To truly know who Moody Black is, you have to see him onstage, in full flow, performing one of his poems or one of his hip-hop tracks. Either as an MC or a spoken-word performer, Black is mesmerizing; he can thunder through a verse with swagger and then retreat into himself, emanating fear, confusion, the whole scope of human emotions.
You can find him on YouTube, coming alive while reciting — no, performing — a poem called “In the Field,” a harrowing story of African American abduction, slavery, brutality and, at the end, hard-won hope.
“Master, he had a system,” Black spits, “took Momma, took wife, took children, took MANHOOD, took RELIGION.”
“From sunup to sundown, pick fast, work like a machine,” he cries, the verses rising in anguish until, at the end, a faint light of hope.
“I can see a river,” Black nearly whispers. “There’s freedom beyond that river.”
It’s a stunning performance, the kind that Black has been delivering since the early 2000s as a rising slam poet. In the last two decades, Black has become a true renaissance man, winning slam competitions, becoming a published poet, a hip-hop artist, a lecturer and poetry instructor, even working as a standup comedian.
Which makes it all the more surprising that in the beginning, he wasn’t working with words at all, either spoken or written.
“I started out as a visual artist,” Black says. “Before my parents divorced, my dad used to draw what I used to refer to as ‘afro man.’ Just a face and an afro. I just kept trying to imitate what he did. Then, my love for art grew.”
It wasn’t until he was around 12 years old that literature entered the picture.
“My mom was working full-time and taking night classes at Rutledge College,” he says. “She would bring her literature books home for us to read. I’m talking about the Harlem Renaissance poets, i.e. Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, some Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. It was when I was bored one day, and looked on our bookshelf, I saw a book of poems entitled ‘This Time Called Life’ by Walter Rinder. I started to read the poems; they were all about being young and free. I wanted to be in that book. I wanted to be young and free!”
From that point onward, Moody Black was hooked.
“I read the whole book in a day,” he says. “I started to appreciate poetry. Then I went back and read what my mom wanted to read. I fell in love with it!”
In 2000, Black found the perfect place to express himself up on the stage where he belonged: the Upstate’s growing spoken-word/poetry scene, spearheaded by Kimberly Simms Gibbs, founder of the Upstate nonprofit Wits End Poetry, which promotes poetry events and provides resources to established and emerging poets. Gibbs is also the director of arts education at the Metropolitan Arts Council.
“She started the open mic scene 18 years ago,” Black says of Gibbs. “Kim wanted to provide a safe and diverse space for artists to express themselves.”
As he grew as a poet, Black also took on hip-hop, becoming an MC as well as a spoken-word performer. Last July, he released “Manifest,” a dazzling album that featured collaborations with a host of South Carolina musicians, including L.C. Branch, Max Hightower and Demallo.
“My mom introduced me to different genres of music, so, I think it’s just in me,” Black says. “Being eclectic, diverse. I think it’s just who I am. In doing my hip-hop album, I wanted to reflect that the best I could, to have something for everybody.”
Black adds that hip-hop and slam poetry are not all that different.
“If you take away the beat, you’ll have lyrics: Poems,” he says. “Double-entendres, metaphors, hyperbole, wrenched rhyme, puns, etc. are all in songs. I once told that to a fourth grader and he got mad! He didn’t like the fact that he’s been listening to poetry all this time. As far as slam poetry, you see and hear the influence of hip-hop; the culture, the rhythm, in the poems. We like to think that it’s different, but I think it’s not.”
Whether it’s poetry or rap, though, Black says his primary themes are the same.
“Not giving up on your dreams!” he says. “Manifesting. Speaking things into existence. Now, that doesn’t mean that there will not be any challenges. The rough time will occur. I have obstacles, and sometimes I want to give up. But it’s something in me; it won’t let me give up. Something that won’t let me quit. I just know, the fruition of my dreams is right around the corner. I hope my loved ones get to see it come true.”