Poet and songstress Ursula Rucker brings her live memoir, “My Father’s Daughter” to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater this week. A story of both her life and her mother’s, juxtaposed, “My Father’s Daughter” blends Rucker’s concisely wrought texts with projected video imagery and live guitar accompaniment. Penn Ave Creative’s project manager and 1839 contributor Joy Kmt spoke with Rucker about her one-woman show, her influences, and being uncompromising about her art.
How do you feel about being back in Pittsburgh?
I’ve been to Pittsburgh four times. The last time I was here, I was at the Kelly-Strayhorn as well. I love Pittsburgh. I’m so excited to be here for six days. That’s the longest I’ve ever been here. I’m super excited.
How long have you been performing?
I’ve been performing publicly since 1993.
Can you tell me a little about your one-woman show?
The show is extremely heavy. It’s heavy for me, and I know it’s heavy for everybody that experiences it. It’s a very unique feeling to know you’re fucking everybody up. It’s a multi-layered thing. It’s never easy. I go on the journey every time. And I know I’m taking everybody on the journey. It’ll hit some nerves in people, and they will deal with some things they don’t want to deal with or have never dealt with.
Like a woman, like Black, like African in the diaspora, like a mother. I am a poet.
The music is another part of the journey. Tim [Motzer], his music is spectacular. And the images are another aspect. There’s a talk-back afterwards, so I don’t just leave people. We talk about it. And then I usually end up going to party with people afterwards.
How do you go through the process of creating work that is so vulnerable and raw?
I’m the most comfortable in vulnerable and raw spaces. I am strangely comfortable in uncomfortable spaces. I bring a sense of discomfort to people, and I like it. I like that I say things that people thought they didn’t want to hear, but then they’re ok and most of the time they’re better. Not because of me, but because they opened up and they felt it. They let themselves feel something strange, weird and uncomfortable. Balance, it’s a recurring theme in my life. Yet, it’s in a healthy way. There’s some kind of discomfort that’s just going to mess you up. I don’t deal in that type of discomfort. I deal in healthy discomfort.
You work in many different genres and media and interact with your art in multiple ways. When you create artistically and collaborate, what is the impetus for your collaborations?
It’s ever changing. Depending on the collaboration, you’re merging your art with theirs. I enter into everything with intention, authenticity and sincerity. I’m always uncompromising. I don’t compromise for anything or anybody. If I have that, I can do anything. And I always have that. If it’s a house song, I’m not talking about no mindless shit. Somebody else can, and that’s fine. Even if it’s just a chant, if I’m just repeating, I’m putting something out into the universe that can help someone, can help me. I give great attention to detail and skill. If you’re going to be an artist, you have to do it with skill.
I bring a sense of discomfort to people, and I like it.
Well, first of all I say that it’s poetry. I know I’ll never be able to get away from the term “spoken word”; it’s impossible. Not to make people feel bad, but whenever possible I try to drive home the point that spoken word means nothing to me. That’s just a little tiny part of something that is my life. Poetry is my life. I do this for real. I mean, for real. I don’t do this to do shows; I damn sure don’t do it to make money. I am totally and–maybe crazily–committed to this. Spoken word means nothing to me. So first off, I am a poet. One of the very few things I am proud to refer to myself as, like a woman, like Black, like African in the diaspora, like a mother. I am a poet, and I do it with music a lot, which seems to be hard for people to grasp. So I try to break it down a little bit and I say, “Look me up. Check me out, see if you dig it. If you dig it, okay. If you don’t, keep it moving.”
The first time I heard you, I was in high school, and you had a track on the Roots album, Things Fall Apart, that was seminal in my development. I think that as you grow up, sometimes you take workshops and classes and things don’t really speak to you. Your poem made me realize that this was a really powerful artform. So I’m wondering, how did you decide to start writing? What was that journey like for you?
I think the answer is kind of fundamentally the same. I think I just look back at that time more intensely as the years go on. I’m not sure if I decided to write, honestly. It is very, very much a divine path for me. It’s not an easy path; it’s not something everybody can do. First of all, everybody can’t write. Second of all, not everybody can speak what they write in front of a group of people that they don’t know. Third, everybody isn’t willing to address the things that I talk about and take it to the world and see if the world will listen. A lot of time, the world won’t listen, you know. You have to commit to live this life. I do believe it’s a divine path. I have to keep going even when I feel like I can’t. It’s mostly divine with my little bit of human participation.
Who are some of your heroes and influences?
Always the same number one, Sonia Sanchez, my artist mother and mentor. I enrolled in one of her classes. As much as I mention her, she mentions me. She gets me gigs. That’s love. Anyone who helps me feed my kids and keeps my lights on, that’s love. I am beyond blessed to have her in my life, to be able to call her and talk to her about anything and about nothing. To have an advisor and just someone to shoot the shit with sometimes. When you get to meet the people who influenced you, and you get to have an ongoing relationship with them, I never, ever take that lightly, but at the same time it’s organic. I have a lot of heroes. The list would be way too long. Frida Khalo, Prince, Bob Marley. Malcolm X. If you ask me next week, then I’ll have different ones.
When was the first time that you were like, “This is divine. This is something bigger than me that’s coming through?”
I have those moments all the time. Being a human, you get totally swamped with the ritual and routine of life. You can get really caught up. You worry about things everybody worries about, like money, especially if you have a family to support and you are an artist that lives from your art. So you get stressed out, like “Oh, my God, I don’t have any gigs, how am I going to keep doing this?” You forget why it is you doing what you doing then. What always happens is, something jars me and says, “Oh you forgot why you were here. Ok, let me remind you.” And then you can keep moving forward. You got this. God got you, God’s super-friends got you. It’s constant. I have moments of weakness, and then I’m jarred out of those moments of weakness and then I’m back into my grind, my flow.
It’s not for the faint of heart, though. I tell people all the time. And I mean that shit. It’s not like I’m on some super-strong whatever, you know. This is my destiny. This is my path. But I have a lot of defining moments. I hope they never stop, because if they do I guess that means things stop for me.
How do you balance this work, drive and passion with the calls and the duties of motherhood?
Sometimes I don’t know. I have a network of friends. When I was beginning, my mother helped me a lot when I was touring. She’s older now, and she has physical ailments. Their father–we’re not together now–I wouldn’t be able to travel and stuff without him being there with them. A network, a family, a community, that is vital. A strong sense of faith and spirit for sure. It’s not easy. My friends Kindred the Family Soul, they have 6 kids. We always talk about this thing, how we do it. It’s a wild life.
How do you deal with disappointment in your life and in your career?
Of course, it’s par for the course. It’s how you deal with it, that’s the thing. Disappointments are going to come. Can you handle it? And if you feel like you can’t handle it, how long you gonna stay there before you get your ass up and handle it and keep it moving. Like, hell yeah, what? It’s always prayer involved. Meditation, all different forms of meditation. Some Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane. Grounding myself within myself. Doing that thing that gets you out of that headspace where you’re like, “Oh, shit, I can’t do this.” You know damn well you can do it. I’m doing it. This is it. I don’t always do it to my best ability, and I’m not the greatest human being. I’m always on a journey. But I’m always doing it.