Back in September 2008, poet-performer jessica Care moore (the unusual capitalization is deliberate) appeared on the cover of this very publication. At the time, she had just returned to her hometown of Detroit from Atlanta. Before that, she had been living in New York City and, during her 12 years away, moore earned her fair share of success. She found herself on the stage of the Apollo and saw her reputation as a shining star in modern American poetry blossom. She's published books of poetry by, among others, Def Poetry Jam co-founder Danny Simmons, NBA player Etan Thomas, and former Essence magazine editor AshaBendele. She's performed all over the world more than once, and now she's looking to conquer the music world.
Moore is twice divorced and the mother of a son, King, who is now 8. She moved back to Detroit to be closer to her family during the second divorce; at the time she was nursing 1-year-old King. However, moore is a tough woman, a strong, proud mother with an independent, though gloriously social, spirit. In conversation, she's a whirlwind. During this interview, she's asked perhaps six questions — the rest of the time, she's simply talking. And talking, and talking. That's not a criticism — moore is a captivating, enthusiastic speaker and it's impossible not to get carried away with her.
She's certainly enthusiastic about her home. Back in 2008, moore told MT writer Norene Cashen that, "A lot of my poems are informed by Detroit. Even when I wasn't living in Detroit. I can't help it. I really enjoy the stuff that's here. There are things I see that aren't here. But it's always been that way."
You should read that '08 interview. First, because it's fantastic and, second, because there's really little point re-treading old ground. Moore, ever the evolving artist, certainly doesn't want it that way, so we endeavor to keep things fresh. When we speak to her, Christmas is just a couple of days away, but the poet isn't a fan of Santa and his capitalist elves. "Not in a traditional sense, though there's a tree in my living room right now," she says. "I haven't [celebrated it] in years, since I was a grown-up. When I moved to New York, I felt like I'm not a Christian, so I'm not celebrating the birth of Jesus, and that's what it's supposed to be about. If you're not doing that, I'm in New York, I have no kids, then what am I doing? It's about the kids. I do like the holiday time, I like sharing and giving and all that good stuff. But the capitalism associated with it I don't like. Tony Medina, a really great poet, has these series of books about Santa from the perspective of young poor children. About kids, when they really truly believe in Santa Claus and how if they're naughty they don't get gifts, then what happens to these kids who think they aren't getting presents because they're bad, not because their mom and dad can't afford to buy them. For me, it became a political thing. I didn't want to participate in this super-capitalist holiday. I grew up with the west side of Detroit, but I had a different kind of thinking. I don't like to celebrate because Hallmark tells us to. I'm a humungous birthday person. I go all-out because that's an individual thing to celebrate. The capitalist thing gets on my nerves. I get into the Easter Bunny because it's old-school pagan. Our Christmas tree has butterflies attached to it, dream catchers and little voodoo dolls. You have to make it your own."
Fair enough. Something that is close to moore's heart at present is her Black Women Rock project. Founded in 2004, the 90-minute show is a tribute to pioneer rocker Betty Davis and features vocalists from across the country. In other words, it's a collaborative performance, a mega-jam featuring some of the most talented black female musicians in America and indeed the world.
"I've been wanting to talk about it more," moore says. "I still consider myself a poet first. That informs everything that I do. I always think of Patti Smith, because there weren't a lot of other people I could relate to who were doing what I was doing. I've always been interested in what poetry can do with music. Not many of us are doing that. I've also worked with drum 'n' bass and jungle. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, and it's funny, because I was doing all this rock 'n' roll, funk and soul, and now I'm recording a jazz project. That's absolutely amazing. I have this incredible quartet. I've been recording over on Grand Boulevard, and it's like electric jazz. There are pieces dedicated to Etta James and Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and all these incredible women. Whitney Houston, who died so tragically young. I met her and she really was an amazing person. It's amazing, these women who die through broken hearts living tragic lives, but they inspire so many people while they're alive through their work and their voices. Looking at the things that I've been through and the heartbreaks that I've dealt with, I've dealt with a lot of pain as far as love is concerned, but I've remained joyful, healthy and drug-free, as corny as that sounds. I'm not shooting up, snorting up into my nose, getting drunk and high, and that's really important. That's a major issue for me. I have to remain healthy on every level — physically and spiritually. I'm in better shape now at 41 than I was at 21. I can run a 10k. I run hills outside with my partner and music friends. All of that is a part of me being a good mother, so that I can be aware, awake and clear. I can talk about what I've been through but not wallow in it and not let that be my story."
In fact, moore's adoration for Betty Davis, the second wife of Miles, has only increased while rocking with her Black Women. "When I was in Atlanta, I was missing the New York energy," she says. "I did a tribute to Betty Davis. Ahmir ["Questlove" Thompson] from the Roots told me that I smile like Betty Davis. I looked her up and found her, got introduced to her music and I was blown out of the water. Who is this woman? She's breathtakingly beautiful, she's sexy, and she has this amazing story about being married to Miles. I thought, why isn't everyone talking about this woman? So we did a celebration of Betty Davis. I wanted to bring light on the fact that women of color have trouble getting a deal. I want to show all these beautiful women on the planet and how we look with different shapes and colors and whatever. We don't all look like one thing. I saw that scene in New York, and there were all of these amazing women. It's amazing how we've been all over the world independently. You don't have to sign all of your publishing rights away and have someone tell you what you can wear. You can actually do this shit on your own, own the label and distribute your own music. We're definitely not the industry show. That's not my interest. My interest is the women who are famous in their own right. The Gil Scott-Heron kind of thing, the cult following. Betty Davis is a household name for us, but others would say, 'Huh? Who is that?' That's my life. I like to be in the middle so I can stay sane. The music helps me get to a different audience. Being a poet from Detroit, it was never about being in some café playing some damn poetry spot. It was always reaching as many people as possible."
From the outside, it seems stunning that, in 2013, quality musicians are still being overlooked or even held back because they are both black and female. One would hope that society is now capable of seeing past that sort of prejudicial nonsense. Apparently not. "Are you kidding me?" asks Moore. "If they're not singing R&B, the industry doesn't know what to do. We have amazing vocalists here in Detroit and they don't all want to sing R&B, some want to sing rock 'n' roll. It's music for God's sake, but it's still that complicated. Thankfully, because of the Internet and other resources, we are able to break through. I thought about making it just 'Women Rock', but it's easier for a white girl to get a deal, no question about it. The Alanis Morissettes and Didos, but I like all those girls. I wish that they would come help Black Women Rock. It's fucking hard for us to get the record deal. [Local singer-songwriter] Mayaeni's on my show. She's breathtakingly beautiful and talented. What else do you want? With Black Women Rock, we're trying to create a network to help women across the country. The dream is to be able to make those international connections, and some kind of a summer music camp here in Detroit where they can come and teach. We need more girls. I can't find a black girl who plays a strong lead electric guitar here in Detroit."
That, according to moore, is what Black Women Rock is all about — the desire to show people that black females can rock as hard as any white dude. Just give them a damned guitar and watch them smash down those boundaries. "When we do a Black Women Rock show, people are left stunned because we play hard," she says. "Even my entire production staff is women and it's a beautiful thing because that shit runs smoothly. We've gotten it down. We have played festivals where they would normally book white-boy indie rock groups. We get the biggest turnout too. The organizers worry that just black people are going to come, which is so ridiculous. Who doesn't want to see women on stage in high heels playing rock 'n' roll. Who doesn't want to see that? My friend said, 'Jessica, I'm the whitest woman in the world and I love Black Women Rock.'"
Moore, now 42, says that her outlook on life changed dramatically when she reached her 40s. "I think when I turned 40, it changed the way I look at men and love, and the things that matter to me. A maturity sets in. All my woman friends who were past 40 told me it was going to happen. I got to the point of saying exactly how I feel about something. Clarity has set in. With my art, I'm dealing with the urgency of wanting to get more work out. I'm recording like crazy now. I used to be very careful about recording. My voice is now mature enough that anything I say I can go to my grave with. There were things I wrote in my 20s and even my 30s that I couldn't write now. Now, I can say something and I'm not afraid of what I'll think of it when I'm 80 or 90. I'm not going to be regretting those things. I have a book of poetry coming out, and I'm editing an anthology. Because I'm older, I'm aware of the need to put my legacy in front of me. I've been busy publishing new authors. I want to really focus on getting my writing out."
Moore has actually been looked down upon, ridiculously, throughout her career, and not just because of her gender or the color of her skin. "Because the way that I became known wasn't through literary journals, I don't always get respect," she says. "I became famous on that stage and it changed my life. I have friends in the academic community who love me. I've taught at all types of schools, Ivy League and everything. I've been doing that for years, so I've been in that world but not of it, and I think that's a great position to be in. I know I'd be a cool-ass teacher if I want. I don't know if I'm old enough to want to do that to myself. I'm doing what a lot of university professors want to do — living as a full-time writer. That's what you want to do. You want to teach, and I like teaching in jails and juvenile detention centers. I love being in the jails and prisons. Using poetry as a foundation, we can get our kids interested in going to school. I'm able to get to those kids. Not everyone can do that, but I go in there and I know that I can. As I get older, that's some of the work that is more important to me. Getting my presence known in the intellectual world. The thing is, I'm also a snob. I'm so highbrow when it comes to theater. I can't stand mediocre playwriting. If something isn't really edgy and provocative and the storytelling isn't well done, then I hate it. I'm like that with film. I can't stand the typical films that are put there. I don't see myself in the story so I'm not interested. As a poet, I'm very critical because I know the greatest poets in the country. They're my friends, they're my peers."
That raises an interesting question. Isn't art completely subjective? Is it not the case that there is no such thing as bad art, just art that you don't like? Moore doesn't think so. "That's bullshit," she says. "There's such a thing as bad art. There are museums even in Michigan where I stare at shit and think, 'What is this?' The art for art's sake thing is bullshit. I don't believe in that at all. I come from a blue-collar Detroit place. When I became a poet full-time in New York, my brother would ask what my real job was going to be. I say that I want to be a poet and they're like, 'What the fuck does that mean? What are you talking about? What are you gonna do for a living? Where will you get your money?' The concept of being an artist puzzled them. I think like an artist, but at the same time, I have a job. Sometimes, it's work. Going to the postbox to mail stuff out — this is work. Writing isn't like work, but there is work involved in it."
As well as expanding her résumé to include rock and jazz music, moore has made a move into the art world, as in actually painting and drawing. "I can't draw anything, I can't draw a Mickey Mouse," she says. "But I was asked to make something. I got a canvas and painted my first ocean. It was really corny. That gave me the idea to do this other thing. Now I have a painting studio in my basement, and I've sold a few thousand dollars' worth of art. People buy my paintings and photographs, although some of that I know is that I was already established in another genre. If another painter saw my work I'm sure he'd say that I have some work to do. People are interested in what I'm thinking about, I guess. I have an exhibition right now. So I've become an artist in that way, but all my art has purpose. I have visual artist friends and they're brilliant, they're genius at what they do. So I come very humbly into that world. I'm trying to learn. It's good to be a student at 41. It's all things I'm trying to say. It keeps me on my toes as an artist. It allows me not to get stuck in genre boxes. I do rock 'n' roll, so now I can do a large concert as opposed to a poetry spot. I can do multimedia festivals. I'm trying to show people what is possible."
Moore is an extremely positive, easy-to-like woman, but don't make the mistake of referring to her as a "spoken word artist." "I fought religiously against the 'spoken word artist' tag," moore says. "I can't stand being called a spoken word artist. It's not in any of my bios. Nothing that comes from my press or my PR. I stopped using it because 90 percent of the time, if I tell people that I'm a poet, the next thing they'll say to me is, 'So you're a spoken word artist,' and I'd say, 'No, I'm a poet, like T.S. Elliot and Emily Simpson.' It became really irritating to be dumbed down, because that's what it is. I'm like, 'Can I just be a poet please?' Do I have to be someone who snaps fingers in coffee houses and all that corny shit? Even if I do that, does that still mean that I'm not a poet? Poets do that too. It's not what I know. "Spoken word" became this thing when I'd go to college campuses. Hip-hop poet is another one. What do you call me that for? I like Led Zeppelin. Because I listen to Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest? I'm a hip-hop generation poet, sure. It makes zero sense to call me a hip-hop poet. They don't mean any harm."
Next for moore is a film project, called Unfinished Work. That will see the poet (and she is still a poet) make strides into yet another artistic arena. Her rock record Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is due out soon, as is her next book of poetry, Sunlight Through Bulletholes and her memoir Love is Not the Enemy. Whatever she does, you can be sure that moore will continue to scrub away boundaries. "The first Black Women Rock show we did, there were more white people there than I'd ever seen," she says. "This is how Detroit needs to look — multicultural. I hate labels. I always question why somebody would call me something I'd never call myself."
We just call her talented.
Brett Callwood writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]