ blue breath/ red hands/ singing a tree into dance
© Jaki Shelton Green
This work interests me because I am always interested in ways the country can come together positively and for a greater future. Things are so tense, violent and divided now. The morning after November 8th, I am talking with both Jaki and Don. There are a lot of wake up calls that morning. But this isn't the time to lie down and lick wounds- I can hear it in Don and Jaki’s timbre as they talk. There is an unmistakable authority in their voice and it is colored with pride and knowing. It's time to know who we are and stand tall in our truths. We are, after all, the messengers. Listening to veterans of the Civil rights era Jaki Shelton Green and Don Mizell, reminds me of listening to my two parents, two professors go back and forth when I was younger. They remind me that we have not only seen this before, but seen much worse- so it's time to stand tall and stand together. We have the vision, spiritual awakening and network, the know and the do.
Doc Don tells me he loves Jaki’s “The Messengers”, something about it tripping him out. “I really dig it.” He might have even said something about it being “dope”. Anyhow, all of this work on the American system and African traditions have myself and big bro Doc Don talking poetry to one another, he continues, with The Seekers-
The Seekers converge/ In the heat of the heart/ Clamorous sounds/ Jut hot in their wake./ On pages of pain/ And lies to forget.
Dancing across/ Moonlight's sonata,/Chanting to Heaven/ Yearning for Light.
Spinning in wonder,/ Naked and wet./ Deep in the vortex/ The Om not yet kept. --- © Don Mizell
Don continues to talk to me about his work, “The collection I am assembling for publication covers my work from 1969. Some of it is ABOUT music. Some of it is essentially musical. All of it has musical spirit. I don't dichotomize music and poetry. Especially spoken word works.” There is a system in place already for this spoken word and it is ancient. One just needs to listen to the spirit. Doc Don knows his systems - he continues with A Way -
Make room for Rumi/ Take time for Space/ Move to that Place/ Where only Love lives.
Be kind, and find Hope--- Above The toss of lost Love.
Stay true to You./Hear your heart./Make a fresh start./The path will unfold,/Play your part.
Believe,/ and receive/ The blessings of/Faith, divining.
—© Don Mizell
What do we say to these times? What do I have to say about Doc Don Mizell’s “The Way” and Jaki Shelton Green’s “The Messengers?”
Messengers From The Way
We, the messengers/ write our blues songs,/ blessed. We the messengers/right the earth's wrongs.
Oh, immortal/soul. Waves splashed/ over choral singing as Mizell,/"Jalāl ad-Dīn/ Muhammad Rūmī-/Mystic Persian/ and Theologian..."
We, the messengers/are the prophets- the products/from immortal pyramids./We the messengers/turn on all the lights-/all of them blacklights in broad daylight
shining at night, opening sights/buzzing, giving flight/to Black souls, amassed/from the singular/ to Holy Spirit/to African bazaar./We are the Messengers/unfurled from mind of griot queen Jaki./We are the ministers of epiphanies.
These are powers,/ours, but the Truth/ is messenger/ we take without proof-/ LOVE! says Mizell/ musically/Hope condensed really~/Kindness do tell!
Of the Messengers,/says Rumi, raise words!/The messengers are/rain, giving rise to soul flowers./On these frequencies,/we the natives sing/of knowing peace/from the Lion of Kings.
We the messengers/carry the spiritual deed./We the messengers/openly bleed.
— © Patrick A. Howell
Now, what is there to say after “The Messengers from The Way”? Well, that’s the tradition, the oral tradition we messengers now at times write. Like I already said, we call it song, music, poetry, hip hop and poetry slams. We call it novels, libraries, knowing and universities. But we are only devices for a story outside of time. We are only great souls, universal hearts, standing on a path that has no beginning and no end. We the messengers- Griot Jaki, Big Bro Doc Don and myself, aka Dubois Duex- come from around the way, with our sweet ways, post the signs and write the times.
Yes... I said we right the times.