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The Poet of Leimert Park

Art: Kamau Daaood and his words have been driving forces in the area's revitalization. To many, he is the "essence of the community."

September 23, 1997|FRANK B. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On those busy nights when Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district is brimming with musicians, poets and even a few chess and hard-slamming domino players, you can usually find Kamau Daaood stroking his graying goatee and dispensing wisdom to young writers.

For nearly 30 years, since his days as a teenager cutting his literary teeth in the acclaimed Watts Writers Workshop, Daaood has been a forceful, eloquent presence among Los Angeles poets. Equal parts big brother, counselor and grass-roots griot, the 47-year-old poet was at the center of Leimert Park's revitalization as an arts center in the late 1980s.

Daaood and legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins opened the World Stage, a storefront workshop and performance space on Degnan Boulevard for poets and musicians, in 1989. Leimert Park is also home to galleries and restaurants, and the landmark blues club Babe's and Ricky's Inn recently reopened there.

"When he came to the community, he awakened a sleeping giant with the poetry," said Brian Breye, owner of Museum in Black, an art gallery. "He was instrumental in helping bring that energy back to the area. He's sort of the grandfather of rap in his own right."

The area is one where Daaood has invested his sweat by the pint and his affection beyond measure. And when he decided to record a compact disc of his work, he called it "Leimert Park."

He has written two volumes of poetry, but the CD is his first extended recording of his spoken words. His riveting recital style is accompanied by a bluesy blend of straight-ahead jazz and hip-hop as his images move from introspective to haunting:

"I stand on the OG corner and tell old school stories with a bebop tongue to the hip-hop future / I see new rainbows in their eyes as we stand in the puddle of melted chains."

As a shy, soft-spoken teenager growing up in the Crenshaw district, Daaood would hang around community centers where poets and singers were honing their skills.

Meeting playwright and poet Amiri Baraka touched him deeply.

"He really opened me up to the possibilities of what writing could be," Daaood said. "I made a direct correlation between writing and the emotional content of the music we were listening to at that time, because Baraka's way of reading was so musical and so rhythmic."

Daaood has watched his old Crenshaw neighborhood shift from mostly white to all black and now to overwhelmingly Latino. The Los Angeles he grew up in was substantially different.

"Racism was more apparent," he said. "The whole notion of a multicultural society had not yet come about. . . . Thankfully, the mingling is beginning to take place now. But back then, there were clearly defined neighborhoods. Now the borders are getting blurred. People are experiencing each other more. That's a good thing."

Younger poets regard Daaood, who has taught at Cal State Northridge and the Otis Parsons School of Design, as an example of someone who has dedicated his life to art.

"He is the essence of the community when it comes down to the words that need to be spoken about what Leimert Park means to people," said A.K. Toney, 27, a hip-hop poet whom Daaood has mentored at the World Stage.

Ruth Forman, 28, a poet who reads at the World Stage, says Daaood "can give you advice without putting you down. I respect him so much. There are so many poetry scenes that come and go, but he will be there no matter how many people show up that night. He is an anchor in the community."

Daaood said he will continue to urge young artists to pursue their craft regardless of whether they taste commercial success.

"I think that the arts have transformative power," he said. "I really believe that they touch and lift us in very natural ways. Sometimes very effortlessly. Because all you have to do is hear some stuff, and it opens new doors in your consciousness."

Reaching out to poets like Toney is essential for Daaood--one way to continue a stream of images that counter the television-induced distortion that urban communities are all violence and sadness.

In one of his poems, Daaood urges:

"Vomit up your television set / take a deep breath and exhale your fears / scrub the tombstones of those who die young until they become mirrors in which to see yourself / take long stares at your hand until true love returns to your touch / then touch."

Love is a major theme in much of Daaood's work, and this weekend he and his wife, Baadia, will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Supporting five children as a poet was often a very delicate balancing act. To make ends meet, Daaood has worked as a drug counselor, AIDS educator, record shop owner and teacher.

"You do what you have to do," he said. "Artists have to hustle because the status that we hold in this society is a lowly position--unless you make it in those rare spots that you call stars. And those spots are usually aligned with commercialism. I've always attempted to work as closely as I could to human services or art. So there would always be that connection to people and creativity."

He will demonstrate just what he has made of that connection at a CD signing Wednesday at Eso Won bookstore on La Brea Avenue and at a reading Friday at Fais Do Do, a club on West Adams Boulevard.

"It's like what an elder told me," Daaood said. "Life has meaning. It's up to us to discover its meaning. Part of the task of discovery is to tap into who you are. And this is who I am. I can't do nothing else. I'm wounded with a blessing."

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