On April 21, 2016, the world collectively mourned in purple as we learned of the death of one of pop music’s most enigmatic icons, Prince Rogers Nelson. Philadelphia poet Ursula Rucker was among those deeply impacted by his death, crediting him as one of her earliest and deepest inspirations.
“Prince was great inspiration to me when I was younger,” Rucker says. “I was so inspired by his bravery in how he approached his art and wouldn’t even be the person I am without him. I grew up a Catholic girl balancing spirituality and sexuality, just finding my place. It’s so funny how these people we don’t even know have this impact on who we are and they’ll never know it.”
Rucker herself may just be such a person for another little boy or girl out there inspired by her powerful stage presence or by her recorded works with such prominent voices as legendary hip hop outfit The Roots. Comparisons to other passionate, politically-minded Black female poets like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez come easily; in the case of the latter, the comparison is all the more obvious as Rucker was also once Sanchez’s student.
She describes herself as being a very creative but shy kid.
“I didn’t really have an outside voice that I shared with people when I was younger,” she says. “Poetry was a way for me to speak even though I wasn’t really sharing it with anyone. A lot of my writing from the beginning was kind of that search [for self], always tugging and tugging – ‘What should I really do? Everyone is saying I should do this,'” she recalls.
In college she met some poets who were self-publishing books, and a friend of hers had a book release party at a jazz club in Philadelphia. It was there that she realized, “You can do this. You can actually do this. You can write a book of poetry and you can share it and perform and have musicians come out and play behind you and people will come and listen. This is crazy!”
That was an inspiring moment for Rucker. Until that point, she had only ever shared her writing with close friends. She knew she wanted to write poetry for the rest of her life but didn’t know she wanted to make it her life. Years later she would take her first major step towards doing so, at that very same jazz club where she first had that realization.
“I didn’t plan it that way. I was just looking for a job and the club was hiring a hostess so I said, ‘Okay, let’s check this out,'” she remembers. “My friend signed me up to perform, and from that moment that was all she wrote! I just thought, “Oh my God, my whole life is changed.’ I would go to every open mic from then on.”
That was the first time Rucker had performed her poetry accompanied by live musicians; now she records her own albums and collaborates with accomplished recording artists like The Roots and King Britt.
“When King Britt invited me to do my first recording, it wasn’t something I thought of doing as a career. I wish I was young and had that freedom again to not really think about it, to just do something for a friend who asked me to, recording something I wrote with music and having it be released!” she jokes.
She has since recorded several albums, collaborated with several other musicians, appeared in a film narrated Maya Angelou, was the subject of a documentary film, and was even honored in a Mural Arts Program mural commissioned from Chip Thomas – aka Jetsonorama.
“That was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me!” she laughs. “The response, oh my God. I got so much love from it, and still do, but immediately that whole year I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any gigs, it was a rough ass year but I got so much love.”
In fact, the poem she chose to highlight in this mural is called “Love.” “It gave off love, it created love, it gave me love.”
As a poet, she is passionate and political. As a performer, she is both vulnerable and strong, with a righteous rage roiling underneath the surface.
“Even as a little girl I was what people considered a bleeding heart,” she says. “I couldn’t take seeing anything about people suffering or any kind of injustice. I was definitely born a revolutionary.”
Still, it took her some time to get comfortable with her own voice and be fearless in sharing it with the world. When she was asked to perform on The Roots album, that was the moment she let go of all of her fears, worrying about what people might take some of the things she would say that weren’t popular or easy to hear.
“That really gave me the courage to not censor myself because there was no way I could censor myself and do what they asked me to do on that poem,” she says. “I was scared to death but I never censored myself again after that.”
Her work touches on themes that address issues involving women, children, and indigenous peoples on the planet, but particularly Black people in America, African diaspora, and the struggles, stories, and histories of African peoples from the time of enslavement in the Americas and also throughout the planet.
“This is the only place I feel completely free – when I’m writing,” she says. “I just wanted to talk about everything I cared about, keeping in mind you have to be sensitive and respectful to people’s experiences, ethnicity, religion. I’m always trying to be sensitive and respectful. This life, this work is a constant journey, a constant reckoning with yourself.”
She writes, records, and performs, but also leads workshops, works with nonprofit organizations, and plans to start doing some organizing of her own. Last year Rucker became involved with restorative justice programs in Philadelphia, working with young people who had just been released from prison as well as men who are lifers, addressing their experiences and their trauma.
“You’re sitting with [people who are not looked at as men or women, only as their alleged crimes], and you have to find a place to be human,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I’m not here to pontificate or tell you anything; I’m here to learn and share and see where we go from there. Some days I would come home gutted because they did what I asked them to do – talk about their feelings.”
She says that over more than 20 years of performing poetry, the City of Philadelphia has taught her so much about community work and activist work. “I have met the most amazing organizers. They are such incredible, inspiring people, and no one might ever know their names.”
In fact, those very people are the people inspiring her today, barely three weeks into what is already shaping up to be an almost-cartoonishly, yet no less dangerously, authoritarian presidential administration.
“Those people who are on the grind all the time, I know those people are going to continue that work,” she says. “It’s not like no one has ever been here before; we just haven’t. In America you get comfortable. You’re in America and we believe that we’re the best, and people just slip into that [mentality]. Now everybody is jarred and that may not be such a bad thing. A lot of [the prominent activists from the Civil Rights and Black Panther eras] are still alive and kicking and I can actually go to them and ask them about this shit now because it didn’t kill them then.”
Now is not the time to be despondent or turn passive, she says. “This is actually fertile ground because it’s so crazy and so new. A lot of people are waking up now, a lot of people who have been asleep and been complacent. A lot of those people are awake now and I’m interested to see whether they are going to continue their participation.”
Rucker says the greatest lesson she has learned that has made her the best person she can be came from revolutionary poet and activist Sonia Sanchez, whom she calls “Mama Sonia.”
“She taught me in college and it was a hard ass lesson because I was a revolutionary learning all this shit and was all, ‘Fuck everybody.’ She taught me this lesson of humanity – ‘Come on, Urs, this is vital.’ I fought it. I didn’t understand how I could cuss people out but still be about humanity. I just learned so much from her about that and about balance. That changed me.”
To be about humanity now might mean gathering together with like-minded people just to commiserate, just to “get it out.”
“We have to do that more often,” says Rucker. “We have to really work on meeting each other in person and hearing each other’s voices.”
But she also urges people not to be consumed by the anger and the hurt and the confusion, as angering and hurtful and confusing as these times might be.
“Pull back for a few moments and look at what you’re receiving because it can get very toxic,” she advises. “Give yourself a break. Before a major concern of mine was Black people in trauma – we’re walking around feeling like nothing is ever changing, watching those videos [of Black men being shot by police officers]. Now it’s for everyone. All this information is coming you at so quickly and some of it is so ugly; just pull back from that and give yourself a break. Buy a bouquet of flowers. Read a book of jokes.”
And above all else, keep moving forward.
(1) How do you like to collaborate? Well first let me say…I love collaborating with other artists. I need it, actually. It keeps things fresh. How I collaborate changes per project. But the consistent thing…is mutual respect. For me, that’s a vital component for meaningful and productive collaborations.
(2) How do you a start a project?
Slowly. Hahahahaha. I think about it a lot first (I’m a Virgo!). And then I just jump in and let things flow. So…it’s a well-balanced mix of plan…and spontaneity.
(3) How do you talk about your value?
Hmmmmm…not sure what you mean. My intangible value? Or the financial value of my artist self and my work? Easy to talk about the first. Uncomfortable, but necessary, to talk about the second.
(4) How do you define success?
Success is so personal. People try to box it and sell it as one or two things, but…there are so many ways to be successful…from the smallest to the greatest. When I accomplish anything I’ve set out to accomplish…I’m successful.
(5) How do you fund your work?
Oh boy! The artist’s favorite question! Haha. I’m still trying to figure that one out. For now…I’ll settle on…by the grace of God