It’s been a decade since Milwaukee hip-hop group Black Elephant was at its peak, riding the wave of being the most recognized rap outfit in town. The group no longer exists, but former member Derrick Harriell has only accelerated the pace of his skills as a wordsmith.
But Harriell didn’t take a path lined with beats. Instead, he followed the route of academia and he currently works as an assistant professor in English and Afro American Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Harriell recently published his second book of poetry, "Ropes" – in which he draws inspiration from boxing – and is set to return home for a reading at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St., on Thursday, Dec. 19, at 7 p.m.
"I’m excited about being home," he said, when I connected with him to discuss "Ropes" and his career since the Black Elephant days.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us what you've been up to since Black Elephant split.
Derrick Harriell: Thanks for mentioning the band. Next summer will be the 10-year anniversary of our most popular album "Eat This Album." It’s strange that it’s been 10 years already. Maybe I’m getting old; maybe we’re all getting old, ha. So since 2004, I’ve wrapped up an MFA at Chicago State University, a PhD at UWM and am in my second year teaching (as an assistant professor) in English and Afro American Studies at the University of Mississippi. I’ve been fortunate to publish two books in the past three years: "Cotton" (in) 2010 and "Ropes."
OMC: "Ropes," is a collection of poems inspired by boxing. Should we assume that you're a big fan of the sport or is that not necessarily the case?
DH: I’ve always been really into boxing. I wanted to be like my father growing up and he was a big boxing fan – well, a big Mike Tyson fan. He loved the sport in general but was nuts about Mike Tyson. And since I wanted to become my father, I took to Mike Tyson at an early age – and in my household Mike Tyson was something like a god. When he fought it was a holiday in my household. We didn’t have a lot of money, but when Mike fought, my parents stretched their checks and spent however much the fight cost. And so, you know, there was food and booze for the adults and shadow boxing and catharsis.
OMC: Have you always written about the sport or did you set out to write a collection of pugilistic poetry?
DH: It was a real organic process, the way it all came together. When I started writing, boxing would always intrude. The last section of "Cotton" is a boxing-themed section that functions as almost an ode to Bernard Hopkins, or perhaps an ode to pugilism in general. There are some playground boxing poems in there, some classroom boxing poems, as well as Bernard Hopkins poems.
So, well let me back up, I was working on "Cotton" while I was working on "Ropes" but at the time I thought I was working on one collection. it wasn’t until the poetry editor for Aquarius Press-Willow Books, Randall Horton, told me, "hey man, you have two books here." I’ll never forget that because at the time I knew nothing about putting together a manuscript, so when Randall told me the press was interested in seeing a manuscript of my work for potential publishing, I simply handed them damn near every poem I’d ever written and was like, here ya go!
But "Ropes" started and finished as my dissertation. My committee chairperson, Maurice Kilwein-Guevara, worked with me on an independent project – letter poems in the voices of boxers. This idea started because I’d seen a boxer speaking to Jack Johnson’s headstone. I started thinking what if Jack could talk back... epistolary seemed the easiest route. In "Ropes" Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson write letters to each other.
OMC: What about the sport inspires you to write verse about it?
DH: Everything. Well, perhaps the most obvious thing would be nostalgic. But also the spectacle of boxing is extremely intriguing to me. I can remember growing up and seeing the spectacle surrounding Mike Tyson fights. And this is just the energy in Milwaukee: you know, who’s getting the fight, where will the adults watch the fight, who’s wearing what, what are folks going to eat. And boxing, obviously unlike a lot of sports, is mano-a-mano – and I like that aspect – in team sports it’s so easy to lay blame outside of oneself. I like the fact that with boxing it’s somewhat you against you.
Ha, speaking of you against you, that reminds me of a Rocky soundtrack song: "Burning Heart" maybe? Anyway, "Rocky" has always been one of my favorite movie series. And yeah, I like the fact that in boxing the underdog is always one good look away from shocking the world. But also, I was bred to be into boxing. My father was intent on raising a warrior scholar – ha – a poet warrior.
But boxing is art form to me, unlike MMA. I keep hearing people claiming boxing is dying, and I don’t know, perhaps. But they say it’s (because) of MMA and I say that’s a shame if that’s the case, because the two are complete separate entities to me. Put it this way. My two favorite contemporary fighters are Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins. But they’re extremely polarizing; like people hate these men. I often hear about their boring fighting styles and that’s exactly why I love them. Because they’re defensive fighters; they’ve mastered their craft. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized you weren’t suppose to get hit in boxing – hit and not get hit – that’s a life mantra – hit and not get hit. Who likes to get hit?
OMC: I noticed the Jack Handy quote at the beginning of the book. Do you see some humor in the sport, too?
DH: There’s humor all around it. First off, like I mentioned earlier – the spectacle is humorous. The things that become upscale or the place to be seen always fascinates me – so we put on our best to watch two men partake in combat. There’s contrast there: you know, "girl, what you wearing to the fight." Sometimes it’s a sad humor – sometimes I laugh at the things I shouldn’t – sometimes it’s Mike Tyson running around the ring threatening to punch ring security or Mike Tyson blowing a gasket at a press conference. The ways us men construct our masculinity humors me at times, too: "this what kind of scary dude I’m gone be."
OMC: While the poems are ostensibly about boxing, they go deeper, don't they? I'm thinking about works like "Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey Fistfitght in Hell," for example.
DH: Yeah, this isn’t a book about folk-heroism. I’m not sure everything it is about but I know it’s not about cheering on these individuals as unflawed folk-heroes. I was tired of those poems. I was interested in trying to gain some access to the interior of these souls. We know the flamboyant, unafraid, demonstrative at times, "I can’t be beat" and defiant exterior they offer, but I can’t believe that’s the whole of these human beings.
So I wanted to complicate them. I had Dubois’ double consciousness idea in mind throughout: how these boxers might view themselves, as opposed to how they were viewed by the public at large – especially the white public – and what kind of internal conflict does that create, right, like, "I’m the most celebrated and feared man on the planet, but still, I get f*cked with to no end. And oh, I shouldn’t be attracted to white women. And if I do date a white woman, they’re going to throw me in jail. And the cop that’s going to throw me in jail is a man I could kill with my bare hands, but off to jail I go." So a lot of what I’m attempting to do in "Ropes" is investigate the mindf*ck, and try and re-imagine the whole of these men, if that makes sense.
OMC: I'm interested to hear about if and how hip-hop and poetry intersect in your own work.
DH: Yeah man. Hip-hop is at the core of all that I write. I think I was naïve to this for a long time. Or if I wasn’t naïve I was insecure about revealing this amongst my academic/ poetry colleagues or in interviews. So I mostly would just provide stock answers that I thought folks wanted to hear. Whenever I was asked about my influences, I’d shoot out some canonical poetry folks: Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost. And while these folks do influence and inform my work – they’re just a part of what does.
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which Tupac or Nas or Black Thought or now Royce Da 5’9 or Pusha T or The Weekend – although he’s not technically hip-hop – but the ways in which all of these folks inform what I try to do. And what’s funny is when I start mentioning emcees that inform my work, I feel like folks are searching for specific backpacker emcees and when I name someone like Pusha T I get judged. But the folks that love Pusha T, they don’t read poetry. Or perhaps I’m just neurotic, ha!
Ironically enough, last weekend I was on a panel with some wonderful folks at MMLA (Midwest Modern Language Association) in Milwaukee, and the other two panel participants were mentioning growing up in these homes where they were surrounded by books and literature and poetry and parents that placed novels in their hands. Well, that was not my experience. There were like two books in my house growing up: a dictionary and an astrology book. If a person tells me their birthday, I know everything about them (laughs).
So my first real literary influences were rappers and soul singers, because there was a lot of music in my house. And my parents, being huge music fans, were never too shy or tired to break down a song for me. More than the medley, I always wanted to know what the songs were about. I’m like that to this day. So they’d be listening to a song and I’d always ask what the song was about. They’d turn it off and slowly explain to me everything that was happening in the song. And then we’d play it again from the beginning and I’d write down the words and memorize the song after only a couple of plays.
And the stories, man – mostly the love stories of Marvin Gaye or The Temptations or Gino Vanelli – would hook me. I would play out the stories in my head. I wanted to live those stories. I wanted to write those stories. But in terms of the poetry of emcees, I think this is why sonic sensibilities come natural for me. I started writing rhymes at 12: memorizing Nas verses at 14. The cadence, rhythm, sonic prowess of great emcees has left a strong impression on me, to the point where often the sonic things that happen in my own work are unintentional.
It’s simply the only way I know how to communicate. It’s often easier for me to just do it, then to explain why or how I did it. I’m getting closer though.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.