Poet A Scribe Called Quess Talks About Struggles Under Oppression In His New Film
An interview about "Many Fires This Time"
Q&A: A Scribe Called Quess, Poet from Many Fires This Time
Bill Arceneaux: What does the James Baldwin-inspired title Many Fires This Time mean to you and to We the 100 Million?
A Scribe Called Quess: For me personally, Uncle Jimmy is a literary ancestor, elder, godfather. So, when I was searching for a good title for the movie, I literally looked over my shoulder while sitting at my desk and saw his book on my bookshelf, “The Fire Next Time.” It made me remember something that I’ve thought for years, since the early 2000s when I first read it and got into his work, which was that we were living in that fire that he spoke of. But in light of the last few year’s developments, I really had to say that fire was manifest manifold. There are many fires this time. It ain’t just the uprisings against racialized violence (and for that matter, yesteryear’s struggles weren’t limited to just that either). But now it’s every facet of racialized violence from dilapidated infrastructure to environmental racism to housing scarcity. And it’s multiethnic in its onslaught which is to say every so-called race gets it and even working-class and poor white people too.
When we really look at it, it’s always been this way. Even yesteryear had several resistance movements (the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Pride movement, the Young Patriots, the feminist movement, and Gay Pride movement) that were all bolstered by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. But in this season, it seems that people are starting to understand a little more clearly (I’d like to hope) how connected our struggles are. And this lends itself to the possibility of mass mobilization like we saw last year. So, for the 100 million people and growing—it’s actually more like 140 million now—living in economic insecurity, it’s a bit more possible for us to zoom out and see each other as kindred in struggle and build solidarity from there.
BA: The movie ebbs and flows wonderfully with the words and sensations of the poets featured, cutting in and out with the faces and actions of silent characters. What is it about poetry that works so well across the full spectrum of art, from text to film?
Quess: I like to get a little biblical—or better yet, spiritual on that one. “In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with God.” All of the oldest spiritual traditions have upheld the power of the spoken word as a gateway to (or from) the heavens, as a conduit to our greatest power as humans. One of the oldest religious traditions, Yoruba or IFA from the area we now call Nigeria, had several words for that power. One of them is afose which basically translates to the power of the word. Their word for light was ala. Their word for magician was a contraction of the two: alafose. So a magician was literally someone whose words shed light. Somewhere between my traditional Christian understanding of the written and spoken word, and the understanding I glean from African spiritual traditions, I look at poets as conjurers of divine light gleaned from our highest levels of vibration and understanding. The word is our tool to wield that light. Where Many Fires is concerned, it informed Jason (Foster)’s videography, Jeremy (Guyton)’s choreography, free (feral)’s scoring. It’s said that poets are the midwives of reality. We birth consciousness with the word. And the rest of the collaborating artists walked that consciousness into new forms… sound, light, movement.
BA: Organizing against economic inequity is a major challenge all the time, absolutely. What gets people to act, for themselves and for others?
Quess: I think people are motivated by their material conditions. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. So imagine what desperation will get you. When systems fail you, when worse yet, they violently assault you, you have to invent defense and ultimately a new system that serves you. That’s what makes you stand for you and those you identify with. But the key in getting folks to stand with and for others is making them see their own struggle in others’. To expand the lens of identity.
To understand the commonalities in our struggles if for nothing else by understanding the commonalities in the sources of our oppression. When we can identify not just ourselves, but the systems oppressing us and call them by name: hetero-patriarchy, classism, racism, capitalism—and understand how each of those systems builds off of each other to form the multi-layered oppressions we contend with today, well then we can understand how our liberation is caught up in each other just as much as our struggle. How none of us are free until all of us are.
The movie was built off of processes that honor that knowledge. Processes like story circles, passed on to us by our late great New Orleanian ancestor John O’ Neal who used stories to help us see one another in each other’s lives. He did this with the Free Southern Theater back during the Civil Rights era and passed those skills down to the good folks at Junebug Productions who introduced me to the story circle method along with John himself. I literally not only went back to some of my old Junebug collaborators (like Jason, Jeremy and free) to make this film with me, but I also used story circles as well as Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed pedagogy to conduct workshops with folks around the country as we built this. The goal was to get folks to see and hear one another’s struggles through story and theater games. And in the end, we hope they’ll all see a bit of each other’s connected struggles in the final film. We hope this builds solidarity. Or at least plants the seeds for it.
BA: At one point, the topic of information access is brought up, highlighting a 1% strategy of buying community publications just to shut them down and cut off the spigot of news and coverage that connects people to everyone and everything. What can readers and journalists do to combat these takeovers?
Quess: Support independent media and grassroots organizing that is not funded by big capital. These are the voices we’re trained to look away from by the big multi-media conglomerates that run the world’s entertainment. There are literally only 5 major companies that have monopolized modern media. And their vice grip control trickles down to the smallest levels of communication just like big banks and corporations do. It’s basically imperialism on the media front. Better yet, it’s imperialism’s media arm because all of these big companies are beholden to or in business with the same big banks and corporations that control the material resources of the globe through imperialism. So, it’s in their interests to perpetuate the narratives of materialism and consumerism rooted in hetero-patriarchal and racist ideals that ultimately uphold capitalism and oppress and divide the working class. It’s in our interest as working-class people to tell our stories to each other honestly, to politically educate ourselves to shed the baggage of ruling class ideology, and as we discover our truest selves and tell those stories, to continually support each other’s independent grassroots work in pushing those stories out to the world.
Many Fires This Time is an attempt at doing such. But there are many more. And in order for them to succeed in getting out into the world and changing the narratives, the people’s values need to be aligned with freedom struggle, with anti-capitalism, anti-racism, and against all forms of oppression towards a more liberatory politic that grants economic equity and access for all and the end to all forms of specialized oppressions designed to divide us. Only with a more clear and politically informed mindset will we be capable of making informed decisions about what we lend our ears, eyes, attention and power to. Once we have that though, the necessary collective knowledge of self, we can work towards creating the material world we want and need much less the media that reflects it.
BA: I loved how advocates and individuals of various backgrounds were met with and let into this project for participation. What difficulties are there in opening up and getting involved with those you may disagree with on some or many issues?
Quess: It’s a lot of what I mentioned in the last answer. Which is the challenge of releasing the baggage of ruling class ideologies. There may be white folks who don’t like me or distrust me because of what they’ve heard about Black folks. I may feel the same about them. But when we can dig deep enough through story exchange to acknowledge that the same capitalist system hell-bent on greed and exploitation that’s disenfranchising them of their homes and jobs in Kentucky due to Big Pharma replacing Big Coal for example, is the same one disenfranchising me and my people of a football field of wetlands every 100 minutes in Louisiana while creating environmental crises like Cancer Alley that creates neighborhoods like Gordon Plaza (the 2nd highest cancer-causing neighborhood in our state) and in Louisiana it’s all due to Big Oil and the petrochemical industry, well then we can see that we have a common enemy. A common source of oppression—the rich white ruling class. And when we can understand that that class has been around since this country’s inception (and even beyond) and has deployed the false ideology of white “supremacy” (actually rooted in notions of inferiority and manifest as the toxicity that is our present system/circumstance) then we can peel back the illusions and establish a shared understanding. Understanding can breed solidarity and then we can work together in such.
BA: In this film, I observed a certain power in the sharp-edged and assertive spoken word performances, which says to me that the best time to act and to speak is now. Is this ultimately what Many Fires This Time hopes to convey?
Quess: Yes. It’s always now. I’m glad you got that from the film.
Register for free to experience the online premiere of Many Fires This Time on April 24th, 2021 - featuring the film, moderated panels, and a Twitch dance party - here.