Mistake House: You’re equally involved in music/performance and writing. What would you say are some of the biggest differences between writing for the page and writing music? In what ways are these artistic processes similar? Do you utilize each medium toward a different goal? What informs your choice?
A.D. Carson: Each piece dictates its own medium. There are times I start with the intention of writing a poem or a story and it just turns into a song. Similarly, there are times when I want nothing more but to write a song and then it turns into something entirely different. I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to force a piece to be something it doesn’t want to be. I’m guided by what comes out on the page whatever the case, though.
MH: As a social-rapper-poet-professor activist—that is, someone who works in varied modalities—you are what’s called a “hyphenate.” Do you ever feel pressure, from within or without, to narrow the fields in which you work? How do multiple platforms complement or obstruct your process? Magnify your voice or diminish it?
ADC: It’s only an issue working in so many modes when I’m asked how I see myself as an artist…like, “Are you a poet? Are you a rapper? A novelist?” There’s no pressure to narrow, though. I’d actually love to be able to do more, honestly. Not everyone digs poetry or rap or prose, so I would love to get into doing other things. I’ve tried my hand at screenwriting and children’s books. Can’t hurt to do more. I’m all about learning and trying and failing and trying some more.
MH: How do you view or distinguish between your three different roles: author, performance artist, and educator? How do these roles impact one another? For instance, how does your teaching career inform your writing practice/performance and vice versa?
ADC: They’re all education in a form—and I mean that I’m being taught. I learn so much from doing the writing and the recording and the research and the lesson planning. And they all produce similar results, ideally. The performances of each are different, but they have much more in common for me than they differ.
MH: In your essay “Oedipus-Not-So-Complex: A Blueprint for Literary Education,” from Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King, you speak about the fact that you had to advocate for the usefulness of hip-hop pedagogy as relevant to the study of literature. Can you explain this relevance to our readers?
ADC: Hip-Hop Culture affects so many people. It seems natural to bring that influence into the classroom to meet students where many of them have a wealth of experience to offer. In that essay I really just want to try to make that kind of relationship more accessible to folks who might not have thought of using Hip-Hop in their classrooms.
Since writing that, I’ve really been thinking about the ways professors, teachers, and students might consider Hip-Hop artists as scholars who are theorizing through their work rather than only considering their work as objects to study.
MH: Will you describe your PhD research and dissertation and talk about the ways in which they are unconventional? During your visit to Principia, you mentioned some of the challenges you faced while getting approval for your dissertation. What advice do you have for other creative scholars as they might try to “buck the system” in order to do truly original scholarly work or employ alternative processes?
ADC: Funny you use the term “buck.” My work is about Black voices and their use when disconnected from the Black bodies from which they come. Simply put, I’m trying to do the work I mentioned earlier—trying to demonstrate how an artist might theorize through Hip-Hop, rap, and spoken word poetry. I would advise any creative scholar to continue to try to push those boundaries. It benefits the entire academic community to continue to interrogate those ideas of what is and is not “proper.” I’m also really interested in raising the questions that make us rethink how access to our academic institutions might change as we reconsider what counts as “scholarly research.” Particularly, I think it’s interesting that we have someone like Nas, whose name is associated with the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship at Harvard. I don’t know if 17-year-old Nas would be admitted to Harvard to participate in that fellowship program.
MH: In the beginning of COLD, you explicitly state that you did not want your writing to be about yourself. Why was this a concern for you? How did addressing this concern affect your creative process?
ADC: Hip-Hop does this, I think. The reasons I relate to lots of my favorite songs are that they have a great deal to do with being able to see myself in the stories that are told or being able to identify with the “I” in some way. I wanted COLD to work the same way. In a lot of ways, writing the book was like writing an album with fairly extensive liner notes that include poetry and prose.
MH: Yet, some of your writing contains autobiographical elements. In your work, how do memoir/realism and fiction rely on and appropriate content from one another? Do you have an ethic regarding what is fictionalized and what remains factual evidence in your content?
ADC: Again, I like to think of my approach as something fairly common in Hip-Hop. There are these “real” elements that are rendered differently by the kinds of tellings I choose to employ. I don’t know if I really think too consciously about it. I imagine that might present many problems for some audiences. I do try to present certain elements “how they happened” by utilizing other kinds of media in conjunction with what I’m creating. I’m not so sure if that qualifies as “factual evidence” if it’s working with something that might be fictionalized, though. That’s a good question.
MH: Mistake House Magazine not only engages with the concept of process, but through our invitation to enjoy the content “with your feet up,” we obliquely reference Kurt Vonnegut’s statement that a short story is a “Buddhist catnap,” a place of psychic reintegration. However, in your poem “See the Stripes,” you challenge the notion of the work of art as a solitary, individualist place. Instead, you assert the need to be socially engaged, as in your lines: “And if that/ is an uncomfortable truth for the institution, so be it. / These are the stripes we bear…” Could you elaborate on the necessity or ability to sit (or stand) in the company of uncertainty, doubt, and uncomfortable truths?
ADC: Those truths have to become a place we visit often. The present moment we live in sits firmly on the days that have come before it, and the days to come will rest upon today. I don’t know if certainty, assuredness, or comfort should be our primary concerns with regard to whether we sit or stand in or around those truths.
I had tried so many times to articulate the things that come up in that poem for an entire semester before that piece came. I just let it come to me…and it wasn’t a comfortable process. I took it with me to Switzerland to the European Graduate School—about an hour or so away from where Baldwin wrote “Stranger in the Village.” I embraced feeling like a stranger in my new home [Clemson], a stranger in Switzerland, and a stranger to myself/the process of writing the piece. What the piece is asking for also went into its creation.
MH: What do you have to say to the young writer (or, musician, artist, etc.) who wants to know why creative work is relevant?
ADC: I say keep doing the work you love doing. Loving doing it is the reason it’s relevant.
MH: As a visiting writer at Principia College, you spoke about the various cultural and historical references made by other artists in their work, such as in rap music. Your own work also focuses on culture and history. For example, your artistic focus seems to rest on not only places you’ve inhabited, such as your childhood neighborhood or the universities you’ve attended, but more specifically on the history in these places. To what extent do you draw on your surroundings and their history for inspiration and motivation for your work?
ADC: The spaces and places we find ourselves in have stories that we should be deliberate about listening to. I just try to be attentive. South Carolina—Clemson, particularly—gives an entirely different vibe than Illinois. It’s only natural that what I create here reflect that. I don’t even try to resist that.
MH: When did your work begin to reflect ideas about social justice? Did this intention first emerge when you endeavored to be a professional rapper as a high school student? Do you remember a particular image or instance that ignited this passion?
ADC: Art, for me, has always been a way to make a comment about whatever circumstances moved me or connected to me emotionally. The notion that the world could be better, and therefore we should help however we can to make it so, wasn’t triggered by any particular moment or image. I do, however, remember one of my cousins, when we were fairly young, remixing a gospel song, “Jesus on the Mainline,” on a hot summer day to try to convince my grandmother to give us freeze pops. His version, I’m sure, was “If you want a freeze pop / tell Him what you want.” Not exactly social justice, but it got us all freeze pops.
MH: In your song, “Familiar” you write, “For the beatings, the treatment, the rapings, the hangings and lynchings/ I hope that we can be forgiven/ I never lived it, but boy, it’s familiar.” Many social analysts believe we are now in a second nadir of race relations in the United States. Do you agree with this assessment? What are some of the parallels you see between the present and the past? What is our hope for the future?
ADC: “Familiar” was really just my way of demonstrating that we haven’t really made as much progress as we’d like to think. The verses are deliberately variations of the same thing…I always thought Langston Hughes’ “Dream Variations” was a dope poem for that reason. I imagine that if we don’t learn from the past, we can be certain our future will look familiar. My hope is that we use history as a means of understanding the present. If we’re diligent about that, perhaps the future will look different. It’s disheartening to me that James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time reads like it could have been written in 2016.
MH: What would you say are the main problems affecting gender equality and women in the African-American community, and how would you address them? How can Hip Hop culture, poetry, and fiction support African-American women in their fight for social justice?
ADC: You’ve asked several questions here that take lots of time and consideration to work through, I think. The acknowledgment of gender inequality is a good place to start. For example, we find ourselves in conversations about the deaths of Black boys and men often, and it seems Black girls and women get left out of the conversation a bit too easily, too conveniently. We should be diligent about saying their names, allowing their stories to be told, and fighting for justice for them as ardently as we do for anyone else.
With regard to Hip-Hop culture, poetry, and fiction helping Black women fight for social justice, I think those modes are vehicles capable of working in the same ways they do for men. Our stories have to reflect the experiences of our world, whether it’s rap, poetry, or fiction. And the storytellers have to be reflective of the people who exist in those worlds.
I certainly have lots more to read and learn and experience so I can be better about doing better in my writing and my living. I have to be better about listening and learning and doing what I can where I can to help however I can. I don’t know if I can speak for all of Hip-Hop culture, but I think the desire for and work toward understanding, after the acknowledgment of the necessity of much work needing to be done, is a start.
MH: You have faced criticism, and even harassment, after launching your See the Stripes project at Clemson University. How have you dealt with some of the negative voices or criticism in response to your work as an artist or in response to your political activism with See the Stripes? How have these experiences affected you as a person and an artist?
ADC: Don’t read the comments section on anything. That’s the best advice I have about that. The negativity gives me the energy to persist. I don’t always feel that way, of course. But I just try my best not to give it too much time and attention. I’ve said this before, but my grandmother said, “Don’t let people live in your head rent free.”
MH: Let’s talk about some of your influences and inspirations. You’ve mentioned Gwendolyn Brooks as an important influence and source of inspiration. How has Brooks influenced your development as a writer?
ADC: Gwendolyn Brooks influenced me enormously simply by being so generous with her time and attention. She talked to me, she read my writing, and she encouraged me to continue with it. When a writer of her stature tells you that you should write, that you are a poet, it’s much easier to push back that doubt that stops you from creating and sharing and such. I can’t thank her enough for being that someone to me and to so many other artists she inspired.
MH: At Principia College, you also discussed Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. Can you explain why you feel this particular album is significant?
ADC: Rereading Ellison’s Invisible Man while listening to TPAB made that album a great experience for me. There are so many layers and connections that can be explored with just those two works. The album helped me make sense of the book in some ways I would not have considered otherwise. I’ll always think of IM when I hear “What’s the yams?” on “King Kunta.”
MH: In the forward of COLD, your former professor A.A. Rhapperson describes how the conformity and rigidity in academia caused her to become disinterested in her work, to lose her drive. She said she was “fakin’ the funk.” As her student, you reminded her of the joy of writing and the optimism she once possessed. As you’ve gone through a PhD process and worked professionally as a writer and teacher, how have you continued to “live the funk”? What practices do you incorporate into your creative process to continue to produce, and then share, lively work?
ADC: The best way for me to stay “true” is to do what I like. I could be oversimplifying. But I really just try to learn every day and be honest with myself and my work. It’s much harder than it sounds sometimes, but I really just try to do work that pushes me in those ways.
MH: In your talk at Principia, you mentioned addiction and in one case said something about addiction being a necessity. Can you elaborate on this idea?
ADC: Perhaps I was talking about embracing dopeness, since addiction is such a big part of our lives. I’d referenced Talib Kweli’s line, “I speak at schools a lot ‘cause they say I’m intelligent./ No. It’s ‘cause I’m dope. If I was wack I’d be irrelevant.” I mentioned it to call for dopeness rather than wackness. I can’t imagine many folks would stand in opposition to that. My hope is to just do dope work.
MH: You also stated, “sleep does not stop the process.” What exactly do you mean by this and in what way does your creative process continue during sleep? And if your work doesn’t stop even for sleep, where and how does your creative process find rejuvenation?
ADC: There was a point when I used to keep a notebook by my bed to write things down in the middle of the night. I use an app on my phone now. It seems stranger than it actually is, I suppose, but if I’m working on a piece and I get stuck, sometimes sleep allows all the cords to detangle. I’m pretty sure I wrote the entire “Golliwog” song asleep.
MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
ADC: I really enjoy writing and recording, so when I have time, those are the things I do. I get my fair share of terrible TV shows in here and there, as well. And naps on my recliner—that’s definitely a thing.