Spoken word artist re-launches Oakland’s ‘Soul Cypher’

Brandy K. Daley, Founder/CEO Hot Water Cornbread

One of the reasons Oakland has been named one of “America’s 5 Coolest Cities” by Forbes Magazine is its thriving arts scene. Oakland’s music, cinema and comedy pedigree is impressive and well documented.

What most outside the city’s borders probably don’t realize, is that Oakland is the breeding ground for many of the nation’s most popular spoken word artists.

For the uninitiated, spoken word poetry is one-part hip-hop and one-part performance art and by most accounts, rose to prominence in the late 1980s at “poetry slams.” These slams were competitions where poets would square off against one another in much the same way rappers compete against one another in rap battles.

Leading Oakland’s spoken word movement is one of its native daughters, Brandy K. Daley. Who would have guessed that this former San Jose State engineering major would evolve into a poetic powerhouse?

“I come from a family of engineers, so that seemed like a natural path for me,” Daley laughs. “But I realized that I’m more of a creative person. And for me, engineering and creativity didn’t exactly square.”

That creative torch was further fueled by heartbreak in November 2000, when Daley lost her beloved grandmother to a stroke.

“That’s when it really took off for me. The poetry became my emotional release,” she said. “It was my way of dealing with her passing … I realized then that I was able to move people with my words.” And with that, an artist was born.

Daley immersed herself in the spoken word culture and community. Rising through the ranks to become the 16th-ranked spoken word poet in the nation, eventually traveling to Chicago to lead Oakland’s team to a fourth place finish in a national competition.

Upon returning to Oakland, Daley grew restless – seeking greater artistic exploration. This led her to New York, specifically Harlem, where Daley witnessed what she refers to as “Harlem’s Hustle.”

“Oakland just oozes talent, but Harlem not only has talent, the artists there have learned to make a living at what they do,” she explained. “I love that because that’s a philosophy I believe in and they live it. Whether it’s drawing, singing or building batteries, didn’t matter, if they loved it they found a way to make that their work.”

Daley did well for herself on the East Coast. Appearing on Black Entertainment Television’s “Lyric Café” and HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” She racked up performances at the legendary Apollo Theater and released a successful poetry recording titled, “Blue Blushin.”

But the lure of the Bay Area was too great and in 2006, Daley re-established herself in Oakland and launched the spoken word, music, live event and artist management company, Hot Water Cornbread – named after her grandmother’s signature dish.

“I felt like poetry fed people’s soul,” Daley said. “My grandmother’s hot water cornbread fed people … it just made perfect sense, you know?”

One of Hot Water Cornbread’s most successful events was the monthly held, ” Soul Cypher,” which launched in 2006. These spoken word showcases originally began on Sunday nights, but quickly exploded in popularity. Becoming such a huge draw that the events had to be moved to Saturday nights. But Daley’s artistic restlessness came creeping back.

“I stopped holding the events in 2008 because I just felt like we’d done all we could do with the format. As an artist, you tend to grow

weary of doing the same thing time after time. Not that it wasn’t great, just not as fulfilling as it once was artistically.”

But Daley underestimated the events’ immense popularity.

“Everywhere I went people would always ask about ‘Soul Cypher.’ So, here we are … I’ve re-launched “Soul Cypher,” but the format is a bit different now,” Daley said. “We hold the events quarterly now, and we’ve made them more of an experience. It’s not just a showcase anymore. We’re bringing the poetry, along with music and good food.”

When the question of the demographics of spoken word poets is broached, Daley offers a theory on why the art form is so male dominated.

“Well, women like poetry. Men like women. So it’s a great way for guys to meet women,” she said with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Hot Water Cornbread presents the return of “Soul Cypher” at 10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 12, at The New Parish, 579 18th St. in Oakland.

For more information, visit HotWaterCornbread.org.

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