TALKING WITH PHILLY SOUL POETESS URSULA RUCKER ON HER FIFTH ALBUM “SHE SAID”
As a poet and performance artist, Ursula Rucker has enchanted critics and fans across the globe with her diverse repertoire, captivating vocals and accessible poetic verse.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, she began documenting her observations of the world when she was just a girl. A graduate of Temple University’s journalism program, Ursula kept her creative writing as a prized, personal possession until she was prepared to share with the world. In 1994, she introduced an open-mic night audience at Philadelphia’s Zanzibar Blue to the beauty and urgency of her poetry.
Word quickly spread throughout the city of Ursula’s poetry and stage performance, which has been described as “strong, vulnerable, wounded and raging.” Producer King Britt invited her to create her first recording, the 1994 single, “Supernatural” (Ovum/Slip N Slide UK).
Critics have compared Ursula to celebrated writers like Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. Coincidentally, when Ntozake Shange was unable to provide The Roots with a spoken word contribution for their debut album Do You Want More?!!?!! (Geffen, 1994), they called on her to fit the bill. “The Unlocking”, which closed the album, introduced Ursula to the world of progressive hip-hop and led to subsequent invitations to close The Roots follow-up albums Iladelph Halflife (Geffen, 1996) and Things Fall Apart (MCA, 1999).
The alluring poetic tales Ursula created for The Roots contain subject matter that was motivated by genuine concern and heightened consciousness. Whether exploring sexual exploitation as in “The Unlocking” or introducing the lifestyle of a crack-dealing single mother in “Adventures in Wonderland”, Ursula provided listeners with an intimate glimpse of urban reality.
Ursula’s work has been described as part of a growing movement that is slowly adapting its aural sensibilities to women, particularly in the hip-hop and urban music. Counteracting male artists who casually linger on tales of black whoredom, Ursula plays an essential role in the rise of a new crop of female recording artists who deliver strong, intelligent, and visionary feminine flavor.
In countless reviews, many critics cite the value of Ursula’s work with The Roots, 4 HERO and others. The onslaught of press inquiries resulted in nods, features and demands for more of her work, in URB, VIBE, XXL, Panache, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Straight No Chaser.
To date, Ursula has performed her work at an array of venues, universities, and festivals including Montreaux Jazz Festival, Winter Music Conference, Theater of the Living Arts, Painted Bride Art Center, World Café Live, and Drexel University. Ursula has toured with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, SYLK130, and 4 HERO in the United States and Europe.
In 2001, her !K7 debut Supa Sista featured production by 4Hero, King Britt and Jonah Sharp and introduced Ursula as a talented poet and solo artist with a strong lyrical voice. Backed again by an assembly of diverse, top shelf producers that included The Roots, Louie Vega and Jazzanova, her 2003 release, Silver or Lead further extended her exploration of self, race and femininity. With ma’at mama, Ursula once again showed a new level of maturity in her writing. Never one to mince words, she exposes various personal insights and truths with steel-cut precision.
While her perspective as a proud mother of four informs much of the content; her understanding of her own upbringing drives her work. Ursula’s albums are poetry in motion, guided by a time signature that speaks to the human experience with honesty and poignancy.
Ursula, a global activist, enlightens in the recording studio and at her powerful live shows. In 2005 she headlined the FREEDOM Festival in Australia, to raise awareness for Amnesty Internationals global Stop Violence Against Women campaign.
She recently completed an epic poem for a collaboration with Pullitzer-prize winning photographer Clarence Williams. She has received funding from the Leeway Foundation and in 2010 was named a Creative Ambassador by the City of Philadelphia.
Her new album, SHE SAID (Noizeyboy Records) is her fifth solo album, and is executive produced by Anthony Tidd, of Noizetrip, for Noizeyboy Records. This is Ursula’s first recording to feature a live in the studio session and focuses on Ursula’s well honed skill and prowess as an improv performance vocalist.
Ursula Rucker believes that art and poetry are catalysts for change. Her mission and calling is to heal herself, the planet, and its people through her art. While she sees the world as her community, she pays particular attention to the world of women, indigenous/diasporic people, and sufferers of injustice. Her poetry tells the stories of struggle, love, womanhood, peace, anger, injustice, and spirituality. As an artist who has performed in many continents, countries, classrooms, and community centers, Ursula sees herself as an ambassador of culture, socio-political issues, truth, and love.
MundoVibe’s John C. Tripp spoke with the warm, friendly and funny poetess from her Philadelphia home.
MV: I want to ask you firstly about the entire recording, “She Said” and then more specifically about the subjects you address, which are always very pertinent and very dead-on. You worked with Anthony Tidd on this, can you just give the low-down on how that came together?
UL: Well, Anthony Tidd executive produced my last album which I did when I was on K7. We knew each other but that’s the first time we actually worked together and came to know him very well and really appreciate and respect his artistry as well as his work ethic, because he is sensitive enough and balances it out with efficiency and he’s very proficient at engineering and the recording-producing. But also, he plays the bass, he’s an amazing musician. So he understands all the elements. He respects what I do, I respect what he does and there’s a nice relationship. This is actually his idea, to do a live in-studio album.
MV: I heard you saying in another interview, ‘wow this sounds live’ and then a moment later you said ‘but it is live!’.
UR: I know, I keep saying that. I got beat up last year with the logistics of trying to put a record out on your own. I took essentially a whole year to put it out last week (laughs). The recording of it only took, all together, a week maybe two. So, to take this long beats you up a little bit. You kind of have to step back a few times and take a breath you know? So, when I listen to it I’m like ‘yeah, this is a good record dammit!’ (laughs). I mean, when you are doing this for so long – sixteen years for me – it’s still enjoyable but sometimes you feel like you can’t do anything new but this is new for me. I never did this (live) before and it sounds fresh. That helps me to keep moving forward.
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MV: Absolutely. I’ve been listening to your music since you worked with 4 Hero, and this is your fifth album, that’s quite a landmark. You really have a body of work now and how does it feel to be at number five?
UR: That feels great. I will be honest and say it’s also conundrum because once you’ve been doing this for so long and it’s what you do for a living you sit there and think how can you match your body of work and your professionalism and your belief in the artform and everything that it means to you with actually making money? (laughs) It’s kind of weird because you’re in this place of gratitude for what you’ve been able to do and the opportunities that you’ve had and places you’ve been. And then I’m also like ‘wow, I’m at a certain age, I have my four sons ‘ and this is the fifth record. So, it’s like ‘what does that mean in the big spectrum of things?’ I like looking at that which I probably shouldn’t because it always messes you up.
MV: Well, you do have to pay the bills.
UR: Yeah, you can’t just go all willy-nilly just floating through life. It’s definitely a bug-out to be a poet to start and doing open mics and readings at little coffee shops, little artist spots and taking it from there to here. I have to shake my head and be like ‘wow, really?’
MV: When you look at the work you’ve done and the people you’ve collaborated with it’s really amazing. There are people in there that I hold in the highest regard, from 4 Hero to the Roots. You’ve definitely got the Philly thing going on because you started with King Britt and you’re still in Philly. You’re a straight-up Philly girl then?
UR: Oh yeah (laughs). All the way around, in and out, all day. Yes yes, I love my city with all of its amazingness and not so amazingness. You know, everybody complains about where they live or where they’re from but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m proud to be from Philly and I always will be.
MV: Your voice is so powerful and your message is so strong and powerful. And you can be very bold and blunt and then you can also really show a vulnerable side. Words clearly mean a lot to you?
If I have to cuss somebody out then I have to cuss them out. I can also sound real sweet and sexy and talk about love. Or I can be real wild and talk about love.
UR: Yeah, you pretty much summed it up! They really do. You know, the words and what you convey is really everything to me. It’s in my daily life, every day. I might not be writing poems every day because I’m busy and it’s just not like that anymore. Before I had kids I did. But they’re always there, all these thoughts floating around in my brain or phrases, ideas, things I want to address. It’s always a long list in my head.
MV: And what sparks you to note something that you want to write about? Could it be something on TV or some experience or some thought?
UR: Anything, it just happens to be how I’m built. I don’t think it’s anything I really plan, it just happens. It’s how I receive images, information, it gets translated into words or thoughts or what-have-you. It could be something I see around the corner. Like there’s one of these last highrise projects right around the corner in Philly where I live and this particular street is notorious forever. My father told me, when he was young it was the same. I say they pipe a different into the Queen Lane houses. But I just like to wild out and be a little different and so there’s this tag up on the wall across the street, it used to be a bar and it says ‘anything goes when it comes to hoes’ and it’s so big and it just caught me off guard. It’s not like it’s anything new but it was just like ‘oh’. Instantly that said so much to me. I stopped, I took a photo and was like ‘I don’t know when but I’m going to do something.’ I don’t know, I might just keep it to myself or whatever.
For now I’m just doing this, tell the story of how I saw it.
MV: Well, that word: there are certain words that resonate and are taboo words and when you present the words, I don’t want to say difuse, but you take possession of them, which is interesting.
UR: Hm, I like that.
MV: Well, I was watching your performance at TEDx Philly and when you say words that generally men say to women in a very insulting manner, when you say them you possess them. I would hope it would be empowering for people to just grab a hold of them.
UR: I understand what you’re saying but I don’t really know how to respond to that because I just do what I do. This was probably when I did the first poem for the Roots that I realized that I could be really free with the way that I communicate with poems, with poetry, with words, thoughts and concepts. And it’s frightening, because not everybody is going to get what you do or understand where you’re coming from. But you can’t let that inhibit you. I think if you have good intentions, which I do. I don’t approach anything I do with trying to hurt anybody or insult anyone. No. I do intend to call certain issues and people out (laughs) – that I do and I don’t make any qualms about that. Hey, that’s what I do. But in terms of a certain group of people, ethnically, spiritually, religiously, whatever: my intention is to be sensitive but to tell the truth. If I have to cuss somebody out then I have to cuss them out. I can also sound real sweet and sexy and talk about love. Or I can be real wild and talk about love. So, it’s whatever, it’s all game and I love that, that’s exciting. And I’m not like that every place in my life so it’s nice to have this place to go to where I feel a profound sense of courage.
MV: Well, you project that. Getting back to “She Said”. You’ve got quite a range of sound, there’s definitely a jazz and reggae vibe going on and the live thing really makes it work. How did you integrate your words and your poetic voice with the band?
UR: It was effortless. Maybe just to make it more interesting I wish I could say I had trouble with something but it was just really easy going. Every day that we met up, everybody’s schedules allowed. We would meet at Tidd’s studio and plug everything in, make sure everything was working and that was it. I know all those cats anyway, they know me so it was really, really comfortable. Every session I was sitting next to my longtime guitarist, music director Timothy Motzer so I was like OK.
MV: Yeah, he’s an interesting guy. I really appreciate the accompaniment that he provides with you. You two really seem to work well together.
UR: Yeah, he’s pretty cosmic with his approach to music. He’s so boundary pushing and he’s really just not interested in commonality when it comes to music. He just wants to push it and that’s what always has worked. Anything I’ve ever recorded, he takes the formula and flips it.
MV: It’s pretty amazing to see and hear because he doesn’t step into what you’re doing, he’s in tune.
UR: That’s exactly what it is. When we go to California next week it’s going to just be me and him. We used to do the duet years ago, everywhere it was just me and him. So, it’s going to be nice to do that again. It’s kind of hard to travel, it’s hard to get the money up to pay to fly, pay people, pay for their lodging. It’s just a reality. But it’ll happen, sometime and somewhere.
MV: Well, you certainly have a large, loyal following. As you said, the logistics are more tricky now than ever.
UR: Well, things are changing. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine this morning and he was like, ‘everybody talks about the economy’ and for the first time last year I could really jump on that bandwagon and agree that economically things were difficult. I always had a bad economy because I’m an artist and I live for my art so my life is always kind of fluctuating. But last year I really felt it. But I think it’s not just that but also the climate, the culture climate in this country especially. Our children and out adults, they just aren’t encouraged, geared towards appreciating, supporting the arts of the time. When you talk about music and it’s the changing of the guards in the record industry and everything is different now with digital and everything and people not even knowing what a live performance is somethings, you know? Let alone go to one. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t make a change and shift. People have to know they have more options.
MV: Yeah, I think with Facebook as you say on ‘Feel Me’, about stepping out of the digital realm. Right now people are entranced by it. You say ‘speak in real space and time’ and we’ve all been sucked into this reality that’s just so seductive but we’re giving up so much of our identities and so much that’s just good about human contact.
UR: When I see the commercial for the Amazon Kindle it makes me sick (laughs). That’s just me. Seeing people laying back on their beach chairs with a machine, reading a book. I’m like ‘are you crazy? That’s not right, there’s something not right about that. But, that’s me and I have a digital only release right now but that’s not because I want to. That’s because it was the only way to make it feasible but I wish that it weren’t like that. So, I’m praying that somebody, some miracle will happen and someone will want to license it and distribute it physically and get behind it – that’s what every artist wants.
MV: Well, you’re pushing on and your work speaks for itself.
UR: Thank you.
MV: Have you ever put out any books?
UR: I haven’t. Overdue is an understatement. There’s a book that’s really finished, some people know about it but most don’t that I did with my very good friend, he’s a photo journalist and for fives years we worked on a tribute book for New Orleans. Right after Katrina we worked on a multi-part poem – it’s all different poems but I consider it all one poem – and then his photographs. It’s been a real labor of love and we really hope to get it out there. It’d be my first book and his first book.
MV: It’d just be great to see your work in that context.
UR: I agree! (laughs) I would be tickled to death. I’m telling you if I see my book on a bookshelf somewhere I might pass out.
MV: Just make sure it doesn’t come out in digital format.
MV: Well, again, I respect your work immensely and this new album “She Said” is great, it’s a really balanced and full recording and I love the live sound.
UR: Thank you, I appreciate that. A lot of love went into it and we enjoyed doing it. Now we just have to give it life to the world outside our little world that we made it in.
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