Moore has recently released her first album of poetry set to music, Black Tea: the Legend of Jessi James. It’s a rich album, full of Moore’s arresting lyrics and the stellar musicianship of artists like Roy Ayers and Paris James. I had a chance to catch up with her on UpFront Soul.
I’m speaking with Jessica Care Moore. Jessica is the youngest poet featured in the Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women’s Literature, alongside Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Octavia Butler, and Alice Walker. Thank you so much for joining us here on UpFront Soul! Could you tell me a little bit about your new album, Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James?
JCM: Black Tea is a long time coming for me. I’ve been working with poetry and music for a long time, trying to find the sonic balance between my voice and my recording. I experimented a lot with rock & roll, punk rock, drum & bass, jungle, when I was in New York City, and putting my work over hip-hop beats, just trying to find the right balance in it all. I moved back to Detroit after being gone for 12 years, living in Brooklyn & Harlem, and 7 years in Atlanta, GA, went home and connected with musicians in Detroit. John Dixon is an amazing pianist who plays with Timeline, which is an electric jazz, techno thing he does with Mike Banks out of Detroit. I connected with the Detroit techno community and John was one of those people, and we sat down together and he listened to my voice and wrote the chords around the words. It made me slow down a bit. If people are familiar with my work, they’re used to it being pretty rapid fire. So I slowed my voice down and my pacing down so I could tell the story in a different way, in a more mature way. Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is the culmination of that coming together. It’s a quartet, recorded live in Detroit at the Detroit Techno Museum, so it was recorded in a very historic place in Detroit. I recorded it Motown style: the band was right in the other room and I was inside a booth, and we did most of it in a few takes, maybe one take on some of the songs. A couple of the songs were produced later, when I connected with Talib [Kweli]and decided we would do the record on his label. We’ve added a couple more songs, one in particular, “Catch Me If You Can,” that he sent from one of his producers, that wound up being a really great song on the album. I’m excited; it’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my voice. I’ve recorded with other people a lot, with Antonio Hart on “Here I Stand” many years ago on Impulse, and on Nas’s Nastradamus in 1999, and I’ve never really liked what anyone’s done with my voice. I’ve never even liked what I was doing with it. When I started to record my rock & roll album in Detroit, I didn’t like the way it was sounding. It made me stop and really think about what I wanted to do. I think I did what I was supposed to do with this one, and I’m excited about it.
What is it like working with Roy Ayers?
JCM: I’ve known Roy Ayers since I was very young. I’ve been performing with him live since the 90s. I did a lot of gigs with him at S.O.B.’s… once he was aware of who I was and knew my work, anytime I was in the audience, Roy always brought me on stage with him at some point to read a poem with him live while he was on vibes, so it’s something that we always did. [He’d say] “Jessica’s here? Okay, I’m gonna bring you on.” Since I was very young, in my early twenties. I’ve known him for such a long time, so when I realized this project was a jazz-soul sounding project, I was like, “I can’t do this without Roy Ayers on the record somewhere!” So I just reached out to him. I had his number… we did a couple gigs recently back to back over the years in Kansas City at the American Jazz Museum, and we also performed together then as well. I called him and he said yes, before I could even get it all the way out of my mouth, he was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be on your record, just send it to me.”
I can’t afford Roy Ayers. At that point, I hadn’t even hooked up with Talib yet, I was recording it based on fundraising done on a small Kickstarter to do the album on my own, just to pay the musicians out of my pocket and get it done. So I couldn’t afford Roy, but there’s this thing about defining rich, you know, rich is your relationships, so that I could call Roy Ayers and ask him to do that and for him to quickly say yes was a really big blessing for me. He’s playing vibes on “You Want Poems,” and Jose James, who’s a good friend of mine, who’s on Blue Note records now…when I saw Jose live, it really inspired me and reminded me of myself. He’s very poetic and hip-hop at the same time, and his approach on the mic, his really deep jazz voice…I was like, “I really have to approach the mic differently.” And that’s not easy for artists to do. I’m used to getting on the mic and going 700 miles per hour, doing all these verbal things with poetry and tricks and being able to say, “Ooh, I can do that.” So I had to step back away from the mic and I paid attention to a couple other people and what they were doing musically, and it helped me write this album. So yes, Roy is a gift, and I hope to see him soon so I can put this vinyl record in his hands.
How is it different to be writing poetry to be set to music, as opposed to poetry for the page or for performance?
JCM: What’s beautiful about this album, and why I think it actually works, is that the music was written to my words. So these are just poems, like “Poem Before the End of the World” or “You Want Poems,” these were poems that I wrote, they were written for the page first, and then I read them out loud to John and he listened, and he wrote the piano chords right there in the studio, and that’s how we did the album. With poetry, the music’s already in the lyrics. If you just listen to the poem, the musicality is already there. Llike “Walking Up 158th Street:” that’s a poem from my second book; I’ve been performing that forever. And I was doing [sings] “Little brown lady with brown eyes…” the melody was in the poem already; the trumpet player is playing what my poem wrote already. My voice was already doing that. So it’s just taking a musician being smart enough to actually listen to the poet or the MC or the vocalist. I did the opposite, funny enough, on “Catch Me if You Can.” When Talib sent me that track, I heard the trumpets, and I wrote exactly to the trumpets. I was just hearing the trumpet and putting words next to the sound. So that’s to me the way it works. I love the horns, and that’s a voice, too, so I was able to connect with the trumpets on the track, so that’s the only reason I like that track, ‘cause I don’t like writing the tracks. When Talib sent it to me, I was like, “Write to the track? I don’t wanna do that!” I’m glad that I did it. It was a good writing exercise for me. But I do prefer the producers to write around my work. So the writing has to be good first, for sure, and then the music is what accentuates it and takes it to another place.
Where does your inspiration come from for your writing?
JCM: I write about everything! It depends on what I’m going through. I have to be moved by something. I was joking about people asking me to write things… if you want me to write an elephant poem, I can’t just write an elephant poem, I have to be inspired in some kind of way, so you can’t be all, “I want you to write a poem about bikes!” and I’m just supposed to get excited about that. I don’t know how to do that. Something has to move me, so I’ve written about Ferguson, I’ve written about Mike Brown being killed, I’ve written for Sandra Bland, I’ve written for the children of Chicago, I’ve written about the children of Detroit. I write about being a woman, I write about children, I write about Black lives mattering, I write about politics. I have a lot of opinions about the world, and politics, and how I feel about certain things, so I write about things. I write things to celebrate people who are under-celebrated. I have a haiku on the album, “It Ain’t Like We Don’t.” It’s an homage to Etta James- it’s a blues haiku; it’s about how we don’t honor the people that inspire us the most when they’re here. That’s very important to me. Women’s voices are under-recognized, and they take everything out of artists while they’re here, and then they don’t give them the accolades truly while they’re alive, so they can pay their rent and take care of their children and have happy lives while they’re creating this work that you like to listen to and be inspired by. We shouldn’t have to die in order to get recognition… “Oh, she was,” you know? But you know, we are, and we is, and so I like writing about that. I have to be moved. I don’t write in that way, where it’s kind of mechanical. It’s not going to be a good poem, anyway.
What’s next for you, with this album behind you? Is there a new project on the horizon, or are you just basking?
JCM: I’m always working on something. I am busy with just getting people to know about Black Tea and getting the sales up. We want people to download it on iTunes and on Amazon and order it from jessicacaremoore.com and kweliclub.com. We have the vinyl and the CD there. And we even have mugs available! [laughs]I have an Afrofuturistic experimental contemporary ballet that’s going to go up at Spellman in 2016. It’s the Detroit Techno Ballet that I’ve written…we did it last year as a workshop and it went really well, so I’m excited about that. I’m working on my first book of essays, Literary Apartheid, so that’s coming, and trying to push out a memoir in 2016 as well, so I’m busy writing. And I’m working on another album, I’ve already started; I’m a couple of songs into the next music project. But I am basking a bit in this one, and I love this music. So many people haven’t heard it yet. Getting the band on the road a little bit more is my focus, just trying to get us in front of as many people as possible. Last night at the Blue Note, I had people from Colombia, from Italy, all over the place- Brazil… just kissing me and hugging me… some of them couldn’t speak English but they really were connecting with this music. I’m hoping to get it out of the country and in front of more stages and bigger audiences. So that’s always the focus. But I’m always writing, for sure, and there’s some publishing that’s going to happen. I started Moore Black Press in 1997, and there are a couple of poets that I’m hoping to put out. I’ve been trying to get Ursula Rucker to give me her manuscript for many years now. I’ve been working on that with my sister. [Ursula] is the beautiful voice on all the Roots records, but has never published a full collection of her poetry, so I’ve been talking to her about me publishing her work, and there’s another poet named Brad Woron who’s a wonderful poet out of New York City. I have his manuscript now, so I’m looking at that. I’m also doing a major anthology called Call Our Names, which is narratives and stories and poems around the 90’s poetry and hip-hop scene in New York City, which is a really pivotal time for my life and many poets and writers who are working today. There hasn’t been a comprehensive anthology that connects my work to the other visual artists and MCs and poets and activists who were here in the 90’s. A lot of us are still very much connected, but that was a really special time. I want to create an anthology piece that can be taught easily in the school system so people can teach us. A lot of these professors are teaching hip hop, but they leave out the poets of the hip-hop generation. They know how to teach hip-hop, but they don’t know how to teach the other genres of artists who were around and contributed to hip-hop culture, but just weren’t MCs necessarily, or DJs. I want to highlight some of that, and put it in some kind of historical context. So that’s gonna happen at some point. I’m always busy with writing, and I do want the publishing house to continue to stay afloat, so we’re going to do a campaign to raise money for Moore Black Press, to keep our books in print. I just haven’t given in to digital all the way yet. I’m old school; I still like books in my hand.
You are from Detroit. How has the city shaped you and what’s your relationship with it now?
JCM: I wouldn’t be the writer that I am or the person that I am if not for being from Detroit. I moved to Brooklyn in ’95, and I was 22, and I was pretty fearless in Brooklyn. My mother was terrified that I was here by myself, and I was like, “It’s cool, there’s a whole bunch of people outside.” I walked… I wasn’t really somebody that you could just walk up on. I’m not 200 pounds or anything, but there was a certain energy that I had just being from Detroit. Brooklyn and Harlem were just very comfortable places for me to be. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed being around artists, and fell in love with this place. But being from Detroit is the reason that I had the hustle that I had. I didn’t understand how I could be the first poet to think about performing in front of a Black audience in Harlem. It’s pretty absurd to me. In New York, you just have so many more stages and venues and opportunities to get in front of people, whereas in Detroit, an Apollo Theater…I would have done that stage about a thousand times, had it been in Detroit. So, little things that just kind of made sense because I was outside of it that some other poet might just not have thought about…they were probably thinking they’d get booed off the stage, but I was like, “It’s Black people in Harlem, I’ll do the poem.” I come from that. I come from nontraditional stages. I don’t come from a city full of coffeehouses and wifi everywhere. It’s a grittier city, without question. It’s more like Harlem and the Bronx. Detroit is more like that place. Not new Harlem, but the old Harlem. And even the new Detroit is not like old Detroit. The Detroit I grew up in, they’re burying it, to be honest. My relationship with Detroit now is very romantic. I love Detroit. I live downtown. It’s very gentrified, I live in a beautiful neighborhood and lovely home. It’s bittersweet. I grew up on the West Side, and the West Side was a beautiful place to live and raise children back in the day. They love me in Detroit, it’s my hometown…people come out and support my concerts when I’m there. I have no complaints about that city, except that I wish I could make a better living there, but I have to stay on the road to be able to live there. I don’t live off the Detroit economy. Otherwise I couldn’t live where I live. It’s just home. It’s just home for me. My mother lives there, my brothers and sisters are there. I’m glad my son got to grow up there. I don’t know if we’ll stay there forever, but even when I was living in Atlanta and I was in New York, I never stopped writing about Detroit, because it was such a rich, rich place for me to grow up. I’m really blessed to be from there. It’s a good place to be from.