Malik Yusef has come a long way from his days in the Wild 100s on the South Side. With a career spanning over 30 years, the Chicago-born spoken word artist, songwriter, producer and director has done everything from coaching actor and fellow Chicago native Larenz Tate in the 1997 hit film “Love Jones,” to writing, producing and performing with some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B—including, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Common, Vic Mensa, Ty Dolla $ign and more.

“I’m blessed past my deserving and I’ve lived past my imagination,” Yusef told The TRiiBE.

On Aug. 25, Malik Yusef returns home for a one-night-only performance at City Winery in the West Loop. His show will dive into his journey as a spoken word artist, songwriter and producer. Some special guests will grace the stage, as well. 

“Everything is adult at this show,” the six-time Grammy Award-winning artist said. “If you are a prude, this show ain’t for you. It’s grown.”

Yusef prides himself on being a poet for the people. As a young adult growing up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, Yusef was a high school dropout. While he’s always had the gift of writing, school was a challenge for him.

“I had been writing and creating melodies my entire life but it was hard in class because everything that was in my mind wanted to become a poem,” Yusef said. 

At an open mic night at the Green Mill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a friend introduced him to the art of spoken word, a style of poetry that includes rhyme, repetition, improv, word play and music with many Black spoken word artists crediting the Harlem Renaissance as an early influence. Although the artform began as a rhythmic lyrical expression laced with similes and metaphors, it also became a tool used to resist the establishment and fight truth to power while providing powerful social commentary on the socioeconomic conditions of marginalized people.

Spoken word came naturally to Yusef. Chicago actress and comedian T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh encouraged him to participate in the Green Mill’s open mic for a second time and he agreed. He was 21 years old at the time.

“After I performed, the owner asked me if I could come back next week and I said yes. That week, ABC Worldwide News was there and they aired a piece about it two months later,” Yusef said. “The night after it aired, I was performing at Spices Jazz Club and it was packed. That’s when my career really took off.”  

Ahead of his City Winery show, Yusef spoke to The TRiiiBE on Aug. 17 about his journey, the evolution of the artform and why spoken word continues to be used by young people to bring awareness to issues that affect the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The TRiiBE: What do you love most about the art of spoken word poetry?

Malik Yusef:  It’s my love of language and the storytelling part of it. I just had a need to express my feelings, especially being a kid with certain traumas. Trying to tell people what I was feeling was an artform that translated well on stage and even better through music.

Historically, spoken word poetry has always been used by young people as a form of protest, activism and resistance. Why do you think the artform resonates with young people in particular?

The artform encompasses the elegance of authenticity. Even though it may be rough, it’s still elegant. Spoken word is also aggressive because it gets inside your bloodstream immediately.   It’s not an overdose but a steady dose. This artform gives us space to be vulnerable in a world that restricts Black vulnerability, especially for Black men. On stage or in my writing, I can express my sadness and heartbreak over a lost love or tell the story of a person wronged in love  like I did with Beyoncé’s “Sandcastles.” That’s not something I can easily express with my boys. Spoken word poetry, like music, allows you to be truly authentic, naked and raw.

How did Chicago influence who you are as an artist?

Because of the density of gravity here, the lack of support and the intensity of the criticism you receive, Chicago will literally make or break you. Chicago has the toughest fans in the world. You see it in sports, with our politicians and in entertainment. Chicago gave me superpowers when I went to LA or New York. It’s the hardest training ground you’ll ever have but if you are willing to go through the trials, tribulations, strife and conflict, Chicago becomes a blessing for you.

Black Chicago enjoyed a vibrant poetry scene especially in the 1990s. Why do you think that scene thrived here and birthed so many talents?

Black people seek to understand and to be understood more than any other culture. I think it’s because we’ve been so ostracized from the process of communicating with each other. When people are in bondage, that communication becomes a threat to the establishment. When we get a chance to get on stage, it’s cathartic and we connect. It’s therapy for the ones that speak and it’s therapy for the ones that hear it. We share these connections through shared experiences that we would know nothing about unless we communicate. Things we may not share with our closest friends, we share in these intimate settings where we are all on the same heartbeat. In those moments, we don’t know what we are all thinking but we know what we are feeling.

You had a cameo in the 1997 hit film “Love Jones” and even served as a poetry coach for Larenz Tate. After that film and the success of  HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” the once vibrant poetry scene died. What happened?

The scene definitely went away because it became commercially unviable. It’s hard in this economy to do something you can’t get paid from. So many artists abandoned the space and moved into hip hop because it's more commercially viable. It’s all rooted in commerce. After the film and Def Poetry Jam, the market became oversaturated with too many spoken word nights and that’s not good business. We live in a world where we used to have something, then we measured it because it was important. Now things are important because we measure them and that’s the opposite of what it's supposed to be. That’s how it died.

You created a camp for young people called Bad Kids. What was the intention behind it?

I wanted to create a space for collaborative creation, networking and opportunities for independent artists. It serves as an artist development and writing camp. It’s a place where young artists can hone their skills and get their craft in order. Our kids have written for Kanye West on the Donda album and are writing for other artists, like Cardi B. Right now, we help young artists develop themselves through songwriting but I would love to expand it.

Do you see a resurgence of the artform or a renewed interest in it?

Yeah, it’s definitely a renaissance of sorts happening but we have to monitor it. We have to be creative and good in business. I feel like it’s coming back and the purest of the movement is returning. We just have to figure out how to create commerce, create an industry and industrialize the process. We have to control how we want it to move. That’s the healthiest thing for the craft.

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE.