Interview with Christian Collier

Chattanooga, Tennessee (TFC) – Christian J. Collier is a 2015 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellow.  This program is made possible by a major grant from the Surdna Foundation and by the generous support of Loft members.

He is an accomplished artist, public speaker, and educator who has shared the stage with several members of HBO’s Def Poetry cast, legendary poet and activist Ishmael Reed, Grammy-nominated artist Minton Sparks, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members The Impressions, etc. Mr. Collier has also given a TED Talk and repeatedly been featured on the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel, which prides itself on featuring the best spoken word artists working today. Some of his works have been featured in The Guardian, and published in such publications as The Seven Hills Review, Dirty Chai, Voicemail Poems, Calliope Magazine, and The Origami Poetry Project to name a few, and his 2009 chapbook Ghosts & Echoes has sold hundreds of copies, independently, solely off the strength of readings and live performances.

In October of 2013, he released his debut EP Between Beauty & Bedlam, which he wrote and produced himself. The record fuses spoken word poetry and an eclectic mix of musical genres including Hip-Hop and ambient to make a sonic gumbo. It is available now at CD Baby, Bandcamp, at live performances, and from Christian’s website.

John: What first got you into Social Justice activism?

Christian: I think I grew up in an environment that was very rooted in social justice, from the books that were always present in my household (“Nigger” by Dick Gregory, “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, etc.) to the music my mother would play (Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, the first album by The Last Poets, and more). When I was in my teens, I was a part of an organization that was focused on doing a number of community service projects. During my tenure there, I had the opportunity to meet people like Rae Lewis-Thornton, who is an amazing AIDS activist, as well as going into the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham that was the site of the 1963 bombing that took the lives of four Black girls. In fact, I got to meet one of the people who attended school with them. I think instances like that not only introduce you to different types and eras of struggle, but they put a face to it, and it drives the pain, the hope, etc. home all the more for you.


John: What are your thoughts on ending systemic oppression?

Christian: Well, I think a core, fundamental step is for people to recognize that these things actually exist. I’ve spent over a year now working on a project that uses poetry to explore issues of race, as well as sex and gender. I’ve had the opportunity to conduct interviews with people who’ve weighed-in on their own stories and struggles pertaining to those issues. One commonality that’s been surprising is that people have, and continue to, disbelieve that racism, sexism, etc. are real. A number of people, for whatever reason, are not capable of actually accepting that as fact, so I think that breaking that down has to be a necessary step. It’s hard to gain traction with anything when a decent portion of the population thinks you’re just making up concerns or lying about things that you, the citizens in your neighborhoods, etc. face or have dealt with for generations.

I think we’re in a great era now, because documentation has become second-hand. Now, so many people have cellphones and can utilize mediums like Twitter, Instagram, etc. to accurately tell their own stories and capture things that they face. It’s one reason why Ferguson was, and still is, so talked about.

Technology never really moves backward, so I think as time continues to pass, we’ll see more people from different communities capturing how they’re being oppressed or threatened, or failed by institutions that are supposed to protect and sustain them and their well-being (like Flint, for example). I believe that you’ll see more diverse networking, more assistance and awareness, etc.


John: When did you first start writing poetry?

Christian: I started writing poetry in 1998. I actually started writing in order to woo an older girl I went to high school with. As fate would have it, I didn’t get the girl, but I’ve been given a pretty exciting and humbling life and journey. Not a bad trade-off.


JohnCan you share with us a poem you think best exemplifies your work or a video link to one?

Christian: Absolutely. Some major themes I cover in my work tend to deal with love dissolving, how we see and treat each other in society, and race. Acceptance has been one of my most popular pieces over the course of the past six years:


John: What can we do to fight sectarianism in our communities?

Christian: The best that I can do is throw some ideas on the table. I always think that the ability to have an ongoing dialogue tends to help different communities. Communication not only helps all sides involved remain aware of prevalent issues, problems, wants, etc. that exist, but I also believe it helps build and sustain commonalities. For instance, in most groups, people are really adamant about the protection, health, and education of children. That provides a foundation that can not only be built upon, but also provides multiple opportunities for mutual understanding.  


John: What are your thoughts on the current election?

Christian: I have many. I think that on the Republican side, we’ve been seeing the reality of where the party has been headed for years. For over eight now, they’ve had no distinct identity. If you looked back at the make-up of Republican representation twenty years ago, you had a range. For example, you had prevalent moderates. You’d be hard-pressed to find any in the upper tier of the party today, and I find that very telling. The shift to be more and more conservative has kind of quelled the remainder of the spectrum, and I have to feel that that’s caused a tremendous amount of isolation for those who want to feel connected, that this is still the group that speaks to and for them, but don’t really have a significant seat at the table.

Outside of that, everyone has been so focused on Trump, and for good reason. The amount of media coverage and outrage has made his campaign a mainstay. However, I think that as a result of that, a good number of the really obtuse things that Ted Cruz has said have largely gone unnoticed and unchecked. When he made the “carpet-bombing” statement, for instance, it showed not only his ignorance on how ISIS operates and effective ways to engage them, but that maneuver would be a war crime. It’s concerning that more attention isn’t being attributed to that kind of thinking and rhetoric, but we’re all mesmerized by the spectacle of Donald’s campaign for the time being.

On the Democratic side, things have pretty much played out the way I initially anticipated. I do think that the way the candidates on both sides have been engaged is also interesting. Issues involving race, for example, have largely been directed at the Democratic candidates. Those same questions have pretty much gone unasked during debates on the other side.


John: What are your thoughts on environmentalism and that some scientists say this may be the last 80 years of human life on this planet if we continue on the current path?

Christian: Environmentalism is a pretty vast concept, but it’s one that I’m in favor of. I would hope that most people would be on board with the betterment of the world we share.

As far as the idea that this could be the last 80 years of human life, I definitely would have to take a look at the evidence they’re pulling from. I’m actually very interested in doing more research and seeing what I can find.


John: Do you believe the social justice movements in the U.S. have more effectively used social media  to expose corruption, or that the powers that be have more effectively used surveillance to prevent resistance?

Christian: Well, I think it depends on the era we’re talking about. One of the reasons MLK’s approach was so effective is because he used the media at the time to take the struggle Black people were facing and have it broadcast directly into the homes of white people. It was able to pull at their basic humanity. Through the years, other movements have used different platforms as well. I think that now, social justice groups, for the most part, have done a great job of using media to express corruption, oppression, call people to arms, build alliances, etc.

I feel like we’re in a slightly different age now though, both in terms of social media and the efforts of prevention. Hackers have a tremendous amount of power at their disposal, and we’ve seen organizations like Anonymous work to bring more to the forefront. They’ve taken on some major issues and institutions.

I think that surveillance as we’ve traditionally known it has become an old model. We’re in the age where people, groups, etc. largely put their own content out there. I think now, people who want to control narratives or punish those who happen to capture things others would like left in the dark, have had to use different means – such as intimidation, harassment, physical harm, etc.


John: Is some level of revolution needed? Is there anyway to stop the violence and disparity toward communities of color without organized use of force?

Christian: I think it’s definitely possible to help curve violence towards POC, but it requires a lot. Historically, a number of the shifts in the world have involved two common factors – economics and brutality. I would argue that the Civil War is a great example of this.

We, in America, specifically, understand force more clearly than a number of other options. It’s direct action with clear-cut results. If you listen to the rhetoric that Ted Cruz has used, or even Marco Rubio when he was still in the race, they both spoke a great deal about force. You heard about killing radical Islamists (not bringing them to justice), how America needs to both be and appear stronger in the face of the world, etc.

As far as what can be done to help stop violence and disparity, I want to mention just one for the sake of time. I think accountability has to be present in all cases. For generations, there have been corrupt police officers, politicians, etc. whose actions have gone unquestioned and unpunished. My research for my poetry project over the course of the past year has shown me that, generally, people view those in positions of power as infallible, which is mind-blowing. People are people at the end of the day, and we all do what we can get away with. If systems of checks and balances aren’t in place or aren’t truly holding people accountable, then you’re laying the foundation for atrocities to both occur and persist.


John: Any final shout outs?

Christian: Yes. Off the top of my head, Ellen Page and Ian Daniel have been doing phenomenal work on their “Gaycation” program. They’re documenting the LGBTQ community over the course of the world and bringing attention to the issues they face. I’ve always been a big fan of Lisa Ling’s programs, and this is very much in the same vein.

Also, for those who aren’t already familiar with her, I think people should check out Aja Monet. She’s a beautiful poet, activist, warrior woman, etc. A great deal of the work she’s been immersed in is really inspiring to me, and I legitimately feel that more people should be aware of, and encounter, what she’s up to. You’ll thank me later.