Love on the South Side Inspires His Words on the Stage

Poignant and lyrical like his poems, Harold Green’s normal speech is like a soft-spoken, rhythmic prose, sounding almost like poetry to his listener’s ears. 

He’s a spoken word performer, and found that poetry is the way he’s supposed to spread his message of love and appreciation to the world. The value of his work and the value of his family are consistent in his work—from “When I Grow Up” to “Something to Live For,” Green tells us what drives him.

Born in 1985 in Chicago, Green grew up in Englewood, a neighborhood in the Windy City with a reputation for being rough. Despite the environment, Green describes his upbringing as warm and loving, as he lived with his immediate and extended family in a two-flat—a trademark two-family apartment unit special to Chicago, where he was surrounded by affection and support.

“I had a love bubble that I lived in,” Green said. “Every day, we felt, no matter what was going on outside, when we walked through those doors, we knew that we were going to be embraced with love and surrounded by people that loved us.”

His upbringing and the bubble of support he had in childhood made him realize how strong and positive an effect love has, even in the face of adversity, he said.

“[Love,] that’s what I always wanted to push,” the poet said. “And that’s what I always wanted to use as a foundation because I know how prevalent it can be, and how effective it can be.”

While his family laid the foundation of much of his art, Green’s family members were not professional artists. With most of his family working in education and his father serving as a FedEx courier, Green is the only member in his immediate family pursuing a career in the arts. Even without a family of professional artists, however, Green was still exposed to poetry at a young age by his father, who used to write him and his sister poems.

“Because his handwriting wasn’t that great, I didn’t really know what he was saying sometimes,” Green recalled fondly. “But I knew that he was calling us prince and princess a lot, and I thought that was really cool.”

While Green’s work is primarily built on his identity as black man and a family man, he also stresses the universality in his work. Although his individual pieces always have a specific theme, his voice is striking for everyone because he starts with the goal of finding love and beauty in the world, something that he believes everyone can understand.

“Where I come from and where I’ve been creates a very unique outlook,” Green said. “But I have so much respect for women and I have so much respect for love, and its abilities to change this world.”

Green is a creature of habit when he produces his work. He finds his inspiration everywhere, all the time, and whenever something strikes his creativity, he uses the notes app on his phone to keep a collection of random titles, concepts, and themes to document his fleeting thoughts to fully process later.

“I just go to a certain chair and table that I sit in at my house, and wait ’til everybody goes to sleep, so everybody else’s mental frequencies are not interrupting mine, and it’s usually at night that I write,” Green said. “I’m a very ritualistic person, so it usually looks the same.”

Green started writing rap in sixth grade, but his eventual true calling to poetry came in high school. Even though he always had a proclivity for creative writing, Green only really began experimenting with poetry in his senior year, but still did not fully consider poetry a viable career choice.

“I started performing in church and stuff like that, and that’s cool, but I know if you say your ABCs probably they’ll clap for you in church,” Green joked.

His interest in poetry shifted from a hobby to a serious pursuit in college, where he gained traction and recognition for his spoken-word poetry, as well as a bigger, more diverse audience, whom Green noticed he could move with his words. 

“I went to Grambling State University, and we had like, representatives from each of the 50 states and the way in which they reacted to my poetry, I knew that it was a very real thing,” Green said. “I knew that people were yearning that particular connection to an art.”

During his freshman year, he released an album. The summer after, he got an envelope in the mail. Inside was a picture of a classmate and her newborn son—on the back, his classmate wrote that if it weren’t for Green and his word, she never would have met her child.

“She had suicidal thoughts, and just from listening to my album on repeat and kind of just listening to the themes of it and things of that nature, she decided against those actions,” Green said. 

“So at that point, I realized that what I was doing was so much bigger than me. And I think once you realize something is bigger than you, you have to take a step back and realize that continuing that particular thing is a selfless act.”

In addition to writing a couple of stage plays, Green also had a rap career, but in the past five or six years he has focused on poetry. 

He attributes his success to his constant dedication. Once, he wrote a new poem every single day for an entire year, going out of his comfort zone to challenge himself. 

Green was personally requested to speak at the 2015 Mayoral Inauguration as the Inaugural Poet by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, where his performance received a standing ovation from notable politicians including former president Bill Clinton, former mayor of Chicago Richard Daley, and U.S. senator Dick Durbin.

“Consistency is key, and high value of work is key,” Green said. “You really don’t know, you know, who you are necessarily as an artist until, you know, you can produce a mass of work that you can consider yourself, like okay, I get it now—I know my voice.”

Speaking about his own experience, Green reflects on how lucky he was to be able to pursue a full-time career in the arts, but also on how work ethic and high standards were a necessity for success in the artistic field.

Encouraging aspiring artists, Green stresses the importance of having the mindset to persevere through difficulty. 

“It’s gonna be a lot of no’s. There’s gonna be a lot of people that are not even gonna look your way. But for those one or two that do, you keep harboring on those wins and keep pushing on.”

Although Green finds plenty of similarities between different forms of word-focused art, what draws Green to spoken poetry in particular is the performance and universality that bring so much power to the medium. Likening spoken-word more to hip-hop, Green believes that the two have a similar raw emotion that excels in forging human connect.

“I think sometimes we get lost in the schematics of literary poetry that makes it seem like if I’m not from a certain field that I don’t really know what this is,” Green said. “But when you break it all down, it makes total sense, no matter what your background is.” 

Green began gaining traction from word of mouth. People had seen and loved his performances, and Facebook was just gaining popularity. Green recalls different accolades and awards he was receiving on campus for his art pulling him further into the spotlight. People from neighboring campuses saw Green when visiting Grambling, leading to invitations to their campuses. Green also traveled around to different states to participate in open mics, which led to even more exposure.

Beginning to get paid job offers to perform his poems helped Green realize his potential to turn his art into a career, and he decided to leave Grambling in his junior year to fully focus on his professional career. He went back to school later to finish his undergraduate degree in creative writing at DePaul University and a master’s degree in humanities and creative writing at Tiffin University. 

Green started an artists’ collective called Flowers For the Living in Chicago in 2011, which has developed into its current form with a nine-piece band, three background singers, eight singers, and Green himself in 2014. Sam Trump, Green’s collaborator in Soul and Stanzas, is a trumpeter and singer in his collective who has performed in Boston before, and the two frequently post their collaborations on YouTube where they caught the notice of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

“They [the Museum] saw us together and was like ‘oh my god, we’ve got to have them,’” Green said. “Every time Sam and I perform together it’s just a really magical thing.”

Green takes pride in the uniqueness of his work and how it can connect and inspire others. He wants people to both relate to his work and realize a new way of looking at the world with help from his perspective. With a love for life, Green’s sensitivity allows him to fully explore the world in ways that others might overlook.

“I’m so in tune with my feelings and the small intricate details of life,” Green said. 

Green’s work has a meaning that is beyond an expiration date. In his view, the spoken word has a particular longevity that transcends the brevity of fads and pop culture. Through his appreciation of humanity and the deep beauty he sees in the world, Green believes that his work will continue to mature and develop, and he could see himself creating poems for as long as he lives.

“The beauty of it [spoken word poetry] is there will be a human interest and a human sentiment,” Green said. “I think as I evolve as a person, my thoughts and views will evolve with my writings, and so will human beings. And human beings will always want to hear what evolution looks like through a writer’s words.”

Note: Bringing his performance to Boston, Green will perform alongside his friend and fellow artist Sam Trump in Soul and Stanzas on Sept. 26, kicking off the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Fall Thursday Evening Concert Series that showcases contemporary talent and emerging young artists. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Phorever August

Stephanie Liu

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