Happy Hour with Dasan Ahanu
Q&A Happy Hour with special guest, Dasan Ahanu:
V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, had a chat with Durham arts activist, poet, MC, and teacher, Dasan Ahanu. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Dasan, truly a renaissance man, at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on November 15, from 5:30 – 6:30pm.
Dasan Ahanu is an artist, educator, scholar, and community organizer born and raised in Raleigh, NC. He performs across the country and hosts poetry, jazz, and Hip Hop events around the Triangle. He is a resident artist at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center, a founding member of Durham’s Bull City Slam team, and co-founder of Durham’s Black Poetry Theatre. His arts-based training programs focus on literacy, social injustice, workers’ rights, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Dasan is currently a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill where he teaches courses on Hip Hop and Black culture. He was recently appointed as the Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures at Carolina Performing Arts. He’s an alumnus of Harvard University’s Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellowship.
Dasan, spoken word and the transformative power of story are at the heart of all you do---from your work as a poet to community organizer, musician, and teacher. Can you share a (short) slam about your ‘growing up’ years in Raleigh? Also, your beautiful name---there’s a story there, too.
Yes, I am the product of a working-class family and strong Black women. My dad was 17 and my mom was 16 when they had me. So, my grandmothers were still raising them while helping raise me. My mom was the oldest of five children, four of whom are women. My dad was the second oldest and has three sisters. They provided me with lots of love and encouragement. I was a curious child with a vivid imagination. I was given room to explore (within reason) and given room to play. I grew up participating in the magnet program. I got tested and moved into accelerated programs in the second grade. I had extracurricular activities and sports. My mom wanted to keep me occupied. As a shy and introverted kid, it was good to be involved in things. It helped me develop social skills. It also fed my inquisitive nature.
As I was growing up my dad’s mother used to tell me stories about her having an indigenous heritage. She was very proud of me having features she attributed to her side of the family. I look a lot like my dad. When I decided to have a pseudonym I looked at Native American names. Dasan is Pomo in origin and means leader or ruler. Ahanu originates from Algonquin and means someone who laughs. I translate it as someone who commands with a sense of humor.
I’ve heard rumors that a Research Triangle Park-type-project manager-business major is hiding in your past. Which of those skills are most valuable in the chosen work that became your passion?
My background is in customer service, management, administration, and the development of processes and procedures. My undergraduate degree is in Organizational Management. Those skills have helped me out a lot working in the arts. I’ve been able to develop and coordinate programs, plan events, curate arts experiences, and work in arts administration. My aim is to create capacity for artists and to provide greater exposure for the arts.
I tell people I work with puzzles. If I’m given the pieces, I can make them fit. I did this in Corporate America. I did this working with nonprofit organizations. I also do this in the arts. I do this in my art. Recontextualization and scope of possibilities is my playing field.
Best academic fellowship in the world might have to be the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellowship that you were awarded at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research (directed by the amazing Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.) Tell us about your studies and research in Cambridge in 2015.
My time at Harvard was one of the most transformative experiences I have had. I learned so much there. All of the fellows at the Hutchin’s Center were treated as a cohort. I not only got to meet and learn from the other Hip Hop Archive fellows, I also got to learn from other premier scholars doing work across the diaspora. I was there to research lyricism in Hip Hop and how Hip Hop culture has its own approach to canon. The intent was to balance the institutional and aesthetic. To think about the literary conventions present in the work of Hip Hop’s premier wordsmiths and to do it within the context of the culture itself.
I got to participate in so many programs and had the chance to attend powerful lectures. I had access to the libraries on campus. It was so enriching. I also got to connect with other Hip Hop scholars on other campus such as Northeastern and UMass Boston.
How did you first find yourself at an OPEN MIKE event behind a mic on stage? And then what happened?!
I had been writing through high school and into college. When I first got to college at North Carolina A&T State University I met other writers. I was invited to participate in some of the readings happening on campus. I came up with an excuse to not participate every time. I was scared to get on stage with my poetry. It was too vulnerable.
I ended up leaving school and coming back home. I had a cousin who had come to Raleigh for college and he talked me into going to a monthly event he heard about called the cypher. There would be a guest poet from out of town, a DJ, drum circles, and an open mic. My cousin also heard there were beautiful women there. Of course, that is very important to young men. While there, he used me as a way to spark conversation. He kept telling people I wrote. It became an ice breaker. Eventually, one of the organizers heard and invited me to another weekly open mic they produced. My cousin agreed.
We went to the open mic and I refused to sign up. The host saw and recognized me. Turns out we went to high school together. He found out that I wrote and encouraged me to come back and sign the open mic list. Again, my cousin said I would do so.
I went to the open mic a couple more times and finally got the courage to sign up. But I didn’t want to sign up with my real name. It didn’t feel artistic enough. I came up with Dasan Ahanu. That made it easier to get on stage.
The first time I read I was so nervous. When I was done, the crowd applauded and told me the piece was good. I was hooked and started going every week.
You are one of the voices in Oxford American’s 20th Annual Southern Music Issue (winter 2008), which focused on the music of North Carolina, noted by a beautiful portrait (by Jim Blanchard) of Nina Simone on its cover. What work did they feature of yours?
I had the opportunity to do a story on artist 9th Wonder. He is a Grammy-winning music producer and label CEO who founded Jamla Records. 9th is a friend of mine and a great talent. He was recently inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. It was great to work on the piece. I was excited to contribute to Oxford American, especially for an issue focused on my home.
Dasan: being OPEN, being WILLING, and IMAGINING possibility. Why are these phrases important to you?
I grew up curious. I grew up a listener. I grew up a watcher, observing my surroundings. It gave me a lot of insight. I believe that if you keep yourself open to new things then you can gain valuable opportunities. You just have to be willing to take a chance and explore. The more you do, the more you will come to understand what can happen. That helps you to imagine more possibilities. That’s how I have navigated my career.
Please give us, your students, an assigned reading on Hip Hop, that you incorporate in your UNC-CH course on the history of this powerful genre of American music. (Will there be a test?)
Two of the texts that I used when I started teaching a Hip Hop history class are Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang and Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking edited by Gena Dagel Caponi. Jeff Chang’s book does a good job of placing the growth of Hip Hop in the context of social conditions at the time. That context is important to me. Art is a reflection of the times and a reflection of the artist. To understand that is to gain a deeper understanding of the artist. I think as a society we love art but don’t really take the artist into enough consideration. Our only real models are academic study which mostly happens once the artist has died or celebrity which is dependent on the artist’s place in pop culture. Caponi brings together powerful essays that detail Black creativity and expression. Hip Hop is a culture established by Black and Latino youth. It is rich in cultural traditions across the diaspora. It is also continues Black artistic production in America.
Carolina Performing Arts recently received a $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund ‘community co-creation’ in the arts, scholarship, and public service. You have been appointed as their new Program Director for Creative Futures. (WELL, that was an EXCELLENT hiring decision!!!) What dreams do you have for this initiative?
This is a really visionary initiative. It brings artists together with faculty and community partners to form a co-creative team. Together, they look at the intersections of their work and envision a collaborative project. This is important because these three worlds aren’t often brought together to do work and definitely not with resources to support the work. So much of my work is about moving through these worlds, so to guide an initiative like this was something I couldn’t pass up. I hope that it provides a model for how this type of collaboration can happen and what can come out of it. I also hope that it has an influence on the way that presenting organizations engage their surrounding communities in the future. The fact that this kind of collaboration can be supported with the artist at the center is so critical.
These are trying times in which we live, and one can easily feel overwhelmed and powerless to make change. I was intrigued by this Rumi quote posted on your website: “YESTERDAY I WAS CLEVER, SO I CHANGED THE WORLD. TODAY I AM WISE, SO I AM CHANGING MYSELF.” How so, for you?
We often see our purpose as having an impact on the world. We throw ourselves into work and service. What we don’t do well is concentrate on self-care and sustainability. Burn-out is real. What I have learned is that we have to do work on ourselves. That will enhance the way we do work in our fields and communities. Radical transformation is redemptive and revolutionary, meaning the individual and group is changed. So, I pay attention to my health and wellbeing and I look for learning opportunities.
And, as it is Happy Hour, tell us your favorite after-performance-beverage of choice, and since we’re asking, your favorite NC Hip Hop artist.
My favorite after-performance beverage of choice is bourbon and ginger ale. One of my favorite bourbon-based cocktails is a gold rush. I grew into drinking bourbon and whiskey. It’s the perfect liquor to drink to relax after leaving the stage.
As with any Hip Hop lover, it is hard to land on a favorite Hip Hop artist. We all have a group of favorites and they can change in position on the list from moment to moment. Right now, Black Thought and Royce Da 5’9” are at the top. They are both phenomenal lyricists.
WE HOPE YOU'LL JOIN US ON NOVEMBER 15 TO VISIT WITH OUR SPECIAL GUEST, DASAN AHANU AND ENJOY A DRINK ON THE HOUSE! RSVP HERE.