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INTERVIEW: Lukasz Polowczyk aka Aint About Me 2.0

If words are devices used to convey meaning, then it follows that writing and speaking are two vehicles that may be used to transport them.

It was in a different vehicle that I first heard the spoken words of Łukasz Polowczyk aka Aint About Me. January rain sidled down the windshield as a low-toned voice hits like a heavy rock placed in your lap. Deep bass tones rumble while harmonising pads hover in the mids and highs; the rock is covered in dry moss that protects you from the roughness, leaving only its weight and the wonderment as to why it was placed in your lap.

The poet recites Watching Kali Sashay With My Arm In Her Locked Jaw, the opening track on his eponymous album.

A thousand miles seem to pass in a minute and when it’s done, the poet is gone, and the rock is lifted. Blood returns to your legs.

Born in Poland, raised in New York City, and now residing in Berlin, Łukasz Polowczyk is a poet whose latest album blends intimate spoken word poetry with subtly shifting musical passages. Available in audible formats – cassettes or digital download – and as a printed volume, this is an album that begs to be read as much as listened to.

I caught up with Łukasz for a deep dive into contemporary spoken word, meaning vs form, and why he chose not to make a poetry mixtape.

Photography by Gene Glover

JH – For a spoken word poet, your Threads mixtape contains far less spoken word than some might expect. Would you give us some insight into why you made that choice?

LP – Before I got down to it, my intention was to make this an eclectic journey through the contemporary spoken word landscape. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find enough tracks. I’m actually kind of shocked at how underdeveloped the genre is. But to be fair, my expectations are pretty high because I want these tracks to not only showcase high-level pen game but also somebody’s presence on the mic. Their delivery skills should be top-notch, and they should have an original style. The end product should also be an interesting and original musical proposition. That’s a lot to ask for! Add that I also have to feel these tunes deeply – problem!  

But the truth is that the genre didn’t really evolve much since its golden years when hip hop created the space for it – when Saul Williams, Ursula Rucker, and Mike Ladd were doing their thing. Is there even a piece out right now that could contend with ‘Coded Language,’ the Saul Williams collaboration with DJ Krust? In any type of way? Having said that, I love what Moor Mother, Kae Tempest, and Aja Monet are doing, but that’s not enough to cut a mixtape.

JH – Considering that spoken word poetry is part of an ancient oral tradition that predates the written word, and that it contains such luminaries as Gil Scott, Herbert Read, and I’d include Bob Dylan as well, does it surprise you to feel that the contemporary spoken word scene is underdeveloped?

LP – I have to frame this a bit because I’m not some spoken word aficionado or anything like that. I just love the idiom, and I happen to express myself through it. What I’m referring to is this particular sub-genre which combines music and spoken word – I can’t find much of that. As far as poetry is concerned, there is so much great stuff being published daily. And there are so many different styles, and voices, and we are finally privy to what’s going on all over the world, which was certainly not the case in the past, right? BTW, big ups to Hanif Abdurraqib – his poetry destroys me!

It could be that this is also a factor of this continuous deluge. Last year, we reached a hundred thousand uploads of new songs to Spotify daily! I’m sure there are gorgeous diamonds up in there, but I just haven’t found them yet.

JH – Do you feel that this is partly because of the eclectic nature of the spoken word scene, which unlike music, isn’t generally divided into sub-genres, and which has no labels or megastars spearheading the movement, which means the output of it’s proponents all gets lumped under a single banner: spoken word poetry?

LP – I was privileged to grow up at a time when there was an actual TV show dedicated to the art form. It was called Def Poetry Jam, hosted by Yasiin Baye (fka Mos Def), and featured rappers and slam poets reading their work back-to-back. There was also the Nuyorican’s, the nights hosted by Bobbito Garcia, which was also a high-level ‘institution’. I think outlets like this still exist today, but what made that particular moment in time magical was that people who performed there were shaping hip hop culture in real time, at an international level, yet they made space for this more experimental, less-formatted approach. They also pushed the poetry community to keep up with them musically.

I checked some of this year’s Grammy Nominations in the spoken word category, and you have Aja Monet’s record – it’s gorgeous, soulful, timely, and features next-level musicians. But then the next nomination is a compilation of this poet doing pure slam – which I’m sure is great live – but to have a whole album of what are essentially live recordings straight from the board with no musical component… it just doesn’t translate as an album. And it’s certainly light years from Aja’s release – you can’t even compare them. I hope she takes that Grammy home! (Editor’s note: Unfortunately she did not. The grammy went to J. Ivy)

Although most people would classify him as a rapper, Kendrick Lamar is definitely one of my favourite poets at the moment.  He’s a beast, not just as a writer but also as a vocal artist. He was the last one to crack me wide open! The multiple perspectives, shapeshifting, using multiple voices, and ultimately creating these mosaic-like modern novels in terms of structure, but using poetry as the vehicle. And the music! More of that, please!

 JH – As you’ve mentioned, there are some rays of hope out there. To your list I would add Derrick C. Brown, whose delivery sits somewhere between stand-up comedy and the geek rock intimacy of Ben Folds, and Mwende “Freequency” Katwiwa, who is never short of incendiary. Surely the fact that such performers exist on a relatively public plane must mean there are more out there who are yet to reach a larger audience. Is it then a case of there not being enough platforms that share these people with the world, or is it that the world at large simply doesn’t have a taste for spoken word?

LP – Do you remember how, up until Kamasi Washington dropped his debut on Brainfeeder, jazz was confined to this academic, high-brow space? Especially when viewed through the lens of big festivals or niche media. If you were tapped in, there were these pockets of amazing instrumentalists giving the idiom the wildest spins, but for the most part, locally. When he dropped and garnered all those big features, he moved jazz back into the mainstream. Being that his record was on Fly Lo’s label, and he played in Snoop’s band, brought it back down to the people. The effect was that these small pockets of jazz lovers became an interconnected global network, and as a result, jazz is now a part of the greater cultural discussion. It matters again! And, as a consequence, the records are only getting better! Even Andre 3000 is up in this space now doing his thing because the energy is so magnetic, and the creativity is next level. We definitely need somebody like Kamasi but in the spoken word scene, to connect the dots like that!

JH – You open your Threads mixtape with a track by Chuquimamani-Condori, in which traditional folk instrumentation battles with glitchy electronica, at first buried beneath the rubble of noise, then slowly rising throughout the track. What does the decision to open with this particular track say about you as an artist and your personal origins as an individual? Did you intend this Mixtape to be an aural narrative that runs parallel to your own history?

LP – When I heard that song for the first time, I saw an explosion of colours in my mind’s eye. I was sitting there with my headphones on, laughing out loud because this track is so visceral and audacious; it’s not only prismatic but also original! By the way, it’s rare nowadays that something hits me like that! Unfortunately, a lot of what I’m hearing is derivative—the knock-off 4-stripe Adidas version of what I already know. Or some tendency, presenting itself as a cluster of iterations of the same-same.

I guess the most important ingredient that I look for in a piece is soul—either an emotional truth or presence, or what I call a subtle frequency that taps into energies I recognize from prayer or meditation.

When I started working on this mix, I was still in the process of scanning my mind/body to figure out what this baby 2024 feels like for me, and this track is exactly that! The beginning of last year was spiritually dark for me. My intuition serves as my navigation system, and I can always rely on it. However, last January, I felt like I was sending a sonar pulse out, but it bounced back on me instantly because there was an impenetrable wall three meters away!

 This moment in time feels kaleidoscopic, and effervescent. Going back to your question, the mixtape ended up becoming a meditation on the different themes in my life, things that are on my mind. I only chose tunes that I feel in my bones.

JH – It seems that your criticisms of contemporary spoken word are aligned with your feelings towards modern music. Would you put the issue down to groupthink caused by social media, or is there something else going on?

LP – I go back and forth on it. There are days when I’m literally humbled and super grateful for all these unique voices out there – the multiple axes you can travel down sub-genre-wise as a music lover. And then there are those days where everything sounds the same to me. Clearly, this is not an objective opinion, right? It’s how I feel that particular day and what music I’ve stumbled upon. Certainly, it’s easier to imitate things than it ever was in the past, and streaming service algorithms favour repetition or iterations. So, there is that.

But, as I’ve said before, I have a very particular taste in music. I am sensitive to energy, and I want an album to be more than just a collection of songs; I want it to be a novel, a feature movie. It’s a no-brainer that my expectations have something to do with the disappointments I often face when trawling for new music.

JH – What is poetry?

LP – To me, poetry is a way of seeing the world. It’s about how you frame and organize the world in your consciousness. It’s a commitment to the pursuit of beauty and a commitment to love – a big YES to all orders of life. I don’t see poetry solely as a literary form; I view the literary form as one of the many manifestations of poetry. When I see Storyboard P dancing, that’s poetry to me! Arthur Jafa’s video installations are poetry. The new Andre 3000 record? Poetry! I can hear him explaining where he’s at in life and his relationship to it at this very particular moment in time. You can rhyme all the words you want, you can master the meter, but if you don’t have that frame – it ain’t poetry!

JH – Dambudzo Marechera spoke of poetry as “a reorganisation of the objects around you into a new pattern, like in a kaleidoscope”, but also stated that “poetry becomes an attempt by the individual to become invisible, but with a kind of invisibility that illuminates things from within as well as from without”. These two statements seem to neatly coalesce in “Aint About Me”: its content embodying the former statement, its title embodying the latter.

LP – I love that! Thank you for putting me on to that – I can totally relate. For me though, Aint About Me – the name, the concept, the philosophy – was a natural conclusion to a certain chapter in my life. I was suffocating in this tight prison of artistic self-obsession and solipsism. I was also tired of being around people who were also trapped in the ‘me, myself, and I’ paradigm. This, among some other lifestyle-related situations, led to a burnout. Spiritually and creatively.

I thought that I had failed! That I finally got to the top of this mountain after scaling it for so many years, and it was all for nothing. I was left with an existential puzzle: if I am not a musician, then what am I? I was staring into the same voracious void that those before me had to face. Some of them rose like Phoenixes after seeing themselves reflected in it; others were pulled apart by it. Solving this riddle sent me on this wild investigative journey. Obviously, there were the existential components, but I also wanted to understand music more, from the inside-out, the nature of sound, etc.

I had to decouple the idea that the quality of music is reflected in the market – that was the first adjustment. I decided that it’s healthier to make music for the sake of music, without the pressure to monetize it. That brought the joy back. The last code to crack was how to make music without it turning into a shadowboxing match with my ego. That’s how Aint About Me was born. I am no longer concerned with anything but being of service to the creative process. Interestingly enough, the work comes when you step aside – when it’s not about you. Plus, I very much want to make sure that what I put out there is nourishing to those who are exposed to it. Sometimes, the work itself is just an excuse to have a conversation like this, where I get to sneak in a bit of medicine.

 JH – Your book, Aint About Me begins by inviting the reader to read the words aloud. Would you explain the thought process behind that

LP – Well, the book was created to accompany the record—not only to help the listener in decoding the individual pieces but also to give them a bit of context. The introduction to the book is crucial in setting the tone for this chapter of my journey, and I wanted to share that. Additionally, I aimed to give the record a physical presence, creating something tangible to stand in for the sound that mostly lives in the digital realm.

The reason I asked people to try on my words, to speak them out loud, is to give them a more embodied, connected experience. I wanted them to feel the weight of the words, the rhythm, the flow. Though I’ve only recently articulated this for myself, I believe I intuited it back then: with my work, if you accept that a particular “song” is a poem, then the sound of the words and the music are also components of this poem. It’s the interplay between these elements that creates the meaning. But, if you read the words out loud, you will feel what they felt like on my tongue, in my body. You will get a glimpse into what it felt like for me to utter those words.

JH – I did follow your advice and read the entire book aloud. I particularly enjoyed saying the lines, “plus the paint is still fresh and you can still smell the fumes, and the footprints are mine, and the kicks are splattered black”. From a phonaesthetic perspective, this sentence has everything; alliteration, a subtly shifting poetic meter, a wide range of vocal shapes… all rounded off with that three-punch combo of plosives – kicks, splattered, black.

Speaking these words aloud allows the sound of each word to envelope the meaning, the two then merging to become something more. It reminds me of Jon Anderson’s approach to writing lyrics for Yes because he actually paid more attention to how the words sound in relation to the music, as opposed to dwelling on the meaning first and foremost.

You see that a lot in hip-hop, a genre whose language you use quite frequently.

For all poets, there is a tug of war between meaning and form; do we choose to follow the meaning, or do we set that to one side in favour of a sonically pleasing series of words, then hope to thrash our way back through the jungle to the pathway of meaning we momentarily abandoned? Where do you see that balance within your own craft?

LP – Great question! I write in a stream of consciousness, I edit on the spot, and generally record the piece instantly after I catch the download. Most of the time, I don’t really know what the piece is about; at that point, it’s as much a revelation to me as it will be for someone hearing it for the first time. It blows my mind to this day that this is possible – that meaning can arise spontaneously, and something that you didn’t consciously manipulate or control – I’m referring to the fabric of language – is full of insight into where you are in life at that particular moment.

So, for me, it’s very much about the frequency of the moment, its inherent truth, and how that dictates both the musicality of the words you are writing, but also their content. And it really is a feeling, an energy, and when it’s not there, neither is the magic – the channel is closed. At this point, I live for these moments. I am extremely thankful for when they transpire, and I just do the work to be ready for the moment when the heavens split, and that torrential rain comes down to drench me.

JH – In the 4th century AD, St Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he describes how remarkable it was that his mentor, St Ambrose would read silently, which today is considered by most people to be standard practice. By the 4th century, writing was roughly 5000 years old, whereas language itself could potentially predate homo sapiens (roughly 200,000 years old). With this in mind, to what extent do you feel the act of reading aloud allows a person to absorb the written word at a deeper level?

LP – Thank you for that! That’s gorgeous. I had no idea. Well, I always read what I’m writing out loud. I have to feel the words—their individual character as sound objects—but I also need to feel the rhythm of the piece. When you read your writing out loud, you will hear if it works. You will immediately hear if it’s too dense or if the words are clashing rhythmically. Personally, I can’t do it any other way.

JH – When you write poetry that you intend to perform vocally, how much is the act of writing the words affected by the knowledge that you’ll someday be performing those words?

LP – If we’re talking about this poetically inflected writing, then it’s always written to be performed. But I don’t really write for an audience in the sense that I don’t navigate using external points of reference; my intention is solely to create something that I love. The only thing I’m trying to accomplish every single time is to make something that I feel and that has a truth about it—a soul. I don’t even care so much about the technical side; I don’t want to be flashy anymore. I’ve arrived at a place where I know that whatever I write will be imbued with textures of my consciousness; it will be derived from my experiences, aesthetic loves, and obsessions. The end result can be as simple or complex as long as it is capable of transporting this truth.

We are living in a time where making well-produced images, video, and sound is easy. The outcome is that the world is flooded with a lot of beautiful containers that are empty inside. You know what I mean?

JH – Does this come from our human tendency to gravitate towards something we find aesthetically or sonically pleasing, or is it an urge to hide from things we find uncomfortable?

LP – I don’t know – I’m not wired like that. I’ve always gravitated to truth/soul/that type of frequency in art, hence this life-long journey through all sorts of sub-cultures. I move on that energy, naturally gravitate to where it’s at. So, I don’t know what people who love that type of music are experiencing when they hear it – what attracts them to it. Maybe they also feel it deeply, but I just happen to respond to a different frequency?

But what I can say is that we are living in a cultural landscape, of which music unfortunately became a component, that is very much about trapping people – holding their attention as long as possible. The way music streaming works is that once you press play on something, the algorithm will keep on feeding you more music. Sometimes this can be convenient because you’re busy doing other things and don’t have to worry about cuing up the next record. However, the problem is that you are never given the space to contemplate anything – you are forced to binge listen. But, arguably, music, and most art for that matter, is there to reframe your engagement with life and release you back into it. Without this pause, you can’t integrate new modalities of living, and you’re certainly not being released. You are, by the virtue of how this media works, being formatted into a passive consumer. And that’s hella sad!

JH – Do you think then that perhaps there’s a need to separate the word “music” from the word “industry”, to dial back the commodification of an artform so intrinsically woven into the human soul?

LP – I think what you can and should do as an artist/a creator, if you want to make something soul-infused, is to forget about the industry, the market, marketing, and all that other stuff when you are in the process of creating. The creative act needs to be kept pure. It’s sacred! It should be an intimate dialogue with the deepest parts of yourself: your needs, your obsessions, your emotional body, your wildest dreams. Ideally, you should cut all strings that tether you to your daily reality and deep-dive into your unconscious mind or the spirit world – whatever you want to call that space.

I don’t have a problem with the industry, per se, when it’s doing its job, which is to deliver art to art lovers, to create the conditions for certain projects to be possible. You can’t bring the best possible musicians with the best sound engineers and record at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studio with him guiding you if you don’t have the budget to feed all these people. Making mind-blowing music videos is also hella expensive, as is producing a Kendrick Lamar live show. Everything in context. But when you are creating, channelling, if you may, that should be the only thing that consumes you.


JH – You end your mixtape with your own track, “We Survived”, which (much like the track you opened with) begins in a dense space – all muffled low end – then rises throughout the track before ending with a hopeful statement of intent. Having survived the darkness you experience during the early part of last year, what are your intentions for this baby, 2024?

LP – Dropping that tune there really felt like a deep exhalation for me – and it felt like was I hearing it for the first time. I could feel the emotional payload that’s encrypted within it. The fact that we are here, that I get to break bread with my loved ones and pour my time into the things that make my heart rattle, like a footwork banger – this is not to be taken for granted! I am grateful! I feel blessed! 

As for what this baby two-four means to me… I definitely need to get my financial matters in order because last year dragged me around and stomped me out in that regard – it felt like I caught a proper beatdown. I don’t need much, so I’m not talking about rapper-level ambitions. I just want to make sure that I can give my kids the experiences that will help them flourish. Travelling, if done right, is the biggest teacher – EVER! So, I want them to meet some of my extended fam scattered around the globe. Besides that, like every year, I’ll just unpack what life gives me, accept it all as it comes, distil the lessons, and do it with the joy of a kid opening his birthday presents. And I definitely want to indulge in more face-to-face collaborations – mix that energy, experiences, and colours with other creative folk out there.

by Josefus Haze

CREDIT – Photography by Gene Glover

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