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Malcolm-Jamal Warner talks inspiration and inner fight to make Grammy-nominated album

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a new category in this year's Grammy Awards for best spoken-word poetry album, and one of the nominees is a voice we've been hearing for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "BLACK FIST BEAUTIFUL")

MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER: I'm seeing where Black fist beautiful is not a slogan. It's our mantra, reminding us that radical self-love is the most revolutionary act that we can imbue.

SUMMERS: That's actor and director Malcolm-Jamal Warner on a track called "Black Fist Beautiful." It's from his Grammy-nominated fourth album, "Hiding In Plain View." Now, most of Warner's fans are probably more familiar with his acting, like his breakthrough role as Theo Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" or, more recently, as Dr. AJ Austin in the medical drama "The Resident." But he says there is a simple reason he's still acting and directing on top of writing and performing poetry.

WARNER: Because I need them all. There was a point when I was about 22 or 23 that really opened my eyes to the politics of this business. And I remember having the thought - if I keep all of my eggs in both of these acting and directing baskets, this industry is going to break my heart. And it was during that time that I had found spoken word.

SUMMERS: Some of the themes in his poetry are inextricably linked to his acting. Over the years, Warner has been vocal about rejecting roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black folks, and he told me more about how he developed that instinct.

WARNER: I mean, we can start with - my father named me after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal (laughter). He was pretty hardcore about making sure that I understood my history, and he did a lot of that through the arts. My dad went to Lincoln University because Langston Hughes went to Lincoln University. So I literally - I came out the womb, and my life was about poetry. So fast forward, I get to "Cosby" and the global impact that that show had. I find it difficult to go from a show that represented so much and did so much for the culture - it would be a slap in the face to go back and do work that perpetuated those negative stereotypes of Black people.

SUMMERS: It's also really clear that you are thinking about the way that Black folks are portrayed in your spoken-word album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "MASTER MAGICIANS")

WARNER: So that means you, me, we have got to open our eyes and see this country for what it truly is - beautifully flawed.

SUMMERS: One could almost describe it really as a love letter to Black people and those who love us and want to understand us.

WARNER: Yes. This album kind of helps show a path to a self-healing that I think we're all longing for, whether we understand it or not. So I say that this album is - it's for us. It's for Black people. It's for non-Black people who have the foresight enough to see our self-healing as an invitation to explore their own necessary healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "MASTER MAGICIANS")

WARNER: We always persevere, like descendants of survivors of the transatlantic slave trade are meant to.

SUMMERS: I'm curious - on this album, which track came together the quickest, and which one took the longest for you to feel was complete?

WARNER: "Dope," track No. 2, was the quickest. I wrote that one in a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "DOPE")

WARNER: Dope. OK, so...

And that one actually started out as an Instagram challenge. There was a poet - a brother by the name of Black Chakra, and he put this Instagram challenge to other poets about - you know, basically, tell me how dope you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "DOPE")

WARNER: So really, it's not about the hype, right? It's just about what you like. And I'm, like, dope. Like, I come from a mom who - even now, my most bomb Christmas - I was 5 years old, and she only had enough money to buy me two gifts and yet managed to make me feel so rich.

And it really excited me because I hadn't been writing in a long time. And we're in the middle of the pandemic, so I just sat one morning and just started writing it. And that was one of those situations where it just came.

The poem, "Hiding In Plain View," is the one that took the longest and went through the most changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "HIDING IN PLAIN VIEW")

WARNER: Vulnerability can be a scary thing, even when we're on the mend. Black boys boast bravado not to seem broken. And often, so do Black men. I see you looking for clues, searching for cues, longing to know what I'm not telling you, as if I'm hiding in plain view.

It was me, you know, revealing things about myself. And my wife was really instrumental in pushing me to do that. And she kept pushing me. So it was a whole process in finally getting that poem to become what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW")

WARNER: The things we hide about ourselves don't disappear. And some, we fear, may slip out when least expected. An irony for me is when I wanted to be fully accepted without giving my full self. Not feeling safe enough to be vulnerable, I'd lament I was only being loved based on what I thought was safe to present.

SUMMERS: There's this really confessional nature to that, which I'm sure might be hard to display in a world that quite often does not wrap its arms around our Black boys and our Black men.

WARNER: Right. When I hear from non-Black people who tell me how much that poem resonates with them, it makes me go, ah, great. People are understanding that this is more of a universal theme than may seem on the surface. When we hide parts of ourselves, we are compromising ourselves. We're compromising our souls. And there's a line in that particular poem where I say a compromised soul may let you sleep...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN-WORD POEM, "HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW")

WARNER: But it will never let you rest unless you address the parts of you that can't be dressed up with a smile and an I'm fine. So I'm on this quest to embrace a self-love so radical that I honor every aspect of my being, even the broken I'm working to heal.

SUMMERS: You know, you have been working in some form since you were really young, and I just want to ask you about that longevity. How do you manage to find joy and balance in the various prongs of your career? How do they all work together?

WARNER: I found music. I became a bass player. Because, through the music and poetry, there are ways that I can express myself that I can't as an actor or director. And I tend to say that this album, in particular - it's my fourth album - but I say it's by far my most important album because it shows ways that we can shift our approach to the way we raise Black boys. Honestly, when I look at all of my avenues of expression, I feel ready and excited for the next level of what I do as an actor, artist and also that next level of my career.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He's nominated for a Grammy for his spoken-word album. It's called "Hiding In Plain View." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

WARNER: Thank you, Juana. I appreciate the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.