Danny Simmons, keeper of culture, steward of word, custodian of fine arts and village counselor, retains his sovereignty here in Brooklyn, evidenced by how rapidly tickets are moving fast for the RestorationARTS Def Poetry Jam Reunion. Curated by Simmons, the assuredly powerful event takes place at the Billie Holiday Theatre this Saturday, September 15 in afternoon and evening performances.
Among Danny’s Def family members returning to celebrate are poet-legend Sonia Sanchez, whose work shaped the Black Arts Movement; and spoken word artists Liza Jessie Peterson, Steve Colman, Ursula Rucker, Bonafide Rojas, and Derick Cross, among others. Craig SirmuMsila Grant aka “muMs da Schemer” will host.
“From the beginning, we knew our poetic voices could make a huge difference on the cultural landscape of America,” says Simmons, who also once told Our Time Press that the role of the artist is to shape, develop and work the craft, then give it to the world. That thought takes centerstage this Saturday when RestorationART launches its season with this milestone “Jam.” For tickets and additional information, visit: www.billieholiday.org and www.restorationart.org, or call: 866-811-4111.
“You still got that dog?”
“Nah man, the dog died years ago. That dog, if he was alive today he’d be about 25 years old.”
In the mid 90’s, you would often find a dreadlocked Danny Simmons walking his Clinton Hill neighborhood with a giant dog by his side. Back then, most of the young folk in the neighborhood, myself included, had no idea of this unassuming man’s famous lineage. He was just the cool art guy with the giant dog. But, that art guy has made his life’s work about community development through the arts.
Danny returns to Brooklyn this weekend as curator of the Def Poetry Jam Reunion at Restoration this Saturday. There are two shows, one at 3pm and the other at 7pm. Def Poetry Jam was actually a creation of Danny’s along with Bruce George and Debra Pointer. As he puts it, “Basically, the television was such a powerful influence on the American landscape. It created generations of poets and it validated spoken word poetry as a legitimate art form. The thing that I’m presenting is the memories of how powerful the show was, with some of the poets that were on the show. To bring it back home to Brooklyn where it all started, because for me spoken word poetry started at the Brooklyn Moon and I started doing it at Corridor. When people started seeing it at Corridor, Bruce came to me and said, ‘Danny let’s see what we could do to take this to the next level.’
So… based on Def Comedy Jam, I created Def Poetry Jam and brought it to Russell and we sold it to HBO and it became a show. So, with this reunion, I wanted people to remember how powerful spoken word poetry is. The poets are still out here doing what they do. Poets don’t stop poeting because a TV show comes and goes. To be able to bring them all back together and place them in the hood in Brooklyn where it all started is a really powerful thing for me and I think it will be a powerful thing for the community.”
Community is key when discussing the life and work of Danny Simmons. In 1996, he opened up The Corridor Gallery at 334 Grand Avenue, with the goal bring art to the community. “Corridor Gallery was a gallery put there to bring art to the community. What I wanted to do with Corridor is to show Brooklyn artists and neighborhood artists to the community. Corridor was really there for the community to experience art where they lived, so that they didn’t have to go places where they felt uncomfortable just to experience art. We launched the careers of a lot of artists, a lot of our great artists had their first show at Corridor, so it was also a boost for artists to have a place to show their work somewhere in their own communities.”
Corridor closed its doors in June, after over 20 years of serving art to our community. But, Danny’s work has continued in Philadelphia. In September 2016, he opened RUSH Arts Philadelphia in the township of Logan, in North Philly. The location might have changed, but the goal is the same. “The mission at RAP (RUSH Arts Philly) is exactly the same mission as Corridor. The main focus is community development through the arts. Community development and art education through the arts. By doing that, we give artists the opportunity to show their works. But really, it’s for the community to come and to experience culture and see how culture can change their lives and their communities. I get so many people who live in the neighborhood tell me how happy they are that I took the time and made the effort to put something in their neighborhood that no one had ever taken the time to do. There are no other cultural outlets in that [Philly] neighborhood. The only other thing that could possibly be considered a cultural outlet is the library. So me bringing this to the neighborhood is something that signals to them that things could be changing.”
Culture brings hope. It would’ve taken a bunch of high minds in some intensive discussions to make the decision to put a cultural center smack in the middle of North Philly. But with Danny, the connectivity seems effortless. He gets it, and our communities have benefited for decades because he gets it. “If you are honestly trying to fill a need and you aren’t being self-serving, things will work themselves out. I’ve been blessed. I ain’t never been rich, but I ain’t never miss a meal, either. The fact that you are doing things from the heart really helps with the success. What you put into this life you’ll get back. The reason why I haven’t missed a lot of meals is because I’ve given out a lot.”
Danny Simmons is a cultural icon, and no matter where he lays his hat, he still calls Brooklyn home.