June 14, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight
Spotlight On: Marshall Jones, “Spelling Father”
Marshall Jones is a celebrated spoken word artist whose work is exploding around the world. His unique gift runs deep into the human experience, exploring universal themes that run the gamut from identity and culture to connection and technology. Marshall performs his incredible work for audiences, collaborates with clients on customized material, and speaks with passion about the creative process–a process he understands like no one else.
Marshall has just released a new video for his poem “Spelling Father,” and it is quickly becoming an internet sensation. The poem, and a Q&A with Marshall, follow below:
What inspired you to want to be a spoken word artist?
It began when I won a Martin Luther King Oratory contest in the 8th grade. I did my best MLK impression and apparently there were people who could not get in to the hall while we were competing. I guess I was pretty good but those were someone else’s words.
What about your own?
My English teacher in high school would give us writing assignments that he wanted us to present before the class. At this point I had begun rapping and particularly battle rapping. I thoroughly enjoyed having an effect on people with words and I wanted to be the best at it. Since I didn’t think that rap would do any good during school hours, I would change my cadences and say they were poems instead.
After leaving high school, I set out to try and pursue a hip hop career. With time on my hands, I sought after open mic after open mic to test my material.
One night, in New Jersey, I heard this guy deliver a “poem.” This was like no poem I’d ever seen.The next time I’d see anything like this was the weekly Friday night slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York. When I discovered it was a competition, I was excited knowing I would have a whole night of awesomeness.
I didn’t have a whole night of awesomeness.
That pursuit didn’t quite go as planned and amidst other turmoil I had a moment on the Brooklyn Bridge that changed everything. Feeling completely discouraged and hopeless, I considered what people who feel completely discouraged and hopeless on a bridge consider.
But there was a voice.
A voice that told me to head again on down to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Considering my last experience it seemed like a stupid idea but there I was with my lackluster Nokia phone looking for directions. The journey off of the bridge and to the cafe is still a fragmented blur.
Yet I remember walking down Third Street and seeing the light beside the door, and the line to get inside. Nothing could prepare me for what I was about to witness.
First, the energy inside was on ultra. There was an electricity that you could reach for, grab, and put in your pocket in case your lights went out.
Second, it was unusually packed. Like fire-codes-may-be-violated-right-now-packed.
Something was absolutely different.
I found my seat on the second floor balcony and spent the next hour mesmerized by magic.
Here were these five poets, each of them with their own unique voice and delivery but filled to the brim with this inexplicable energy.
The crowd was going wild.
The quaint poetry cafe was an arena. An arena full of cheering fans, moved by the sheer might of each speaker.
I’d find out later, that the event was the homecoming for the 2006 Nuyorican National Slam Team. A team that featured the sixth-ranking poet in the USA. Basically, these poets were the crème de la crème of the season, and it was absolutely clear why.
I sat there, listening, and a feeling came over me: I could do this. I could do this.
I’m gonna do this.
Electrified and inspired I stayed for the after show open mic that allows the spectators a chance to “spit.” I got onstage and did something I can’t even remember. What I do remember, is one of the young ladies from the power house of a team I had just witnessed came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re dope.” The rest is history…..
Any advice for aspiring spoken word artists?
Be Observant. Find compassion.
How do you prepare before a performance? Any special rituals? A good luck talisman?
Typically, I quiet down. There’s something about the calm before the storm that I believe holds true for us as much as it does for nature. An old friend helped me find that silence and be okay with it. It’s helped ever since.
Do you have an especially memorable event you can tell us about?
“Spelling Father” was written for my mom for Mother’s Day in 2007. When I wrote it, it was, first, a reflection of my life and, second, what I felt was a deep part of the African American experience.
Most of my performances of that piece for a while were within the confines of my community. A place where the legend ran deep. Fathers leave. Mothers stay. Then as I began, performing in say, the Midwest, my perspective burst wide open.
I’ll never forget the day that a young sophomore from Colorado Mesa University said to me, “You know, that poem really touched me. My father left when I was three and I didn’t know how to tell my mother how much I appreciated her until today, thank you.”
She was white. Until that point I thought this was just a piece I had in my repertoire.
But it is moments like that where you realize the work is bigger than you.
Is there a charitable cause that you feel passionate about? Why?
A nine-year-old girl from California was moved by photos of children enduring the hardships of child slavery. So much so, that she began a lemonade stand. A lemonade stand that has raised over a million dollars towards ending child slavery. Did I mention she was nine?
If you had to choose a new career, what would it be?
Desert island album:
Songs in The Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
Best subject in school?
Last book you read?
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
The last move you saw?
In Time, starring Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake