Mums exploits the power of the word

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

January 29, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

SOUL GLOW is what they called me. xxI stole the moniker from the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America; it was the name of the curl activator Eriq LaSalle's character used on his hair. And it was my stage name in college. I did spoken word -- used to get up at the open-mike nights the Delta Sigma Theta sorority sponsored and do my thang. Many of the sistas and brothas were imitating folks: Lorenz Tate and Nia Long in Love Jones or Saul Williams in Slam. Not me.

At the time, I had been spittin' original poetry for almost a decade. It was Edith Lambert, my sixth-grade teacher, who recognized my love of words and pushed me into sharing my work publicly. With Mama's blessing, Mrs. Lambert arranged for me to perform in public libraries around my hometown of Little Rock, Ark. The experience freed me in a way and bolstered my self-esteem. Through high school, college and a little afterward, I shared my pains, observations and rants on stage backed by pre-recorded music or a live band.

It's been almost three years since I stepped to a mike. But after listening to Strange Fruit, the new CD by rapper-actor-spoken-word artist Mums, I think the feeling's coming back.

You know Mums. For six seasons, the burly, bearded dude played Poet on Oz, the grim HBO prison soap opera. Before landing that acclaimed role, Mums (stands for "Manipulator Under Manipulationshhh," but Craig Grant is the name on his birth certificate) was a regular in spoken-word haunts around New York City. The exposure on Oz has led to other career opportunities.

Phoning from a promotional stop in Indiana, the Bronx-born and -raised performer says, "Being on the show let me see where my writing could go beyond poetry -- into plays and screenwriting."

He's a bit of a hustler, this Mums cat. Last year, he wrote, produced and directed the New York production In the Last Car Can't Nobody Hear You Scream. When he's not in the recording studio, he's pounding out poetry or tweaking a screenplay. When he's not writing, he's acting. In March, he will appear in Everyday People, an HBO movie. And in the summer, the 35-year-old artist will play in the film On the One. In between shooting, he's hitting the road to promote Strange Fruit, a 12-cut album of hip-hop-influenced lines and smart, uptown jazz.

"What I'm trying to do is represent hip-hop for a more mature audience, man," Mums says. "Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz is not for me. No disrespect to 'em. But I'm gonna be listening to [legendary rhyme-spitter] Rakim well into my 90s."

Throughout his debut, Mums stays away from all the urban spoken-word cliches: the stiff theatrics, the empty rhetoric, the unnecessary screaming. He's like a member of the tight soul-jazz band behind him, delivering lines in a rhythmic, conversational flow as the bass and the B-3 organ rise, swell, recede. "Balance," the first full cut on Strange Fruit, explores love -- ghetto style: She curses at me with love in her heart.

And "Brooklyn Queens" -- a title that refers to how a queen from Queens complements her Brooklyn king despite the cultural differences of their boroughs -- elaborates on the in-the-'hood love theme. Mums' flow rolls smoothly as singer Kevin Davis sweetly croons the hook ("I'm Brooklyn and she's Queens") over a reggae-shaded groove.

Things get heavy on "In a Time of Dying (Interview with God)" as Mums plays a dying thug looking over his short life. On "Contrition," the artist explores the invisible-man scenario Ralph Ellison illuminated back in '52.

"As a black man in this country, you stay searching for your meaning," Mums says. "In every 'hood, you'll see some fellas standing out on the corner, on the stoop, wondering what is their purpose. Why are we here? This country hasn't given us anything. So you have to go out and find your purpose."

The album title comes from the Billie Holiday classic of the same name. The 1939 song poetically illustrated the horrors of Southern lynchings.

But Mums flips it for the new millennium: "Today, strange fruit means we're the product of everything black people have been through in this country -- Middle Passage, Jim Crow, segregation. It's a new way of looking at it. The metaphor of strange fruit means life and birth for me where it used to mean lynching and death. Blacks have been doing that for years, taking the bad and flipping it, making the best of a bad situation."

The artist extends the tradition of melding poetry steeped in black feeling and black talk with soul and jazz. In the '70s, Gil Scott-Heron and Nikki Giovanni even charted a few albums with such a blend. Mums just wanted to put something out that reflected who he is.

He says, "Man, I'm a lover of jazz. I think it should be back in pop culture. And poetry? Man, that's my life. I'm gonna always write."

I heard that. Maybe it's time I dust off my notebook and resurrect Soul Glow.

For CD reviews, band profiles and concert listings, go to www.SunSpot.net / music

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