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M’Wile Askari presides over Chocolate City’s open mikes—for better or verse

It’s 9 p.m. on Monday at 14th and U Streets NW, and as happens most Monday nights, U Street is catching a nap after a long weekend. Unlike other evenings at the crossroads for the District’s carpet-bagging bourgeoisie, tonight offers no suits trying to catch the tail end of happy hour, no scantly dressed dime-pieces to give whiplash to cats they stroll past, and no row of black bikers profiling outside of Webb’s. Even the heavyweight hot spots are hibernating tonight—Polly’s is dead, Republic Gardens is eerily silent, and only the most determined of party people are in State of the Union. Only one club dares to violate the moratorium: Bar Nun, an underdog on most evenings, is making the most of its monopoly over U Street’s quietest night of the week.

Outside the club, a meaty, dark-skinned bouncer takes cash, cards the cats entering, and projects menace in abeyance. It’s a scene that goes off in front of a lot of D.C.’s busier spots, but there is no earth-shaking megajam going down at Bar Nun tonight. On the club’s cavernous second level, a lone DJ is working it out for a phantom crowd, spinning the latest in underground hiphop grooves to absolutely no one. That’s because the action is downstairs, where a TV behind the bar is flashing the movie Belly, while a screen to the left features Bill Clinton offering words in memory John F. Kennedy Jr.

Monday nights at Bar Nun are like a scene right out of Love Jones. That’s because every week the club hosts “the Movement,” an evening of open-mike poetry and music. The crowd has a schizophrenic vibe—half black nationalist and half bourgeois. The cultural thing is big on Mondays, so most of the women wear their hair natural, wrap it in fabric, or do both. Some Mondays, the Movement is a cool social spot—two-for-one rail drinks, lots of curvaceous attendees, and, not so incidentally, some decent poetry. Other nights the Movement devolves into pseudo-Afrocentric philosophizing disguised as verse.

The Movement has pulled in a nice crowd tonight. The main poetry room is packed, and the band is improvising a tune for each poet who steps up to the mike. The poetry occasionally rises above the mediocre, but tonight, the majority of it is fairly cheap. A few dudes get up and actually rhyme, but most step in front of the crowd with spiral notebooks and profess their love for black women or their deep belief that black people have been the victims of a 400-year international con game. It’s a nice sentiment and all; it just doesn’t generally make for transcendent verse.

I’ve all but ruled out the possibility of literary uplift when I spot M’Wile Yaw Askari. He’s almost as old as my father, but he rolls through Bar Nun like the most popular kid in high school. Askari works the crowd without effort or apparent guile, simply laying friendly hands on his legion of admirers. Before the night is over, half of the clientele will have stepped up to Askari, to pay respects or just to say hey. Here in Bar Nun’s kingdom of Afro-bohemians, Askari holds the scepter. And I am but one of his subjects.

When he spots me, he makes his way over to the bar where I’m sitting and begins to say something. But before any words come out of his mouth, a short, attractive woman with shoulder-length dreadlocks swoops down on him: “Askari, [not M’Wile?] they’re calling for you to read.”

Askari nods his head and ambles through a freshly formed divide in the audience. A young cat with baby dreadlocks starts tapping lightly on his djimbe as Askari loosens the microphone from its chrome stand. He has no notebook in his hand, no loose pages or paperback book parted to a special poem. His eyes are closed. Unlike most of the folks who read at Bar Nun—indeed, unlike most poets in the Western world—Askari creates his verse out of the moment, knitting together the vibe, his thoughts, and a gifted tongue. He starts with a sample from a Duke Ellington tune. “In my solitude I retrace [tense?] scattered moonbeams and trumpet notes….In my solitude I was searching for love before I lost it.”

The poem goes on for a good five minutes. It could use a heavy revision, but it’s also head and shoulders above anything else that’s been recited here tonight. Add in the fact that it came shooting out from the space behind Askari’s eyes without the assistance of paper, pencil, or time, and his gift shines all the more brightly. None of this is lost on the crowd, which explodes after Askari finishes his piece and repeats the ritual of accolades as he walks away from the mike.

“I try to shake everybody’s hand to sort of spread that feeling,” says Askari. “Before, I just wanted them to tell me how the poem was. But now I’ve learned to include, as opposed to exclude, people.” It’s a lot of folks to include. To paraphrase local poet Gaston Neal, you can walk into any of the District’s black open-mike sessions, say the name Askari, and they will believe you.

At almost any black creative function along U Street, you can spot Askari and a gang of Amiri Baraka wannabes in his wake. They may not know his past, but they show it respect. Askari has been crowned the poet emeritus of the local spoken-word scene in part because he is believed to posses the wisdom of a Yoruba chief. It doesn’t hurt that he definitely has the look of one.

Askari is twice as old as most of his admirers, and with his African garb, neat beard slowly going gray, smooth black skin, and chiseled face, he fits right into the black nationalist ideal of how an elder goes about his business. And even though he seems to be perpetually blown about by bad circumstance, Askari has a propensity for doling out happy-ending tales. Askari almost never has a bad word to say about life, though something in his tone tells you that he should. Even if he’s talking about daisies blooming on a cloudless day in April, his voice still cracks like a man who’s taken a few low blows.

But the pain in his voice also gives it authority. When you listen to Askari speak, he rarely tells you what he’s been through, but you just know it’s more than you have. The kids under his spell treat him like the man they wish their father were. They swoon and sway around him, like flowers caught in a convincing breeze. It’s a loyalty that runs surprisingly deep, sometimes disturbingly so. When I mention to one poet that I’m thinking of writing something about Askari, he glares at me and says, “You leave our Baba [Swahili for father] alone.”

Cats who can barely spell Askari’s name devote bad poetry to him, hold fundraisers on his behalf, offer shout-outs to him. Those who are particularly enthralled consult Askari about relationships, careers, and other critical matters—like what they should wear when the revolution comes.

His words have the appearance of truth, but Askari’s intentions ring more complicated. A man can’t live off of props. So Askari uses his exposure to hit up his admirers for a few bucks after dispensing some deep life lesson or a bit of improvisation.

But no one minds; after all, Askari is charming, and he never talks to you as if he’s got his hand in your pocket. The money always comes far behind his tutorials in jazz and the Black Arts movement, the twin altars of the Afro-bohemia nation.

“Part of [his appeal] is the fact that he’s a living link [to the Black Arts movement],” says local poet DJ Renegade. “And then a lot of [his admirers] haven’t read a whole lot, so he’s about as much of an education, on that type of literature, as they’re going to get.”

People go to school on Askari all the time, and he doesn’t mind it one bit. A few years back I told Askari that I wanted to learn more about jazz. He told me to go buy Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and that it would give me a good introduction to jazz. I listened to the album a few times and decided that if that was what jazz sounded like, I didn’t need it. I didn’t buy another jazz album for two years. Later, I learned that Bitches Brew was a one-off experiment meant to be dissected by only the truest of aficionados.

But Askari’s appeal isn’t based on omniscience. People take almost anything he says as received wisdom, because he makes even the most banal corners of life sparkle like the Hope Diamond. One young woman, who has known Askari all of three weeks, tells me that they have a “bond” and “a spiritual connection.” Based on what? “He tells me things about my life.” Like? “He told me I have to let love in.”

I met Askari for the first time when I was a freshman at Howard University. I had been in school only a few weeks, but I’d already decided that I wanted to be writer of some sort. In my youthful know-nothingness, I assumed poetry was the quickest and easiest route to becoming a literary master, so that’s where I started. Whole volumes of bad poetry lay between me and my ultimate objective, but I was sincerely interested in getting better as fast as I could.

In those days, I was a regular at many of the open readings around the city. These days you need a team of stout horses to drag me to an open mike, but back then, if you told me there was going to be a reading in some alley at midnight, I’d have been there with several sheets of scribbled looseleaf in hand. And Howard hosted its share of readings on campus.

This was 1993, and the black nationalist element at Howard was firmly entrenched. It seemed like every week some dude who’d renamed himself Kwame was hosting a reading in the Blackburn Student Center. Like open mikes at any colleges (and open mikes in general), none of these readings did much for the state of American literature. And because it was Howard, you got fewer points for crisp metaphor than you did for the ability to jam in allusions to the Nile River and Malcolm X.

One night in September, a student organization pulled a reading together in the Punchout, a raggedy fast-food hangout in the basement of Blackburn. The event was poorly advertised, so with the exception of about three spectators, everybody in the joint was, or thought he was, a poet. I was leafing through pages of some stuff I’d recently written, when Askari, sporting a kufi and a loose dashiki, stood up and told everyone to form a circle. Everyone deferred to him. We moved our chairs, and Askari promptly walked to the middle and began to recite.

And then he just flowing off the dome. It was clear from jump that this wasn’t something he’d memorized, that the guy was actively constructing a poem in front of our faces. The piece had something to do with Miles Davis playing trumpet with his back turned to the world.

When Askari finished the piece, everyone in the circle was drop-jawed. We all started clapping, but Askari stopped us in mid-applause. “Don’t clap,” he said with his arms extended outward. “I always say, ‘If you’re not going to throw money, don’t do anything.’” It was a weirdly humorous, if not cryptic, bit of commentary. No one clapped for anybody the rest of the evening. But, along with a couple of other bleeding hearts, I slid a few bucks to the Askari fund later that evening.

I was just 17 at the time, and a very underread and underlearned student of poetry, so I was stunned. Afterward, Askari commented positively on my work—I think he meant it—and went on to school me on Black Arts poets like Haki Mahdubuti, Larry Neale, and Amiri Baraka—names I knew only in passing.

Askari was one of the first elders I met on the Washington poetry scene. As a child growing up around people who had heavy Afrocentric sympathies, I had had my head filled with visions of wise old men chewing kola nuts around a fire, planning the future of nations, and dispensing wisdom to the young with disconcerting ease. So Askari fell into a well-formed pocket in my life. He was easy to admire: a regal bearing, the voice of black Moses, and a nice guy, to boot.

But there was always a disconnect. Here was this supremely talented man who reeked independence from the ties that bound up most other mortals, but he seemed perpetually on the brink of personal ruin. It was no secret among poets that Askari was down on his luck in a semipermanent way. Nearly every regular on Washington’s poetry scene in the mid-’90s had been hit up by Askari for a few bucks at some point. It wasn’t that he’d roll up on you and tell you to run your dough. He’d politely ask you for a few dollars to grab lunch or to get home. In the rare instance when someone declined, Askari would smile politely and still say thank you.

Most people didn’t think twice about Askari’s beggary. The legend suggested that he had sickle cell anemia. Because of his status, many treated Askari’s misfortune the way they’d treat their parents’ sex life—they had no interest in details, lest the truth violate their holy image of Askari. But there were always the skeptics, and among them it was said that Askari showed all the classic signs of a person who had a habit of something besides spouting verse.

“Me and M’Wile have a no-BS policy,” says poet [right?] Kenneth Carroll, who has known Askari since 1987. “So if he comes up to me, I know that [any money I give him] may go to whatever needs he has, and I don’t make any judgments about that. He’s had some hard-luck stuff happen to him—some of it precipitated by him and some of it not.”

It can be punishing to spend time in close with one of your heroes. I get my first real look behind the curtain when I stop by Askari’s crib to scoop him up for an interview. His apartment building in Lincoln Heights is a world away from the U Street clubs where he hangs out nightly. His block looks like hell, a ghost of a street where only two places are occupied. Broken glass litters the entrance to his building. A few yards away, a couple of kids run around shirtless, playing a game of tag, while a young cat in cornrows closes a marijuana deal with a dude in a hoopdee.

Inside, no lights illuminate the hallway, and visitors are left to contend with the darkness when trying to figure out apartment numbers. I take a guess as to which door belongs to Askari and get the grand prize when a slender young woman in shorts and T-shirt answers. When I ask for Askari, she calls out, “M’Wile!” Askari comes to the door, peeks out, declines to let me in, and tells me to wait outside for a second.

Ten minutes later, a ray of light peeks from the doorway and Askari emerges in his omnipresent kufi and dashiki. All he needs is a walking stick to complete the image of the African chief. As we walk to the car, he barks at a little kid whose friends are daring him to hoist himself out of a broken window. At Askari’s request, we head up to Howard to talk. It seems like a long trip from this place.

“I always lived a dual life,” Askari says. “I went to Howard, so I was around educated folks during the day and pickpockets and prostitutes at night.”

Askari didn’t take the standard route to Howard. He wasn’t a precious heirloom born into a family of bluebloods, like most of the university’s students. He was born Calvin Jones, to a mother who worked as a domestic. It was she who taught him a love of reading.

“My first literary influence was my mother,” he says, sitting in the lobby of Blackburn. “She used to read magazines like Sepia, and she told me about writers like Owen Dodson, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, and J.A. Rogers….She would tell me that if you can read a book, you can make a statement; if you can’t read, you gotta ask a question.”

Askari’s mother moved him frequently as a child, so he bounced through several of the District’s public schools. “I ended up at Cardozo,” he says. “But I never graduated from high school. I was in college-prep classes, but they also put me in social-adjustment classes. They said I was really smart, but I wouldn’t do the work because I wasn’t socially adjusted.”

By the time he was 16, his maladjustment had manifested in a torrid romance with dope.

“Everybody smoked weed back then,” says Askari. “I can’t even remember when I started. I had a friend who was into jazz, and jazz and weed went hand in hand. So we’d sit back, roll a joint, and listen to Miles.”

Pretty soon Askari graduated from smoking a joint and listening to Miles to shooting heroin and nodding to Miles. “I asked a friend to hit me [with some heroin] one day. He gave me that same old speech,” says Askari. “But he saw I wasn’t listening. So we sat down and shot up. I think I did it as a way to be accepted, because the vast majority of intelligent African-American males in my world were dope fiends.”

Askari promptly dropped out of school to become a full-time addict. Yet even the folk who shot up with him kept telling Askari that he was too intelligent to be a junkie. With high school an impossibility, Askari started plotting another way out. “Where I came from, Howard was like a far-off dream,” he says. “But they had this test at Howard which you could take to get in if you didn’t get accepted right off the bat. I took the test and got in.”

In the fall of 1965, Askari entered the school as a freshman. Howard was the beginning of a double life for him. Some days you could catch him basking in the glow of Howard’s community of artists and intellectuals; on darker nights, he was a teenage junkie nodding with neighborhood friends while listening to John Coltrane records. But Askari couldn’t keep splitting time between the Brahmins of Howard and the local peasantry.

“Students at Howard weren’t really integrated with the local community. But I was,” says Askari. “That caused real problems. On the street they said, ‘You think you’re better than us.’ Back up at Howard they told me, ‘You aren’t good enough for us.’”

Askari barely made it through a year at the university. But when he left, he took a major gift with him. “I had begun to write,” he says. “I began by reading Langston Hughes and [Howard professor Owen] Dodson. And then I moved on to the Black Arts stuff.”

Bombing out at Howard did not mean an end to his education. A year after leaving the school, he flew out to California and enrolled at Lincoln University in San Francisco. In the Bay area, he was exposed to writers like Ishmael Reed and Ntozake Shange. But Askari was still unable to pull himself out of the underworld for any meaningful stretch of time. He’d return to Washington whenever he could and most often find trouble. He was filling his head with the literary fruit of a generation of black artists, but he was also running with the desperadoes.

In the summer of 1970, he joined up with some of his sketchier hometown friends and decided to rob a mail truck in the District. The job went off, and Askari spent the next three months traveling the country with his new-found riches. But within four months, the FBI had run him down. In the winter of 1971, he was convicted of a felony—armed robbery—and sentenced to 20 years. In jail, Askari stewed with anger and was drifting toward permanent, destructive resentment. But a few years into his sentence, he ran into a younger dude who’d lived in his neighborhood.

“I was in jail, and this younger cat came up to me and we got to talking, and he told me that as a kid he had idolized me. So he went and robbed a bank when he was 18,” says Askari. “And the judge gave him 18 years—one year for every year of his life. I got to thinking that if he ever woke up, he’d realize that I was the real reason he was in here, and he’d wanna kill me if he knew that.”

Askari was paroled in 1978. He says he left Calvin Jones behind and renamed himself M’Wile Askari to symbolize a spiritual rebirth. He returned to the Bay area and kept up with his writing. But it wasn’t until five years later that Askari hit on his real talent—improvisational poetry.

“As a child I always stuttered,” he says. “You could have handed me a book in an empty room, and I would stutter trying to read the words off the page.” But, oddly enough, Askari noticed that when he improvised he didn’t stutter at all. “There was no one doing poetry off the top of their head at that time,” says Askari. “The jazz cats loved it. I’d walk up to the stage and tell the band, ‘Y’all play, I’m gonna follow you.’ And I’d just roll with it and give whatever came into my head.”

For pure poetics, Askari is nobody’s Shakespeare. Some might even argue that his freestyle verse doesn’t rise to the status of literature. On the page, his work doesn’t hold up—but his performance propels what could be fairly common images into something else entirely. Askari is one of the few practitioners of the genre of freestyle poetry in the country; it’s tough to judge him against his artistic peers, because he doesn’t have that many. What is clear is that for a man thinking on the spot, Askari has a staggering ability to spit out imagery and metaphor.

Literary quibbles aside, watching Askari is a dazzling experience. Sometimes he steps up to the mike with something on his mind, but he is just as likely to query the audience for what they’d like to hear him talk about. Then he pauses for a moment, to collect the first few lines of his poem, before suddenly parting his lips, letting loose a torrent of imagery. His poetry rarely builds or progresses in a linear fashion., but his ability to spontaneously manufacture flow makes Askari a god on the open-mike scene. Poets approach him as if he were a mystic with the secret to all of life’s dilemmas. And he’s not one of those visionaries who can see only as far as his own body of work.

“Askari’s an elder and a father figure for a lot people,” says 23-year-old poet W. Ellington Felton. “He promotes my work more than I promote it. I’ve gone places and people have been like, ‘M’Wile Askari told me about you.’”

A couple of years ago, I was roaming through Adams Morgan with some friends. It was a Saturday night, and 18th Street was jammed with bar-hoppers. My friends and I had just come out of the Lion’s Den, a reggae club, when I spotted Askari. He had a disgruntled look on his face, and he didn’t seem to be having a very good night. Askari shook my hand and then pulled me away from my friends. He looked at me hard and said, “Now don’t you tell anybody you saw me out here panhandling.” I hadn’t even witnessed the act, but, apparently afraid that I had seen something that I wasn’t supposed to, Askari made a pre-emptive strike.

I can’t say that I was completely shocked by the incident—asking people for money after a reading is only few steps away from panhandling. But it was the way Askari attempted to guard his image that caught me. He was clearly worried that if he was seen begging for change, his village-elder schtick would take a serious blow.

One evening while we’re rapping, [now, right?] I ask him about the incident. He denies that he was panhandling that night and tells me he was selling body oils and incense. I’ve seen Askari selling incense before, but I also know what I heard him say.

Even if they did see Askari panhandling regularly, I’m not sure it would have much effect on most of his fans.

“I talk with Askari about everything—poetry, life, spirituality, revolution,” says poet Matthew Payne. “I met him at a poetry [reading] he was hosting….The way he came off the top of his head, I was like, ‘I know he’s got some wisdom.’”

Another night while Askari and I are sitting upstairs in Bar Nun chatting it up, a young cat in a New York Giants jersey approaches him. “I heard your reading, brother, and I just wanted to tell you that I love what you had to say.” Always gracious, Askari smiles and shakes the young man’s hand, then breaks from our conversation for a second to drop a gem on the aspiring scribe: “Read everything you come in contact with,” he tells the dude. “And don’t look for people to come up to you after you finish and tell you that your poem was good.” It’s decent advice, and it sounds even better coming from someone twice the dude’s age. The lad nods at Askari, shakes his hand again, and backs away as if he just spoke to Ghandi.

There are other, more experienced hands in the community who care for Askari just as much, but they don’t buy the pedestal other people insist on. “M’Wile sort of has this cult-of-coolness thing going on,” says Carroll. “He’s got the cultural gear, and he’s got this fly poetry mack-daddy thing going on….I really like M’Wile, but I think some of that is a front.”

Others say there are some genuine problems and needs behind the front. Renegade says that the first time he met Askari, he asked him for money for his medication. Physical evidence led Renegade to wonder just what the nature of the sickness might be.

“He saw me read at an open mike, and he came up to me and gave me some encouraging words,” says Renegade. “Then he asked me for some money. He said he needed it for his sickle cell medicine. I didn’t really know him at the time, but I grew up on the street, and I know a hustler when I see one….His hands were really puffy, but I think I gave him some money the first time.”

Carroll says that he has frequently seen Askari at readings asking for money. On one bizarre occasion, he says he saw Askari hold up an empty medicine vial at a reading. “He got up during the open mike and asked people for money, [and] then he did a poem,” says Carroll. “Then he pulled out an empty prescription bottle and asked for money….Then he fell into some improv about the medicine….There were people in the house that were suggesting that it was for drugs because his hands were swollen. But people also knew that he had medical problems.”

When I ask Askari about the drug issue, he says that he hasn’t used drugs since 1972. “If they think that, though, why continue giving me money?” he asks. “It’d be very hard to pull off my readings if I was under the influence.” As for constantly hitting people up for change, Askari is slightly repentant. “I might have ruined some relationships,” he says. “Maybe I might have asked too many people.”

Even the most die-hard of Askari’s critics don’t doubt that he’s sick. It’s just that they suspect that sickle cell isn’t his only affliction. But most folks don’t seem to care where the money is going, only that Askari is the one doing the asking. Carroll says a local artist actually got mad at him when he refused to read during a benefit on Askari’s behalf. “They wanted me to read at a big fundraiser for M’Wile because everybody found out he was sick.” says Carroll. “I was like, ‘I want to talk to M’Wile first, because I’m not going to raise money for his pathology.’ They got really mad at me, and they were like, ‘How can you say that? He’s an elder.’ I was like, ‘I got uncles who are alcoholics, but I’m not throwing them money.’ I just couldn’t be a part of that.”

It’s 8 o’clock at Bar Nun on another Movement Monday. Askari is sitting in a lounge chair with his eyes closed and his hands over his nose and mouth, taking in the house band’s mellow groove. I walk over and tap him just as the MC for tonight’s open mike announces him as the first poet. He looks at me and asks, “Is there anything special you’d like me to read about?” I think about how I’ve heard Askari do poetry about Miles, Coltrane, Malcolm, and even Mary Wilson, and how none of it has gotten me closer to Askari the man.

“I want to hear about you,” I tell him. He laughs and shakes his head.

“That’s a challenge,” he replies. He nods his head in agreement and paces the bar area, thinking, while the band jams for a minute. When the music dies, Askari walks up to the mike and addresses the crowd. “How you feel out there tonight?” he asks.

“All right,” the crowd responds.

“Naw,” says Askari. “Let’s do it like ya’ll used to in church. How ya’ll doing out there?!”

“All right!” the crowd responds more lustily.

“I’d just like to thank all the folks who’ve supported me over the years,” he says. “And I hope nobody gets offended by what I have to say tonight.”

“Maybe it was the junkie running through me at 13,” he begins, the band slowly building behind him. “Made me take the man’s stash….I didn’t wanna stumble through this world blind…so I got something to snort on, blow on or shoot up…had to ride a white horse’s ghost through my arm.”

As Askari builds into a bitter confessional, the band builds the groove, and the head-wraps in the room begin to slowly nod to the drummer’s beat. Askari moves through his romance with drugs, alluding to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” slowly driving the tempo. By the time the band jumps in with its full sound, the house is captivated by Askari’s tale. A woman is singing along with band, exhorting Askari to “tell it like it is.” For his part, Askari seems oblivious to the whole scene, almost hypnotized by the memories he’s relating to the crowd.

Of all the times I’ve seen Askari read poetry, this is the first time I’ve ever gotten any sort of picture as to who he is, beyond his poetry. After his performance, I ask him why he doesn’t read about himself more often. “I came to art to forget who I’d been and the dirt that I’ve done in my life,” he says.

Most of his fans would probably rather he forgot as well. They are more than comfortable bowing down before the myth. His disciples approach Askari as if he were the Wizard of Oz, and no one dares to peek behind the curtain, lest they discover a very small man pulling the switches. When Askari finishes his performance, there are no extra kudos, and he gets no points from his fans for sharing a part of his world that would teach them so much more than the clever idiom he slings about whenever they approach him and ask for advice. The idea of the village elder who knows all is fine with them. Just as long as they don’t have to actually learn about what gave him that knowledge to begin with.