Since the March 8th passing of Seattle Hip-Hop Legend & Pioneer Jonathan “Wordsayer” Moore, this Seattlelite/Long Beacher has joined the rest of his home town in mourning our city’s collective loss. Having not lived in the 206 since 2009, I can’t recall even bumping into Jon since he was a groomsman in our good mutual friends’ wedding almost 10 years ago. However, despite the distance, this sunny SoCal Sunday finds my heart hella heavy. Like, I assume, most everyone else who knew him or even knew of him, I have spent the past half week attempting to take inventory of what this dynamic local leader & multifaceted community pillar meant to me. I will not discuss Wordsayer the innovative artist & local Hip-Hop trailblazer, for that surface has already been scratched. & I will not pretend to have known him well enough to take a shot at penning anything that even attempts to adequately convey the friend, father, & family member he was. What I will share with you is the dimension of Jon’s personhood that most impacted me personally: that of role model.
I had the privilege of spending two consecutive semesters in the ’99/’00 school year sitting under Jon’s skillful tutelage in the poetry class he taught at Franklin High School. During that year, I gleaned countless gems from him, but there are three life-altering concepts that I can most readily articulate:
The first is what I will call the “complexity of manhood”. Growing up, the two varieties of manhood most perceivable to me were the dominant culture’s “stand up straight, look ’em in the eye, firm hand shake”, G.I. Joe Montana version, & the contextualized 1990’s South Seattle money, cars, & violence, Bangin’ on Wax-inspired version. But Jon was the first man I remember personally meeting that rejected both of these defaults, embodying a model of manhood that was not so pre-manufactured. It’s not that he inhabited some middle ground between these two domains; he operated in a plane completely separate from them. You see, Jon exemplified a brand of manhood that was (from my perspective) rooted in genuine comfort with being organically shaped by ones life experiences &, therefore, not pivoting ones life upon the expectation(s) & opinions of others. His manhood was not the binary ‘this or that’, ‘black or white’, ‘either or’ type from which we are usually forced to choose; his was comprised of innumerable moving parts, none of which he felt compelled to render before the idol of conformity. At Franklin, Jon didn’t try to “gangster” himself up for the students, nor did he try to be a member of the cast of Friends for the faculty. No, this Morehouse-educated street-smart vegan MC rolled up to my high school in his family-friendly minivan with untinted windows & upended my superficial notion of manhood with his authentic confidence in his ability to handle his responsibilities & exercise his craft(s), based on the richness of his character, not the approval of his public persona. None of this is to say that he wasn’t “cool”, but that he fashioned his own class of cool that had never previously occurred to most of us, while simultaneously seeming to be categorically unconcerned with anyone else’s appraisal of his revolutionary cool.
The second is living life with a critical eye. This doesn’t mean furnishing an unsolicited critique of all that one encounters, but rather, understanding that most everything in life is more than meets the eye. When I began Jon’s class, I was already listening to Black Star, Dead Prez, & The Roots, but he was the first irrevocably woke (back then we called it “conscious”) person I recall meeting in person. Indeed some of my fellow teenagers were as woke as 17 years on earth would permit, but at this time, Jon had a solid 3 decades of life experience that made his wokeness many times more developed & robust than that of my contemporaries. His ability to both critically examine the testament of “the powers that be” & to see beneath the surface of society’s superficies largely shaped the way I interpret the world today. In fact, my adopting of Jon’s practice of transcending the status quo by habitually applying evaluative disciplines to life is the foundational reason I named this blog The Intentional Life.
The third is the honest assessment of race relations in this world, & especially our nation. This stems from the previous gleaned concept, as viewing society with a critical eye will force one to be faced with the unfortunate race-related realities in which we live, but I believe this particular value is weighty enough to warrant its own explication. It’s actually a bit reductive for me to refer to Jon’s class as merely “a poetry class”; ‘a collective exploration of wokeness & woke-like themes, by way of poetry & spoken word’ is more apposite. As such, group discussion played a large & indispensable part of the class’ structure. Naturally, in these group discussions that funneled into the artistic expression of South Seattle high school students’ lives, the topics of race & racism came up sometimes. It was in these moments of cooperative mining for truth that I first became aware of systemic racism. Since about 1st grade I had observed that I was treated differently by teachers, principals, & police officers, than were my peers, but (as best as I can recall) always attributed these observations to the cumulative effects of individual racism on behalf of said authority figures. It wasn’t until these invaluable class discussions led by Jon that I began to realize that a country designed by white people for white people would naturally have built-in mechanisms that favor white people. Upon recognizing this truth, I (& hopefully the other white kid in the class) set about the lifelong process of confronting & wrestling with my white privilege. I’ll never know how intentionally (or not) Jon steered the conversation toward these tense & weighty themes, but what I do remember is the firm & truthful, yet compassionate way he walked us through them when they arose. For a white person, there is hardly a more disconcerting feeling than the cognitive dissonance that accompanies stepping into an awareness of ones own privilege, as the very idea flies in the face of the “merit-based life position” belief with which we’ve been indoctrinated since birth. But he seemed to understand that privilege is blinding, so we can’t see that we can’t see what we can’t see, &, as such, expertly aided us in unearthing the truth for ourselves (I need to be very clear at this point & state that no one owes white people a gentle escort into the knowledge of our privilege; truth is truth regardless of our dissenting views &/or willingness to accept it). It was as though he was not so much confronting us, as he was helping to free us. Had it been someone else exposing me to the reality of white privilege, my white fragility may have been too strongly triggered to listen & I could easily be living in denial to this day; but thanks to Jon’s candidness & care, my worldview began & still continues to undergo the lengthy & much needed process of recasting. Even if this were the one & only gift he ever gave me, I would still owe him a debt far too great to ever repay.
As I conclude this commentary on Jon’s lasting influence as a role model in my life, I’m struck by the irony that, though “Wordsayer” was always a rich source of wise words, the life he lived spoke more loudly to me than all of the words he could ever say.
This has been but a cursory account of how this inspiring man forever changed my life, specifically as a role model. I would LOVE to hear how he changed yours! Seriously, please say something about him in the comments section; let’s document Jon’s impact on our lives!