When you meet Dasan Ahanu, you won't forget him. Not only will you not forget him, but as educator Daniella Cook put it, "Once you hear him, you want to get to know him. It's a sense of urgency." Ahanu towers over most people at an impressive 6 feet 7 inches. You will most likely have heard him command the stage at any number of spoken word events throughout the Triangle, the state or the United States. It could be argued that Ahanu is the Triangle's most ubiquitous spoken word artist--everywhere and always present.
In fact, present is a meaningful way to describe him. Whether he is hosting open mic events at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh or leading a group of Durham youth through writing activities, the poet, performer, educator and activist is always present. And his presence demands, somewhat pardoxically, your attention. While on stage his flow is vibrant; his energy as a teacher and an activist is subdued, subtle. He is soft-spoken, yet assertive. In any situation, however, his demeanor projects a kind of wisdom one might expect from an 80-year-old grandfather. And when someone like that speaks, you listen.
"For a young man, Dasan is wise beyond his years, as far as his ability to work with and relate to an array of youth who really have legitimate concerns about life itself," says Earl Matlock of P.R.O.U.D., a Durham organization that works with "at-risk teens." Ahanu taught in Matlock's after-school program this spring. "These kids would be considered troubled youth. But these are children that need a chance, and that is one of the things that Dasan gave them," says Matlock.
And perhaps Ahanu knows a thing or two about taking chances. The first poem that he ever performed was one he wrote for a weekly open mic event in Raleigh at the now defunct club Expressions. The poem was appropriately titled "Fear."
Ahanu grew up in Raleigh an only child of a single mother, and started creating poetry as soon as he could write as a way to occupy his time and explore his imagination. Despite urgings from his friends as a young college student, Ahanu felt too shy to perform his poetry. He began attending open mic events at Expressions, where he was inspired, and decided to work himself up to perform. To help him in the process, he discovered a stage name, "Dasan Ahanu," which comes from his grandmother's Cherokee roots and means, quite purposefully, "one who commands with a sense of humor."
After his first performance at Expressions, Ahanu was hooked and came back every week to perform.
"It was a connection to the crowd that hooked me," says Ahanu. "It takes me time to connect with people I meet on an everyday basis, and being able to do that onstage was amazing."
This connection is one that goes both ways. Tracy Evora, a Raleigh-based promoter for arts events, first heard him perform at Expressions and was immediately taken by him. Ahanu began hosting her spoken word event, the Cypher, two years ago. Says Evora, "People love him and totally relate to his work. He speaks of everyday situations. And metaphorically speaking, he just flips it and really challenges people."
Cook tells a story about Ahanu performing as the featured poet at the Supper Club, a restaurant in Raleigh. In a crowd of African Americans, ranging in age from their 20s to late 30s, says Cook, "He completely engaged us all in a conversation about politics, relationships, sex--all of this without being condescending."
Cook tells another story about him hosting a spoken word event at the Berkeley Cafe. "The crowd was getting rowdy and not paying attention. Dasan stopped and spun this intense poem about misogyny. The crowd went silent. And then he tells us that he just freestyled it. I was amazed."
Greensboro-based poet Safiyah Nelson says, "When Dasan performs, the spirit moves him. He believes in what he's saying. He's not just speaking about justice and truth, he's living it. You can see that in his performance. He has integrity that's in him whether he's onstage or offstage. This is why audiences connect with Dasan."
Ahanu speaks truth about a lot of things. He has found a way to infuse his poetry with his activism, and his activism with his poetry, and his ability to communicate well through his art has proven to be a vital asset to the people with whom he works. "I've been lucky to get to be on stage where poets normally don't stand and perform poetry," he says.
As one of the founding members of the activist group Hip Hop Against Racist War, he has hosted and performed at several local hip hop events to raise awareness around the war in Iraq. Speaking about the idea behind the group, Ahanu says, "From its roots, hip hop has always been an art form about resilience and overcoming. You had Black and Latino DJs coming out during a period of serious oppression. They came out to have a voice and say, 'We're going to celebrate each other'."
As an artist, he is serious about his commitment, among other things, to making the connection between rap and poetry. "I have really tried to preserve the art of poetry and spoken word. I've wanted to perform at everything from Earth Day celebrations to labor rallies. I want people to understand how powerful poetry can be--outside the scope of rap."
Although his lyrical flow and background are decidedly hip hop, perhaps one of Ahanu's most valuable qualities is his ability to connect with many different people. "He appeals to all crowd genres, and can grab their attention and keep it," says Evora. "I've seen him turn some pretty crazy crowds."
As a youth educator committed to inspiring creative expression, Ahanu's ability to connect is a crucial element that allows him to go deep with the youth he works with. "Aside from affirming their love of hip hop as an art form, as a political form, he completely flipped the kids who weren't really into it," says Cook. "I saw him take a kid who wasn't into hip hop but liked to sing, and get him so involved by pairing him up with someone writing poetry and coming up with a riff to sing along with it. Now that is amazing. Most educators are always trying to get kids to do things their way. Dasan met this kid where he was and got him to go farther."
Lopa Shah teaches with Ahanu in the Youth Document Durham summer program at the Center for Documentary Studies and says, "One of Dasan's obvious strengths is that he is an African-American male role model. It's so positive for young men to be involved with someone who is thoughtful and really aware of issues of race and gender, and with someone who they respect and can see themselves in."
As an African-American male with NBA-like height and clear identification with hip hop culture, it's also almost too easy to make assumptions about him. "He represents the quintessential mis-represented African-American male," says Cook. "He's tall, which makes him intimidating, right? He's into hip hop, which makes him dangerous, right? But he's this passionately political, powerfully endearing person who gives you a sense of hope. Watching Dasan perform is like watching hope."
Says Ahanu, "Part of it is just asking [the kids] to share and be creative. When you give them positive reinforcement that they are creative, and ask them to tell us what they think and how they're feeling, their faces light up. The same society that makes us forget them, is the same society that just doesn't ask them."
And it is the asking that is so important. It reflects an engagement and selflessness that speaks to Ahanu's commitment to the people and places that surround him.
"People who drop knowledge usually aren't humble," says Cook. "He is humble. He speaks in such a way that you are called to act. You leave his performance thinking to yourself, I gotta start communicating better with the person I'm in a relationship with, or I gotta stop shopping at Wal-Mart. He captures what a community artist is. He values his craft, cares about his community, and uses his gift to express himself, capture what is going on around him, and challenge us to make a difference."