The little ones, an eight-year-old daughter and an-eight-month-old son, are in bed, and Justin Rogers is trying to answer my questions quietly. But his excitement and passion for art still shows, despite his efforts to keep it down.
After an all-out performance at Detroit’s Drunken Retort one year anniversary and Grand Rapids’ Monday Retort at Stella’s, I talked with Justin, asking him about his life, poetry, and how he writes such jaw-dropping poems as “Things America Better Have Other than My Money.” I got to the bottom of the subject matter he so effortlessly weaves into powerful lines like, “My name is always interchangeable with something that sounds more like self-destruct.”
“Where does the inspiration and connection to this material come from?” I want to know.
“I can be hood and professional, and that’s okay. Black urban communities are stereotyped quite heavily. Not everyone in the ‘hood’ dreams to be a rapper or basketball player. Some of us love Harry Potter and thrift stores. Some of us never owned guns!”
To give you some background on Justin’s subject matter, you’d have to understand his high school years. He joined an extracurricular writing community in Detroit called CityWide Poets, taking on an opportunity that is only just starting to emerge here in Grand Rapids.
He performed at Brave New Voices during his high school career several years in a row, improving his craft and performance dynamics each time. When he first walked into BNV in California in 2009, he recalls thinking, “There’s a world of poets! I was like, oh snap son.” He quickly joined the ranks of all those poets, gaining recognition at BNV and then working with other students at CityWide Poets after he graduated from high school.
While in CityWide Poets, he worked under a number of talented poets, including Jamaal May, whose poetry collection Hum deals with “Detroit’s post-industrial landscape and legacy,” a trait that is also visible in Justin’s poetry.
Take this passage from “Things America Better Have Other than My Money” for example:
“Don’t act like you forgot that you
only taught your children how to
count us in groups of sports or
Yall should know my skin well enough to
assume myself and two other black men
will form a ‘gang’ –
that we will come after you in a drop top,
backseat full of unregistered guns.
Wouldn’t it be safer to just pay me what
you owe me? Doesn’t all my melanin
look like a drive by to you? Doesn’t my
nappy hair belong in a club?
You better stop labelling me ‘Urban.’
You better stop really meaning Ghetto.”
He explores stereotypes felt especially in his community in a Detroit characterized by ongoing issues of discrimination and the perceived ‘sex appeal’ of black appearance and entertainment that is never allowed to leave its limits in what our society terms “the ghetto.” More voices like Justin’s are needed to address the ongoing issues of racism, cultural segregation, and violence, both physical and social.
Today, Justin keeps busy as an undergraduate student at Wayne State University where he majors in Art. He writes and works with students from Detroit, and he also coordinates the WayneSLAM (Student Led Art Movement). “We sat down and said, ‘Hey, we want to put together a venue where it’s not just about one group of artists.’ All the painters, photographers, etc. are all separate. We wanted a space where everybody could come together.”
Thus, the WayneSLAM came into being, featuring artists such as Danez Smith, T. Miller, and Siaara Freeman. “It’s great to be able to pay artists,” Justin said, proud of hosting a college venue that boasts higher attendance than many other open mics in the city.
“What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in your shoes someday?” I asked.
“Read as much as possible and watch as much as possible. But also [do] not be afraid to write whatever you need to talk about,” he replied. “Writers often get stuck in what other people are writing or what the trends are. They don’t write about what’s interesting to them. They need to work to make their story relatable to other people.”
Want to hear more from Justin? You can get a copy of his chapbook, Chaos in the City, by contacting him through his website. Plus, he’s all over YouTube. And stay tuned! He’s working on a full-length collection of art and poetry!