YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

No ivory tower poet

Kamau Daaood's writing and activism carry the pulse of his Los Angeles neighborhood.

April 16, 2005|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Only moments after what looks to be the last of the rain, Kamau Daaood is catching the first bit of sun. It's early yet, so it's pretty much just him and the birds and someone already set to watering their little patch of cement.

Seated on a bench just across the street from the newly reborn 5th Street Dick's Coffeehouse in Leimert Park, in his ever-present newsboy cap, Daaood drapes one long leg elegantly over the other and keeps sentinel on this short, quaint stretch of Degnan Boulevard -- like always.

The poet is in a bit of a quandary as to where to go to catch up on all the latest with a visitor -- most significantly on the publication of more than 30 years of his poetry, "The Language of Saxophones," out this week from City Lights, No. 57 in its venerable Pocket Poets Series.

"You see, if we stay here on Degnan, we'll probably be interrupted," picking up his heavy leather case, straightening up into his full 6 feet, 5 inches. "And I really think I've got ADD or something," he says, strolling near the center of the street, like he owns it, which in many ways he does. "The phone will ring," he continues, his deep voice traveling down an octave, then another, like a horn. "People will stop by. It's difficult to stay focused with so much always going on."

Such has been the case for many years for Daaood, who has been not only an "oral poet" but also a de facto activist in this neighborhood, particularly this stretch of business -- gallery spaces, boutiques, artists' workspaces -- that celebrate African and African American art and persistence. Since Daaood and the late jazz drummer Billy Higgins threw open the doors in 1989, the World Stage, a performance and meeting gallery, has played host to jam sessions, drum circles and various music and literary workshops. Consequently, Daaood has become the filament, an inspiration for many a young writer, thinker or drifter who has wandered by with a flicker of curiosity.

The decision then is to head a little bit south, then angle west. He suggests a cafe in Westchester where he sometimes slips in to do some reading or thinking. But just as he's unfolding out of the car, a truck rolls up and a voice tumbles out: "Hey! Kamau!" Here comes the handshake, the back clap, the hug.

Only a beat later, up sidesteps another: "Kamau, man, whassup?"

Daaood stops dead in his tracks, throws open palms heavenward. He bows his head before he goes into a "So much for that plan" head-shake.

It's impossible, really, for Daaood to slip off into the background, probably absurd to expect that he could travel anywhere around the city truly incognito. His voice, like his stature, is like his legacy -- expansive and attention-getting. He's spent many years helping a community not just find a voice, but pick the sharpest and most resonant language with which to tell its story.

"Poets are often on the fringe of society," says poet Michael Datcher, author of the memoir "Raising Fences" and who ran the World Stage's Anansi Writers Workshop for more than a decade. "We're broke. We drive raggedy cars, but he helped to make the notion of 'community artist' noble." Daaood created new options, says Datcher, who like so many was drawn to the World Stage by the music, voices and people flowing out onto the sidewalk.

"For too long the heroes in the neighborhood were gangsters and hustlers, but Kamau made people look up to a poet. And that was revolutionary."

In his own verse, Daaood sums himself up as the man who "stands on the o.g. corner" telling "old school stories with a bebop tongue / to the hip-hop future." And in his time here, he has shepherded the Stage from a cultural hub to a spiritual one as well. "It's been wonderful to watch it all blossom," he says. "We went in to do art but found we were reintroducing a lifestyle."

A native Angeleno, Daaood, 54, says he never has known a time when he wasn't interested in reading and writing. "It was a relationship with ideas rather than words," he says, settling into a tiny booth in the sunny cafe. "Writing has always been a part of me. In high school, I would read [my] stuff and it would affect people. I could see it."

He wandered into the Watts Writers Workshop. Spent some time working with musician Horace Tapscott in his Pan African People's Arkestra, as a "word musician." Before long, people would stop by with a question, would need to talk about direction. "Then after a while, before you know it, people begin asking you to speak at their funerals and name their babies," he says, "to where now, some news outlets look to you when something happens to explain it."

Much of his work has grown out of the very pulse and cadence of the neighborhood: Youngbloods collecting on the corner; the booming beats that thud out of passing car windows; barbershop wisdom; the workaday rhythms of city life in southwest L.A.

Los Angeles Times Articles