What kind of art do you practice?
I’m a poet and spoken word artist. I am the founder and executive director of BlackTableArts, which is an emerging non-profit that seeks to conjure other worlds through black art by connecting creatives and cultivating volume in black life through programs such as Black Lines Matter. I am an educator. I teach literacy development through the black radical tradition, hip-hop pedagogy, and poetic practice.
What lead you to become an artist?
Tupac. I entered scholarship through hip-hop music. I remember being ten years old and being adopted, and I listened to a lot of hip-hop. Tupac was the first artist that drew me into art for activism and art as a catalyst to start with scholarship. Tupac was really unique in that he plugged speeches into his songs, which intrigued me and sparked my curiosity to ask who these people are that he’s plugging in to his music and why did he chose these writers, scholars, and activists? He really showed me that the poem can go beyond the page. It can be a catalyst to start conversation and interrogate society’s moral compass - or lack of moral compass. He really used art to charge people to look at the world around them.
When I was in high school I went through the black box theatre program at Washburn High School (that should be funded right now) and it was the first classroom that sparked my curiosity with its quotes on the walls. Its aesthetic told me that there was a priority of scholarship in the room because I had to look at a quote from James Baldwin, Malcolm X, or Audree Lore, who were these figures who critiqued the society around them.
How does art influence the world around you?
At BlackTableArts, for example, we believe that words create worlds, and I think that is so important to reiterate. We know that language is the codification of the world and everybody should have access to that code. I think that is a fundamental point that we can start from, and also use to understand what language can do to culture and to use to interrogate mission statements. When considering police brutality, for example, what does it mean to serve and protect?
Along with this, being a poet, there's a particular archiving that I’m invested in. I look to Gwendolyn Brooks when she says things like Verse Journalism. The idea that poems can serve as journalism influences me to prioritise protest poetry. Language can be an archive of experience. It is like a first person account of events that are happening around us. I think art can make hard conversations easy, but it can also say “here is a hard conversation that cannot be made easy.” I think that art charges us to make eye contact with hard questions, and I don’t think that art should be expected to have answers. I think that art is interested in problem posing. I am inspired by art that problem-poses rather than claiming to have answers.
What else inspires you?
Of course my family inspires me. My siblings inspire me, both blood-related and not blood-related. Asking questions really inspires me. History inspires me.
My community inspires me. I see in the community that I’m from, my friends really care for each other in this moment and in this political climate. The intentionality I see and people showing up for each other really inspires me right now. It shows that if efforts are put into these invisible episodes that we don’t always see in terms of how we show up for each other and how we lend to what we need. It just inspires me to know that we are all we got and that’s enough.
It's a lot to unpack, but community, family, music, the art being produced by young people, my students, the Minneapolis poetry scene, and our discussions at Black Lines Matter all inspire me.
What is Dream Justice?
The initiative to heal, teach, acknowledge and learn through and about the blockades that stop people from striving towards their goals, ambitions and asserting their personhood. Dream Justice argues there are systems in place that prevent dreaming by which we mean goal setting from marginalized and dispossessed communities. Dream Justice aims to eradicate the blockades that prevent future visioning from black, queer, trans, and other rendered invisible identities.
What has been the greatest adversity you’ve faced as an artist?
I’m thinking about sustainability and what it means to be a spoken word artist and simultaneously run an arts organization. Having to apply for funding spurs questions of who has the privilege to oversee applications, and who is allowed to be an expert. It's so complex to consider monetary sustainability. Thinking about longevity and sustainability, it's important that people can survive and be properly compensated for their work. We live in a certain political moment that is not prioritising the arts right now. Trying to think about multiple strategies to sustain a practice and at the same time knowing that we are all we’ve got, and that enough.
How are we going to use all of our resources? Are there students at schools in the Twin Cities, for example, that know about the grants available at MRAC or the Minnesota State Arts Board? Are we preparing young people who go through artistic programming on budget making and proposal narratives? A lot of what I’m getting at is that I think about young people a lot in regards to prepping. One of my favorite writers, Lucille Clifton says “Come celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life” and “I had no model.” I think a lot about mentorship and access to information. I think the greatest adversity is a lack of models being presented to them to practice their art outside of school in a way that’s sustainable.
“In my work I am not trying to build a product I am trying to build a process, a model to conjure other worlds”
- Keno Evol
What has been your greatest joy as an artist?
Watching the students I’m learning with invite themselves to be brave, because in real time, I see a protocol of healing and restorative justice. The way I see young people supporting one another during class readings, open mics, and protests is a model for culture shifting. I see words creating worlds in the ways young people support each other and give each other feedback. We don’t live in a culture of feedback in terms of political media. We don’t live in a culture of listening when it comes to different opinions. But I see young people doing that, all the time, and that's a particular joy. Sometimes I’m a pessimist and I don’t think certain things are possible, but young people remind me that certain things are possible. We can have a conversation, and dialogue, and learn together, and critique each other.
How do you engage community in your practice?
When I think about why I love teaching Black Lines Matter, it's because we show that the public classroom is possible. I think that's huge because it's a multi-generational, multi-experienced, public classroom that becomes possible. Its autonomous so we decide what we want to talk about and what we want to cover.
I think that we assume that things have to be governed or controlled at all times, so how do I engage? I invite people to participate in critical thinking through poetry, and people show up in real ways: to challenge their own assumptions, to learn, to validate, and to study at the same time. I invite, and my community invites me to participate in various rooms, whether that be a spoken word open mic or a classroom. I put the call out, and others put the call out for me to come into spaces, and people show up in real, authentic ways.
How has Intermedia Arts been a part of your story?
Intermedia Arts has been a part of my narrative for a minute now. In 2012 I got the VERVE grant, and that was my first one-man-show; it was about adoption. Through the VERVE grant I was able to release a clothing company in 2014. I’ve been involved with various other performances and been called to perform in the space throughout 2014 till the present. I recently got the Beyond the Pure fellowship. I have really enjoyed being able to help out with the youth spoken word in Open Stages. Overall, I have been called into this space a lot and there has been a steady communication between myself and this space that has been really healthy.
It was so cool to be here for Sistah Solo | Being Brothas and The Blacker the Berry… and so many shows like those. Just being a witness in both of those moments, I feel like black life was being celebrated in an authentic way. Intermedia Arts calling community into the space but also being explicit that it is a space of no-racism, no misogyny, no sexism, no transphobia, I think that matters because we don’t have a lot of institutions that say that explicitly, and words create worlds. I appreciate Intermedia for doing that. For the same reason that's why art and poetry are so important, because it is another way which we have the chance to define words, make decisions, and know how things manifest in the language that we use.
Keno Evol is the founder and executive director of BlackTableArts. An arts based org centered on conjuring other worlds through black art by connecting creatives and cultivating volume in black Life. BlackTableArts is a home for black arts. BlackTableArts powers community through the Black Lines Matter writing program taking place at The Loft Literary Center, The Free Black Table Open Mic taking place at the illusion theater and curated events that center black social politic and black creativity. Black Lines Matter is the first public, multi-generational, multi-experience writing classroom covering black protest poetry in the state of Minnesota.Evol won first Place in the 2017 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest. Evol is a six year educator having taught at nineteen institutions across the state of Minnesota. Evol Just concluded Black Voices at Washburn offered through TruArtSpeaks a course centered on providing MPLS students an opportunity to engage with black literature, theory and the craft of poetry. TruArtSpeaks is a non profit in St Paul, dedicating to cultivating literacy, leadership and social justice through the study and application of spoken word and Hip Hop culture. Evol has received the Verve Grant, And the Beyond the Pure fellowship for his work. He has been published in Split This Rock, Radius Lit and Vinyl
Evol has performed, taught workshops and led professional development in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington DC, Arkansas, Minnesota and New York. He has gone on to teach Spoken Word poetry in high schools such as Brooklyn Center High, MNIC High, PYC, Paladin Academy, Creative Arts and John Glenn Middle School. He has appeared on TPT and Urban Perspectives. He navigates noting Patricia Hill Collins as she has stated “My work has always been bigger than my job”