Words matter: Tish Jones, spoken word poet, on building bridges and breaking down hierarchies with words

Tish Jones (Courtesy Photo)

As long as she can remember, Tish Jones has loved words, loved writing and loved being on a stage. A self-identified student of hip-hop culture, she traces her passion for words to African diasporic cultural practices, including the griot, hip-hop, jazz, funk, bebop and blues. Now she’s a poet, spoken word artist, and the executive director of TruArtSpeaks – an organization she founded to cultivate spaces for youth and community, especially through hip-hop and spoken word. 

Finding her ax

Jones began her writing and performing career early. Disappointed when her second-grade class chose a murder mystery over a rap version of Rapunzel for the class play, Jones bargained with her teacher: she would stay in the play if the teacher would get her a copy of the Rapunzel script. By playing a detective in the grade-school murder mystery she found that she loved her time on stage. 

Jones grew up in St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood, in a strong family that shaped her identity. Her mother’s father was a Black Panther from Wichita, Kansas. Her father’s mother had to leave Montgomery, Alabama, after she was severely beaten by the Ku Klux Klan for writing a letter to a newspaper about segregation. “Their lives, how they carried themselves, their relationship to power, race and class have been a big influence on who I am,” Jones says. 

Her work today as a spoken word artist is about honoring her ancestors and those who will come after her. “For me, my personal journey is about the liberation of black children,” Jones says. “I think about my little brother and my nephew and my niece and the kind of world I hope they grow into, that they get to see and shape.” 

Jones explains that, “in black culture, in the artistic tradition, some of us refer to our skills, talents, etc. as our axes – wielding our ax.” She found her ax – her work to do – when she started writing poetry. “My work being not how I get paid, but my work being what I was called to do on this planet. [With poetry] I stepped into myself. Which is maybe what we are all trying to do on the planet – walk long enough to create ourselves, find ourselves, step into ourselves.” 

Be the bridge

Mahmoud El-Kati, one of her mentors, once told Jones that her mission was to be the bridge between the streets and the scholars. “I’ve been walking those words since he said them,” she says. “Every day.” 

“Certain intelligences are valued or devalued in different ways. We can be talking about the same thing but we use a different vernacular, a different set of terms,” Jones says. “Some people’s opinions are valued higher than others. People talk others out of a conversation or pass judgment on folks because of a different vernacular. … It is my daily practice to eliminate those hierarchical things.” 

As the founder and executive director of TruArtSpeaks, Jones weekly hosts evening open mic sessions at Golden Thyme Café. At the Thursday ReVerb sessions, a wide variety of word people – including university and high school students, community members, victims of the prison industrial complex and organizers – take the stage. 

“This open mic is the bridge,” Jones says. “We can have a conversation. It’s not about who’s using a ten-syllable word versus who’s using a two-syllable word. There are no hierarchies here. We come into this space as human beings coming to engage with art in some way, shape or form.”

Race and gender

For Jones, being a black woman affects her life and writing every day. “I don’t have the privilege of being seen as a woman only,” she explains. “That’s not my existence. That’s not how this world works with me. Historically, I have not had that privilege and neither have my ancestors. … I can’t think about gender without thinking about my prescribed racial identity.” 

Jones talks about the Black Lives Matter movement and the Say Her Name movement. “Black Lives Matter was begun by black women – three words from three black women. Words are important. ‘Say Her Name’ responded to another reality, that people were not even speaking the names of black women who have been killed by police, security officers, vigilantes. It is extremely important for black women to advocate for ourselves, to say our own names. And to advocate for our sons, brothers, husbands, nephews, uncles, fathers, grandsons, mothers, sisters, nieces, granddaughters, which is in turn advocating for ourselves. 

“The black poet’s job is to document our history,” Jones says. That may be part of the significance of words for all writers, all poets, all word women. “It’s especially important for marginalized people, folks who have been rendered invisible,” Jones says. “Words are important because they are the opportunity to, in one’s own lexicon, tell the story of your people, your tribe, your tradition. My experience as a black woman – it’s important to name that while living in a country that has erased and suffocated my story for so long.” 

TruArtSpeaks works to cultivate literacy, leadership and social justice through the study and application of hip hop culture. truartspeaks.org or www.facebook.com/TruArtSpeaks @TruArtSpeaks on Twitter 

ReVerb Open Mic every Thursday at 6 p.m., Golden Thyme Café, 921 Selby Ave., St. Paul 

Watch/hear: Tish Jones’s “Tracks”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ls65K_FPJGY