Ithaca College senior Dubian Ade doesn’t simply sit down and write a poem.
He may trip over one on his way to work, take it home and muse on it for one or two hours in a composition notebook. He may suddenly hear one in class during a discussion, scribble words down and ruminate on them for days. He may detect the scent of a poem from miles away and then follow it thinking, “There is a poem in there.” He’ll excavate until he uncovers roots and discovers ideas. He’ll chew it over, digest the poem and then spit it to whoever will listen.
If you close your eyes, Ade’s spoken word can transport you to Africa, to a prison or to your kitchen. His unfaltering Bronx accent can invoke ancestors, stress urgency and conjure up courage to reflect on issues like racism and social movements.
When he’s performing, he’ll introduce himself, pause for a few seconds and look past the audience. As he begins to recite his poem, he’ll observe someone way in the back — invisible to everyone but him — beginning to mouth the poem back to him. His voice grows with his presence, and Ade’s 5-foot-5-inch slender figure will suddenly look 7 feet tall.
With a beanie, square glasses, black pants and tucked-in sweater, Ade comes across as a scholar. He stands stiffly, but gestures with his hands and extends his arms to the audience as if handing them a gift.
“When I go up on stage, my voice changes because what’s about to be said is absolutely necessary,” he explained. “What’s about to be said must be heard.”
Ade double majors in philosophy-religion and writing at the college. He discovered his love for spoken word poetry freshman year
after attending a performance by Spit That, a student organization that promotes and
performs spoken word. He said he recalls watching the performers and thinking he would never have the guts to go on stage.
“Lo and behold, the first time I really performed was spring semester freshman year,” he said. “I was shaking. Sometimes I still get
nervous when I’m performing, and my right leg will start tapping.”
That year, with encouragement from friends, he joined the organization and became part of the executive board. He performed at the college, in events at Cornell University and in the Ithaca community. Ade held a position on the Spit That executive board for three years until he stepped down this year.
“In the end, Spit That didn’t need me anymore, ” he said.
Other members of the organization look up to Ade for advice and mentorship. At a banquet hosted by Brothers 4 Brothers, a club that supports male students at the college, earlier this year, no fewer than 30 people went up to greet him.
Ade’s ever-present ear-to-ear smile is like a “Welcome” sign on his face. He greets with a hug and “How’s it going?” Never just “Hello.”
As he searched for a place to sit, he stopped at every other table in the banquet. He maneuvered his plate with one hand and used the other for handshakes and fist-bumps.
“Dubian! You chillin?”
“Always,” he said.
Junior Taj Harvey approached Ade during the banquet with one of his poems to ask for advice. He was worried about how people would react to the topic and language.
“I gotta get my boy Dubian to check it out,” Harvey said.
Ade swallowed the food in his mouth, sipped some water and simply said, “Reaction is not important, what’s important is that you know it is something that has to be said.”
Harvey nodded approvingly.
“Ten years from now when I see him on TIME Magazine, I’m gonna say, ‘I know him,’” Harvey said, turning to the student sitting next to Ade.
Two years ago, at the Ithaca Festival of Black Gospel, Ade recited a controversial poetic critique of Christianity and how it envelops many aspects of the black community. The poem pushed the audience members to reflect on why they were Christian. It reminded them that the slaveowners of black forefathers were also Christian. Those who whipped their backs and raped their women, he said, were Christian. African ancestors who were abducted from their land were not.
“Is it OK to ask why my savior doesn’t look like me?” his poem asked.
“We did not come here Christians … How can we overcome if we believe what they believed?” he said, concluding the poem.
This final verse was not followed by applause or the accustomed finger snaps, just silence, he said.
Ade’s strong performances and bold language won him an invitation to Antiracism, Inc., a national project at the University of California in Santa Barbara designed to help recognize new forms of colorblind racism and develop vocabulary and critical resources to counter them. Ade was one of a selected group of poets invited to perform and participate in the program last summer.
Paula Ioanide, professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, said she was involved in the inception of the Antiracism project, and she recruited Ade for it after watching him deliver a poem on stage.
“I was so impressed that I went up to him right after he performed, and I almost hugged him,” she said. “I have rarely heard somebody that young be able to have that level of sophistication in poetry and in the spoken form of it, [because] even there, there is a certain type of artistry involved.”
In Santa Barbara, he performed and conducted a poetry workshop alongside several well-known spoken word poets. Meeting these poets, Ade said, was like a dream.
“Psssh,” he sighed. “Just from the plane over, just the way everything fell into place, there was something very organic about it, very real about it, but at the same time it was this fantasy.”
In the workshop, Ade was the first to lead a writing exercise and then perform. Holding a drum between his knees, he began banging to construct a beat. He cued the person next to him to add words to the drum’s song by sharing a verse. Then, the next person recited a verse and then the next until everyone had contributed to the collective rap.
“We get into the room, there’s a bunch of people that we don’t know, [we] get in there, and it’s like psssh wow,” he said. “We facilitated this need for people to share their voices; that’s more than we could ever ask for.”
At the event, called “Poetic Interventions,” he performed in front of an audience of students, scholars and community members. His poem was so powerful, Felice Blake, assistant professor of English at UCSB and program director, nearly fell over listening to it. She left her seat and walked out of the room to collect herself, she said.
“It was like he came to a realm in which words and pictures really melted into each other, so it became an experience of the poem as opposed to hearing it,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.”
Antiracism Works, the second part of the program, culminates in May with a conference that will bring together the scholars, activists and poets who have participated in the program in the last two years and to which Ade will return.
To his mother, Leann Campbell, Ade’s talent comes as no surprise. In fact, it runs in his blood. Campbell also wrote poetry when she was younger, and Ade’s father, she said, is a playwright. The first time she saw her son perform, he dedicated a poem to her, “Mother.”
“He blew them away, he blew me away,” she said. “I actually got up and did a piece of my own, and I felt really nervous following him because he is so good.”
Ade attributes his knack for telling stories to his mother, who would give Ade daily reports of the most interesting incidents at her job. Many of Ade’s poems provide a clear beginning and end.
Growing up in the Bronx and attending inner-city schools throughout his life meant Ade would, statistically speaking, end up in community college studying something practical, he said. When applying to colleges, he opted for biology because it was a career guaranteeing security and a future. A four-year education in philosophy or writing was inconceivable.
Sophomore year, he received a sign from the universe embodied in a frog during a lab lesson in his Animal Physiology class. The lesson was on muscle contractions, and the instructor had brought a tray of frogs to dissect and run electric current through for a demonstration. She carried the frogs to the back, cut the brain stem and then passed them out to the students.
Ade swears as he placed the charged prongs on the freshly dissected leg, the frog was suddenly resurrected. It looked down to its leg and flinched.
“I was like, ‘Yo, this frog is not dead.’”
The professor, he said, explained the creepy phenomenon as a common occurrence.
“As if she was the frog and knew exactly what the frog was going through,” he said. “I had to walk out.”
After three semesters studying biology, he changed majors. But the frog incident was only the last straw. For a year and a half, Ade had struggled to find interest in the career path he had chosen. He said he found it difficult to relate his life experience to science. For many students from his high school, he said, the same probably applied.
“The subjects that we were being taught had nothing to do with our day-to-day experience. So when black males are walking in the classrooms wondering why their family member got gunned down the other day … or ‘Why does he live in the place where he’s at,’ or ‘Where are the white people at?’” he said. “Those questions were not being answered in class … [for] people who don’t make it into college, those questions will never be answered.”
Though he has traveled across the country to convey messages of social change, Ade is also involved in the Ithaca community. Ioanide has summoned Ade for performances at demonstrations with local activist groups such as the Shawn Greenwood Working Group, an organization formed after Shawn
Greenwood, an African-American Ithaca resident, was killed in 2010 by Ithaca Police Officer Brian Bangs. Earlier this year, Ade recited a poem at the Shawn Greenwood Memorial.
“It’s not just that he is a poet, it’s that he understands social conditions and how these systemic
oppressions play out in people’s lives,” Ioanide said.
Most of his work sheds light on issues of identity, racism, injustice and how people are interconnected. Last summer, he performed at a vigil for Trayvon Martin in Ithaca.
Ade said he recalls following coverage of the Trayvon Martin case last summer, when a newfound interest in his heritage drove him to read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and examine the lives and works of other black revolutionaries in the 1960s. Watching George
Zimmerman leave the courtroom a free man in July sparked a visceral frustration and spurred in him a need to take action.
In response, he marched to Ithaca City Hall in a vigil organized by members of the Greenwood group. When the group reached the building, Ade walked to the front steps and spat rhymes alongside a fellow spoken word poet.
When community activist groups united to petition the Tompkins County Legislature to stop the county jail expansion last month, Ade shared the microphone with five other Ithaca College community members to appeal to the legislators’ hearts and insisted, “We are all affected, we are all connected.”
While still in college, Ade said he is considering graduate school, but nothing can be set in stone.
Sometimes he sits in class and a social issue such as education reform smacks him in the face. He freaks out and contemplates dropping out of college to ignite an education movement based on alternative learning concepts such as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s theory of dialectical learning.
“As much as I’ll get up on stage, and I’ll spit something and I’ll get the finger snaps and hmms and the applause, I know better than to think that that’s where it ends,” Ade said.
Ade is currently working on two new poems to perform in Santa Barbara. He paces up and down his room, which sets the mood for many of his pieces. Walls are covered with tapestries and ancestral paintings, and an African hair pick hangs next to the door. It is the first African artifact he bought, and he not only displays it, but hairs stuck to its spine show he also uses it to style his afro. He plays jazz on a vinyl record player while he writes and rewrites poems 10 times, 20 times, to edit them and commit them to memory. He wants to be certain they are ready for the conference, he said.
Ade said he knows no one person can create change or burden himself with that dream. The most he can hope is that through his words he can be a catalyst that positively contributes to a collective movement.
“I know I’m supposed to use this voice in whatever capacity,” he said. “I know I’m supposed to not remain silent. As far as poetry, I can’t not write. There is really no going back for me in terms of writing. Writing is kind of my crutch, so I’ll always be doing poetry no matter what.”