John Paul Taylor spent much of his childhood in foster care, as a self-described “angry child.”
“I started writing when I was in foster care,” he said. “We did an assignment and I was writing about being in the system, and a teacher said, ‘[Writing] is the way you need to channel your anger.’”
Writing was one thing the world couldn’t take away from him and how he dealt with life, he said.
Taylor, executive director and co-founder of Real Life Poets, said he didn’t share his writing until he was an adult.
“It was really transitioning in life,” he said. “I went to college (University of Alabama at Birmingham) became an Alpha man, did the college thing, went into corporate America and life changed. That’s when I realized it wasn’t my calling. It wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
Real Life Poets, which began operation in 2008, is a spoken word mentorship organization geared towards helping the youth “find their voice.”
Taylor, whose background was in secondary education, said he showed up at his mother’s house in 2003 with a bag of clothes and his infant daughter, who is now 15, after feeling that his life wasn’t being fulfilled while working in corporate America.
“My mom was like, ‘what’s the one thing that’s going to make you happy? Because you have to take care of your child,’” he said. “I said, ‘writing, being a poet.’ She said, ‘I don’t get it, but if that’s going to keep you happy then do that.’”
Open Mic Nights
And he did. Taylor began going to open mic nights around the city in 2003 during his lunch breaks while working at Buffalo Rock.
“I started my life over, I started working there, and my co-workers weren’t into spoken word, but when I would share my poetry with them they liked it because I was speaking like they were speaking,” he said.
His co-workers introduced him to open mic nights so he could share his art.
“I would go up there, spit my piece and then go back to work,” he said chuckling.
Taylor began traveling the country doing open mics and poetry.
“It’s so much bigger than hand claps and finger snaps,” he said. “It was never getting on the mic for that, it was getting on the mic to heal. I was talking about stuff I was going through and had been through.”
Taylor’s travels led him back home where he and friends Leroy “Obeah” Hicks and David “Bama” Hawthorne began community open mics at a small restaurant in East Lake, Sister Soul Food Café.
At first, many were apprehensive about the East Lake location, he said.
“People would say ‘they’re not about to come to the hood for an open mic night,’ and our response was, ‘that’s why we’re doing it here, because it’s not for people to be entertained. It’s for the average person to come in and feel heard.”
The show was free, and people in the restaurant to eat would also participate in the show.
“There was no fluff, no DJ, it was just organic,” he said.
The first night of the show, there was a shooting in the area.
“We were standing outside, and afterwards we were like, ‘this is why we’re here.’ We have to stop running away from the community,” he said.
As the open mic nights progressed, Taylor said he realized the need for children to participate so he and Obeah began after school workshops at public libraries. They eventually became a nonprofit.
Real Life Poets has helped countless young people “find their voice.”
“We always say ‘changing minds one rhyme at a time,’ because we truly feel it’s about quality over quantity,” he said. “Even on an artistic level. We tell the students, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the crowd because the people their poem is meant for will hear it. It’s always from an empowerment standpoint.”
RLP recently opened a community arts hub in East Lake.
“We don’t like to call it an after-school program,” he said. “It’s a place where they can come hang out and be an artist. They can make beats, if they’re working on a poem they can come here and write it. We also have tutoring so if they need tutoring they can get it.”
RLP recently received a $25,000 grant from University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Community Health Innovation Awards (CHIA), which will help students with in areas such as cosmetology, music production, culinary and spoken word.
The young poets also have an international book collaboration called Real Global Poets and have two books already published.
“New York University has a campus in Abu Dhabi, and (while visiting) I met with a man and we came up with the idea of Real Global Poets in his kitchen, it’s an international exchange project,” he said.
The book, which has poems from students in Birmingham, and children in the Dadaab Refugee camp.
“The struggles of these young people aren’t different from the struggles of being an inner-city youth in Birmingham,” he said. “After the young people did the work, there were schools in Abu Dhabi who did fundraisers, and that’s how we were able to do the second year’s project.”
RLP also has a Slam Team that has performed in the national poetry slam on the West Coast and has been the only team to represent Birmingham in the competition.
“We were able to take the students to San Francisco, and really experience something they have never done before,” he said. “We want to be able to touch lives in a real way. That’s what we’re doing here.”