Michael Reyes, aka Reyes The Poet, is a man on a mission. He is a man on a mission to accomplish what few dream about and even fewer actualize. He has come (and is going) a long way to bring about hope, justice, peace, and…dare I say…perfection.
As you’re about to find out below, Reyes’ captivating vision will have you challenging the stupid status quo and thinking big things. Big things…
And for good measure, here’s a sneak peek at our Modern Macho episode featuring the one and only Reyes, because that’s how much we love you:
Where education and art meet entertainment and activism. How did you come to incorporate these four entities into one identity?
Well poetry is my main tool, or weapon you might say, but I have years of experience as a community organizer and activist. Reflection is key to activism, so you develop skills as an educator. I have worked across the country teaching about politics, writing, theater and activism. And I feel if you come to my show it’s very entertaining. I’m a funny motherfucker so it’s enjoyable as well. I use all my skills to create a very different kind of performance.
Tell us about your new album and what listeners can expect to take away from it…
The album is titled We Are, and it’s a spoken word project. It’s a collaboration with DJ-Ozone, who has a crazy resume. He has worked with people like Joell Ortiz (Slaughterhouse) to folks from G.O.O.D Music. People can expect a mix of politics, wordplay and great production. Basically, it’s a window into the lives of radical/ progressive Latinos. It’s some of my best poems combined on one project.
What is your favorite medium in which to work?
I act, produce plays and I am a hip-hop artist, but what comes most naturally is poetry. I love the challenge of new mediums, but it seems poetry is what I am best at. That and community organizing, I really enjoy that. It’s not necessarily thought of as an art but organizing really is. That’s why I would never want to be just an artist. I love the challenge of organizing; I love the teamwork, the camaraderie—the passion!
What are the biggest challenges you face being a progressive and radical voice in today’s world?
I think it has been a blessing for me to have so many great mentors that challenged my growth and my political thought. The only real downside is that there are official corporate spaces that may be afraid of what I have to say. But most people are searching for something more than what you normally get from popular music. So my work fills a void, and believe me people are looking for things they can relate to. I hear it all the time, I am told, “You say things I want to say but sometimes I don’t always have the words for.” To me it’s an honor to be considered a radical voice. It’s a blessing that people want to hear my message, but I am one of many that are out there. It’s just a matter of finding those voices of dissent.
Would you care to elaborate on the following quote: “…Division Street in Humboldt Park, along 18th Street in Pilsen and 26th in Little Village, in all of Chicago, and the voices throughout the world that are oppressed by colonialism, white supremacy, neoliberalism and globalization. From Saginaw, MI to Paseo Boricua.”
Well, I don’t concern myself with conspiracy theories like the Illuminati or stuff like that. But what I do concern myself with are systems of oppression that are tangible. I don’t believe in race but I believe the system of racism exists. As humans, we have created many systems of oppression so things like capitalism, militarism, and imperialism are all forms of oppression that we can change. So if I speak about globalization it seems like some concept that manifests itself in a global sense. But when I bring that back to my hometown or my adopted city such as Chicago, globalization manifests itself locally. Gentrification, drugs, lack of jobs all are parts of globalization, they are all features of oppression.
Compare and contrast your time in Chicago and Saginaw…
Saginaw is a small postindustrial city. It’s an example of urban decay. When the auto industry closed a lot of people struggled and folks were left in very difficult situations. So drugs and violence crept in, but out of all of that ugliness there are beautiful stories of resistance, hope and love. I love my hometown and the impact on my identity and politics. When I moved to Chicago I moved to a barrio that was very similar, so the transition was natural. People think I am Puerto Rican; I am Chicano but I take it as a compliment I LOVE being Mexican but if I died and came back, Puerto Rican would be 2nd on the list.
What does a perfect world look like to you?
To me, it’s about the process of making a perfect world. A world based on equality. On justice. On love. I always equate it to folks that are Christian. They want to be Christlike, not Christ. So to me it’s about striving and fighting for a perfect world, not being perfect. Perfect is a matter of perception, but it’s about all those folks who are struggling day to day to make the world better.
What’s the most inspiring story you can convey regarding your community outreach? When was a time that you saw your ideals put into action maybe by someone else?
Well there are so many examples, from immigrant rights to anti-gentrification work but I would have to say it is the campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners. I witnessed a huge outpour and battle to free Carlos Alberto Torres who is incarcerated by the U.S government for seditious conspiracy. We were told he would die in prison and after 30 years of work and campaigning he was released. I am proud to be a part of that. It was magical the day he came home. We still have to work on releasing Oscar Lopez Rivera. He has been in prison for 31 years, but I know we will bring him home. There are two poems about him on my album.
With so much radio emphasis on rap, with the mainstream media corrupting our kids at younger and younger ages every year, how do you see poetry actually reaching the masses? And how does it have an impact? Or is it too late for poetry?
Poetry is one of our oldest art forms so in that way it has been used for generations to express ideas and concepts. Since it’s one of the simplest forms to share stories, many times it speaks truth to power. Hip hop still has that potential. I have seen too many great hip-hop artists that create with passion and come from a different perspective outside of the normal mainstream perspectives. But poetry is a great tool to reach people. It’s just that you have to grind harder to reach your audience.
I think your response speaks to the point (I was getting at) that poetry is not as readily accessible as some other forms, so do you think in some ways it’s that which makes it so unique? That it is not a part of the mainstream world?
Well it’s just that poetry has not been as commodified as other art forms. Def poetry is the closest thing to mass producing poetry, but there is no reason why at some point poetry does not become commercial. It’s like hip hop: some elements make money such as rapping and DJing where others do not, such as graff and breaking but all can be commodified at some point. I mean, you can see poetry in commercials from time to time but as of now poetry and storytelling tend to be less commercial. I would say poetry can be a great tool of resistance and as long as it speaks truth to power it will be. But whatever happens with poetry I think there will always be a space to address issues that are not commonly talked about. It’s a simple way of expressing oneself and everyone can do it. So in that regard I think poetry is powerful because you don’t have to be an expert to share, you just have to have the drive to want to get up there and be heard.
If you had to sum up your life into five words, what would they be?
Passionate, Loving, Radical, Humble and Transformative
Who are some of your favorite poets? How about five Contemporaries and five Classicals?
My favorite poets in general and in no order: Mos Def, Tupac, Saul Williams, La Bruja and Eduardo Arocho.
Miguel Pinero, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Corky Gonzales, Last Poets
Who is your favorite world leader in history and why?
I like people that are not simple T-shirt characters, and I would say there are so many leaders that have impacted me. I was very moved by meeting Lolita Lebron [Puerto Rican Nationalist and revolutionary] and Dolores Huerta, but I would say instead of one person The Zapatistas are one of my favorite movements. They drew from ancient traditions and redefined what it meant to be revolutionary. They provided a new way to struggle for justice.
What are the chances that if/when America grows up it can turn it around and get it together?
As an American, I would say we could look toward South America. The Americans of Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba are showing us a new way to define the world. We have to be concerned with the world and be concerned with our communities. I have seen so much inspirational work across the U.S. that there is hope everywhere. I travel all over the country and I have witnessed that people are hungry for justice. They are actively creating social change.
What’s next for you? What are your plans for 2013?
The next video for We Are will be shot in March, which will be directed by the amazing director Sense Hernandez, so I am really excited about that. I visit about 150 institutions a year so I am constantly touring across the country. I also have some shows set up in Puerto Rico, Canada and Europe so poetry keeps me busy. But I star in a short film that will be featured at this years’ Chicago Latino Film Festival, Un Dos Tres, and it’s a great piece of art. My theater production company, Crime Against Humanity, will be running off Broadway in New York in early May and again in Chicago in late May. I’ll also be working on my next album and launching a management company this fall. It’ll feature other radical speakers and artists. So I am always working!