Philly native and Temple grad Ursula Rucker has been storming hearts and minds with her own brand of interdisciplinary spoken-word performance all over the world, but she loves her home in Germantown.
Rucker has released five of her own albums, and recorded and performed with artists like The Roots, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, King Britt, and many others. Last year, Mural Arts featured her epic poem Logan Squared: Ode to Philly in its city-wide Monument Lab exhibition. This year, she’s a Pew fellow.
It’s a scary time to be a journalist, and you have a journalism degree. How does that background inform or influence your current writing and performance practice?
I didn’t really know how it informed my practice until people told me throughout the years … I am an observer, and kind of reporting what I’m seeing and what I’m feeling … things we need to pay attention to, work that needs to be done. I basically have accepted that I am artist, but within being an artist … I’m also an observer and a reporter.
As a spoken word artist, would you point to one thing artistically or culturally at this moment that makes Philly your home, besides the fact of your roots here?
There’s not going to be any one thing that’s going to make me love my city any more. I already love it at full capacity. I love it honestly. The bumps and the bruises and the bright spots … I reserve the right to talk badly about it when I feel like it’s not doing well or the people in the city aren’t being good humans … [But] nobody else can say anything about it. … If you’re not from here, then I suggest you be quiet! [Laughs.]
It’s not just that I was born here. It’s that Philly is special. Philly is real. It’s ancient … It informs everything that I do and everything that I am. The artist that I am, the woman, the mother. This place informs me, gives me guts to go out in the world and be who I am and do what I do everywhere.
Especially from an arts, culture, and historical perspective, Germantown is one of the most under-appreciated gems in the city. Sonia Sanchez is another Philly legend. Talk about the magic in Germantown.
Gladly! First of all, we’re right near the Wissahickon … The Native American sacred ground that we live on is in everything that we do. It’s even in the Founding Fathers-type history … There’s a lot of African enslaved people energy … Underground Railroad, abolitionist history and energy … the community is strong, it’s tight. It’s not perfect. No community is. But I think it gets ignored because maybe some place like University City is culturally diverse and hip and popping, and Germantown gets ignored for its cultural community, its cultural sense of inclusion.
From the prettiest manicured block to the roughest kind of hood-type block … we all say hello … it’s just special. As we get approached by gentrifiers … we’re kind of all gathered together … with our rakes and our brooms … we’re like yo, you’re not coming in here easily. … We’re talking in our coffee shops like oh my god, what are we gonna do? [Laughs.]
It’s just magical.
There’s something amazing about the way you string seemingly contradictory phrases and emotions together for a unified emotional punch. As a writer, can you talk about the process of finding those unexpected pairings and fitting them together the right way?
Honestly, it’s just as much skill and craft as it is organic for me. The way that I work, also the way that I perform … I create a foundation or frame for a piece, and then I allow myself freedom to go outside the frame; be free within the frame, spill over, move all over inside. I like the frame, the frame makes me feel good, and honoring and recognizing my love of the craft and my honing of the skill set is important, but the organics are just as important, if not just a little bit more important.
Thinking about that “frame,” Is your writing process integrated with your sensibility as a performer from the start, or do the words start in a separate place?
The words start in a separate place. They have a place of their own. I don’t write to perform, even when I’m writing a song that I know I’m going to eventually perform. Even if has a hook in it. I write with the intention to string the right words and thoughts and emotions and ideas together in a way that can first, get out of myself fully and properly, and then possibly, hopefully, [be shared] with the people.
When you get to that place when you’re ready to share, collaborations are a pillar of your career, whether they’re with other artists, or existing institutions. Do you want to talk about a time that a collaboration led to a surprising shift or insight for you or your work?
Definitely the first thing I ever wrote and recorded for and with The Roots, The Unlocking, was a super important defining moment for me personally, aside from how it’s still traveling … It enabled me and allowed me for the first time ever to not censor myself … I could feel the fear … I had to just let it fly. Should I do this? What am I doing? I let it go completely to the point where it was recorded and it was on the album and I was like, ok, there’s no turning back now! [Laughs.] … It changed my life, it changed my approach to my art; from that point forward I never ever looked back, I never hold anything back … always keeping the intention in mind that I’m never wanting to disrespect anyone on any level. Their religion, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their anything … Outside of that, I’m completely and utterly free. All my hang-ups are hung up! [Laughs.] If you censor yourself, how can you do anything? So that’s one of my missions on the planet.
Can you talk about some of the ways collaboration is scary or challenging for an artist?
Yeah, it is, especially when you’re working with people that you’re just meeting, but you know they’re heavy hitters in whatever they’re doing … You can’t just know how to work with other artists or like-minded people. You have to learn how to work with everyone. You have to learn how to work with curators and technical planners, you just have to be open. That’s what this taught me. It really challenged my commitment to organics. I had to really rely heavily on just going with the flow.
Do you want to talk the fellowship? You recently received a Pew fellowship for $75,000. What’s on the horizon for you with that?
I don’t know, that’s the exciting part! … It’s a wide-open road … It’s what I looked forward to the most when I used to dream about winning the Pew, [over] 20 years and six tries.
What was that moment like, when you found out it was a reality?
If I’m going to be honest with you, my life is riddled with moments of full yin and yang … I think the universe and the divine forces think I can handle it, but I’m kind of ready to be done with it. The profound dark and the profound light happening simultaneously; That’s what happened in that moment … I just had to laugh to myself, of course.
What upcoming Philly performances do you want to spotlight?
First coming up is one of my favorite things that I do almost every year with one of my favorite Philly art and creative and community-centered entities, Scribe Video Center, which doesn’t get the love that it deserves … They have a series called Street Movies! every summer, and every summer I perform at one of them … I could go across the country and across the world and it’s still this neighborhood thing that I love the most.
This year I’m excitedly doing it in Germantown at John B. Kelly School on August 25, so I just want everyone to know about that. Come and show up and it’s free!
Is there anything burning with you that you really wish you could say or put out there that nobody thinks to ask? What’s important?
What’s important is being a parent and artist who lives off your art and doesn’t get spoken about enough. Being a parent and choosing to only pursue your art as a means of making a living and as a means of hailing the planet and a means of being creative. You still have to parent. You still have to give your children what they need and you still have to survive. I just want to shout out all the parents who are artists living on their art alone, and say that they’re not alone, and it’s important that we know that we’re not alone, and what we do is valuable and important and profound and necessary.
Lead photo by Sven Frenzel.