Three Questions with Hakim Bellamy

Three Questions curated by Cyndi Conn
September 11th, 2018

Hakim Bellamy is a national and regional Poetry Slam Champion, an educator, author, and the inaugural Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He facilitates youth writing workshops for schools, jails, churches, prisons and community organizations in New Mexico and beyond, and is the Deputy Director of Cultural Services for the City of Albuquerque.

Hakim co-founded the multimedia Hip Hop theater production Urban Verbs: Hip-Hop Conservatory & Theater and is the founding president of Beyond Poetry LLC. His first book, SWEAR (West End Press/UNM Press) won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing from the Working Class Studies Association. Bellmay was awarded the Emerging Creative Bravos Award by Creative Albuquerque in 2013. In 2014, Bellamy was named a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow and was awarded the Food Justice Residency at Santa Fe Art Institute. In 2017, Bellamy was selected as Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. He received the University of New Mexico Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize Career Achievement Award in 2018.

He is also the featured artist and moderator for Creative Santa Fe’s upcoming Disruptive Futures Dialogue: The Rebirth of Local News, highlighting the work of journalists and news organizations who are engaging with local audiences to create trust and provide news that people can use to effect change in their communities. It is an honor to ask Hakim Bellamy three questions:


QUESTION 1:

In a recent ArtPlace article the author said that “perhaps one of the greatest gifts that the arts bring to municipal planning is not a set of discrete answers, but rather a call for planners to rethink some of our fundamental questions.” Your work frequently exists at the intersection of poetry and policy, likely now so more than ever in your role as Director of Cultural Services for the city of Albuquerque. In your opinion, how are the arts critical to civic policy and municipal planning?

The obvious direction to go with here stems from La bohème and its derivative work Rent. Artists often live, love and libretto amongst the most brutal social and economic realities … whether it be Paris in the 1840s or New York’s East Village in the late 1980s. Though artists themselves often have privilege, whether inherited or born of their talent, their circumstance often finds them in conversation with the human condition, oftentimes at its most critical.

Sometimes the allure of the artist is the sheer power of their observation and ultimate expression, other times it is the ferocity of their compassion that leaves them emotionally raw.

Both transferrable skills in government genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the constituents in its care. The latter skill is especially important with respect to holding space for the needs of those in the community who have never been invited to be decision makers at the tables of power.

The less obvious, and much shorter answer is that all solutions are creative. The government’s job is to find solutions to our most persistent issues. If what we were doing worked, our problems wouldn’t persist. Therefore, creativity is required to both imagine different outcome and engineer a different process to achieve it. Artists do it all the time…they create employment opportunities for themselves out of thin air…however in order to scale it for broad economic impact, you make sure you have friends that are smarter than you over in the Economic Development Department. I should mention that poetry, in particular, is often a philosophical wrestling with the issues of identity and society. Who are we? What should we be doing for one another, rather than to one another? Those are questions I hope our leaders would frequently ask themselves and each other, and not only when they are trying to get published.


QUESTION 2:

You have been a professional artist in New Mexico for over ten years. What are some of the opportunities and challenges you have faced carving out a career as an artist, author, and educator over the years? What advice would you give to aspiring artists throughout New Mexico?


The opportunities have far outweighed the challenges. I landed up, as we say, in New Mexico in 2005 from the South Jersey/Philadelphia area. I suppose since I came from the northeast you could say I landed down? Actually, I imagine we simply call that “landing.” Or perhaps, since we are proximal to Roswell we should call it an arrival. Whatever it was, it was on MLK Day in 2005. An auspicious date for a Black man from the East Coast to set foot in a New Mexico he’s never seen before. A state with, at the time, 2% African American population…on what I like to call “the holiday honoring the patron saint of Black America.” Coincidence is not lost on me, neither is it found. Two months later I was the University of New Mexico LOBOSLAM Champion. Two months after that, I was the Albuquerque City Slam Poetry Champion. Four months after that, we were National Poetry Slam Champions as Team Albuquerque. I was fortunate to step into a performance poetry community that had built ten years of foundation. Audience building. Talent development. I was additionally fortunate that this City took me and the things I care about, the things written all over my poems, to heart. I still marvel at being selected the Inaugural Poet Laureate of this exceptional place … because I write about my experience, the Black experience in America … and apparently, it resonates. People see me. People hear me. People read me. People remember me. People keep coming back for more. Albuquerque has literally allowed me to stand on its back (read: mountain) so other parts of the country could notice my talent. Provided me a platform, and in return…I’ve strived to tell the story of the place, even though I am not originally from this place. But without this place, there is no Hakim Bellamy. No career. No son. My son was born here. It truly is a blessing.

However, there were some obstacles. Like being a working parent when your work requires traveling out of state to make ends meet. In the early part of my career, where I was equal parts paying dues and paying rent  while doing what I feel I was born to do…inspire others to create…there weren’t quite enough $50, $100 gigs for me to cobble together to not be living check to check. I always kept a second “job”…a job secondary to my career…that provided a little financial stability for myself and my son. I made time to create within those limitations. Did a lot of writing in airports because although Albuquerque gave me all the gigs I could afford…the larger pay days for performance artists where at colleges and on stages in places with more disposable income. I love traveling, so seeing the world was a blessing, but frankly, it made it difficult to maintain healthy relationships with romantic partners, including my son’s mother at the time. I could have said “no” more. That would be my advice, be intentional with your time and talent. I can’t say it served me poorly, but I have no idea how much good it would have served me…in sanity, in healthy, in quality of work versus quantity of work, in friendships. However, I am like many artists (and marginalized people) in that we suffer from this imposter syndrome. This feeling that we don’t deserve all the opportunities that we are being given, so we can’t waste even one … because we don’t know if there will be another offer on the other side. Because we’ve been sold on this idea that we are not good enough, so we work twice as hard for the same opportunities that our peers gain through training or superhuman powers … like where, how or what they were born. It’s not rational, but it is real.

If I was more confident in my talent, and trusted the arch of my career to the universe I might have stepped back occasionally to leap light years forward. I’d tell all my young writers, “give yourself a residency from time to time. Make self-care, not selfish, your career.”


QUESTION 3:

You were recently a 2017–2018 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. The fellowship examines the crucial role that arts and culture play in shaping society. This fellowship is described on the Kennedy Center website as “Activating Citizen Artists. Exploring JFK Ideals. Creating Cultural Moonshots.” Among your collaborators was legendary cellist, humanitarian, and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Yo-Yo Ma. Can you talk a bit about this remarkable fellowship and your work with Yo-Yo Ma?

Yo-Yo Ma’s passionate desire to transform the world through the sharing of art is as formidable as his prodigious talent. He lights up a room and everyone in it. He believes he is extremely blessed to live a certain caliber of life and have certain experiences because of his art, and he demonstrates that humility by being exceptionally present when he is with you…all the way down to remembering your name.

That was some of what the Kennedy Center experience taught me. To stay graceful and grateful. That giving people my undivided attention is more medicine than authoring their favorite poem…especially if they are a lover of my poetry.

By and large, that group of Citizen Artists (who I have to name so you look them up: Ekene Ijeoma, De Nichols, Reena Esmail, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Katie Wyatt and Vijay Gupta) shaped me with their fire and their friendship. Their ability to see a need in their community and fill it with opportunity for others. We compared notes, we collaborated on art, we discussed the future of the fellowship and we committed ourselves to the Aspen Institute’s definition of Citizen Artists as:

Individuals who reimagine the traditional notions of art-making, and who contribute to society either through the transformative power of their artistic abilities, or through proactive social engagement with the arts in realms including education, community building, diplomacy and healthcare.


Bonus Question: 

Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?

Alexandra Bell’s “Counternarratives” work comes to mind, especially on the eve-eve of Rebirth of Local News.