North Carolina has retained a poet laureate for nearly seven decades. In that time, however, North Carolina has never had an African-American poet laureate.
Dasan Ahanu can barely imagine a scenario where that might happen.
"There is a whole group of faith-based and spoken-word poets of color that aren't necessarily thought of in these situations," Ahanu, the Durham-based poet, playwright and educator, told me last summer.
Gov. Pat McCrory had recently appointed Valerie Macon to the poet laureate position, in spite of a paltry publishing résumé. The move met strong, swift controversy. I asked Ahanu, or Christopher D. Massenburg, for his take on the debacle not long after Macon resigned in response to "negative attention."
"Would an artist like myself really be considered for the position?" Ahanu said, noting the state's availability of prominent, overlooked African-American poets, including Jaki Shelton Green. "Is that something that could be aspired to in North Carolina? What response would my appointment bring?"
Amid the fallout, McCrory installed Shelby Stephenson as the state's new poet laureate. A retired UNC-Pembroke professor who writes country music songs, pens pieces about hunting possums and lives on a family farm where his great-great grandfather owned African-American slaves, Stephenson seemed more qualified than Macon. But it was a conservative, safe move.
By contrast, Ahanu was an assistant professor at Raleigh's historically black Saint Augustine's University. He records with rappers, writes championship-caliber slam poetry and is the president of the local Black Jedi Chapter of the worldwide hip-hop organization Universal Zulu Nation. That is, too black to speak for the state, despite his efforts to put poetry to work in North Carolina.
But this summer, Ahanu, 41, got his validation: He received a letter from Harvard University's Hiphop Archive & Research Institute, naming him a 2015–2016 Nasir Jones Hiphop fellow. He accepted. Then, in August, just weeks before Ahanu nabbed the keys to his office inside the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, he received a rejection letter from the North Carolina Arts Council. He hadn't been chosen for its 2015–2016 Artist Fellowship Award. He missed out on a National Education Association Foundation grant, too.
"I didn't get these but I got the Harvard Fellowship," he wrote on social media. "Next time it will be something else. This is the life I chose and love. We push."
Since September, Ahanu has pushed his way back and forth from the Triangle to Cambridge, juggling performances within the state's tightly knit spoken-word poetry circuit with lugging stacks of research across Harvard's campus. He has cozied up to Ivy League intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kellie Jones and Elizabeth Alexander.
Despite his background as a professor of English and creative writing, Ahanu admits his introduction to Harvard's intense pedagogical environment caught him by surprise.
"Each discipline had its beginning-of-the-semester programming. So there were all of these speakers and receptions and talks. It took me a while to not feel like I was spinning around in circles," says Ahanu, strolling across campus in Cambridge. "Everything is happening at a high level. It's not like I haven't been in an intellectual space before, but to have so much happening at one time is a lot."
Ahanu has adjusted. In early November, he delivered his first presentation at Harvard for a colloquium called "Shots Fired: Examining a Lyrical Canon." A week later, at neighboring Northeastern University, he delivered the same lecture at the request of Murray Forman, a Northeastern professor and the co-editor of the classroom-canonized text That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ahanu used the talks as a testing ground for the ideas he'll examine in a forthcoming paper meant to balance institutional and on-the-ground perceptions of hip-hop lyricism.
"What hip-hop heads talk about in terms of lyrics is not the same as what scholars talk about," says Ahanu. "My perspective will be different because I actually touch the art and touch the culture on a regular basis."
Indeed, Ahanu is as devoted to praxis as he is to theory. Before he left for Harvard, he released the spoken-word album Last Temptation Before Sunrise: the prologue. He recently completed his first play, HERstory through HIS Eyes, too. The script elaborates on some of Ahanu's emotionally charged poetry as narrative devices for two women, Kim and Tina, escapees of abusive relationships. Rooted in Ahanu's anti-violence activism with the organization Men Against Rape Culture, the play debuted in October at Common Ground Theatre.
The play borrows heavily from his personal experiences of watching his father's alcoholism and violent habits rip his family apart, moments that had informed his poetry for two decades. Putting the pain on stage placed it in a new perspective.
"When I started doing the work, I started to discover the survivors that were in my life" says Ahanu. "I've had partners and been in relationships with people who are survivors. It made me see how impactful [domestic and sexual violence] is."
Ahanu returned to Durham for HERstory's premiere, but his academic obligations in Cambridge meant he handed the directiorial duties to actress Debrita Channelle. Ahanu also took a step back from his coaching responsibilities with the Bull City Slam Team and hosting duties at Hayti Heritage Center's monthly Jambalaya Soul Slam event in order to head to Harvard.
Already, he's eager to return to Durham after completing the one-year residential portion of the fellowship.He'll still have a two-year non-residential allotment left, giving him access to the Hutchins Center's archives for his lyricism thesis.
But by resuming his weekly City Soul Cafe open-mic event in Raleigh or his Radical Voice and Artistic Expression workshop at Durham's Carrack Modern Art, he hopes to help build incubators for his fellow and future writers, not simply ponder the texts of his predecessors. Perhaps one day, one of them can even hold the highest written-word job in the land.
"My goal is to empower artists to have a conversation within an academic and scholarly setting that will help them validate their own art. We can do that," says Ahanu. "Artists can walk in those spaces that they didn't feel like were open to them and articulate why they should be there."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rhyming reason"