Breakdancing, crocheting on the Metro and HIV education: Dwayne Lawson-Brown, a DC poetry slammer and host, is famous around town for more than his spoken word.
The atmosphere in the crowded room at Busboys and Poets, a DC poetry location, is vibrant, open and easy-going. It’s a big variety of people among the 150 men and women coming together at this warm evening at the end of March for a poetry slam Open Mic event: They have alternative styles, the majority is black but there are also white businessmen in suits.
They clap and nod their heads to the beat and every now and then, somebody snaps his fingers to show his appreciation for the spoken and chanted words – just like in the times of the Beat Generation, even if the poetry community doesn’t have to meet in the basements anymore.
While all this is happening, two black men in their thirties give their stunning performance, rapping their own lyrics to the beat of Kanye West’s and Jay-Z’s famous “Ni**as in Paris”. The one man is the host of this monthly event, Dwayne Lawson-Brown and the other is his best friend and today’s main act. Both of them have lived in Washington, DC, for years.
“There are two things the district can not live without, and that’s government and entertainment”, says Lawson-Brown, 31, relaxing on a bench at Busboys and Poets after the show. “The government and the entertainment industry are the two real money-generating things. Government because that’s where everybody gets their paycheck, entertainment because everybody needs some time of escape from the government. They go hand in hand.”
Dwayne Lawson-Brown is a native Washingtonian who loves Washington’s entertaining art scene, especially the poetry scene. He’s very proud that the District is the running champion for the Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Tournament, as well as the National Poetry Slam Adult Tournament: “The nation’s capital is the poetry capital right now!”
The poetry scene influences every part of his life: As his daytime job, the 31-year-old man works for the nonprofit Real Talk DC that focuses on HIV education. By writing poetry about it, hosting events, promoting prevention on Social Media and producing a Podcast, he tries to increase HIV awareness through the spoken-word community.
Besides that, Lawson-Brown aka Crochet Kingpin has a lot of different interests that do not seem to fit together at the first sight: He is a break-dancer, DJ, entertainer, crocheting fashion designer and of course a poet and poetry slam host who already won some awards, for example the National Underground Spoken-Word Poetry Award.
He spends most of his free time on his greatest passion, poetry slams. Aside from Busboys and Poets, he hosts an Open Mic near Howard University called Spit that! once a week. But also, the rest of his days are filled with poetry events.
“There is no such thing like a normal day for me. But after work, I usually end up in some Open Mic”, Lawson-Brown says. When he enters the stage, he forgets about everything else. He doesn’t let the crowd or the rest of his sometimes crappy day effect him. It’s challenging to read out his often are very personal poems, but according to him, that’s what poetry is about.
“I’m an artist and my artistic duty is to bring myself joy by sharing my most difficult work”, he explains. ”Sometimes it’s the joy of a butterfly coming out of the cocoon. Some days it’s like a butterfly trapped in a room full of gas. Performing is such a double-edged sword and you show a lot of personal stuff. Sometimes it’s really welcoming, sometimes it’s really bitter. But every time you get up there and take that chance.”
Lawson-Brown’s poetry style is short, introspective, and descriptive. One of his newest poems published on his blog poetry crochetkingpin.com starts like this:
Working toward goals makes you feel like you really making some kinda progress.
But you look up from your hard work and realize that you’re surrounded by the same stress.
(…) Coming up next! Everything’s so complex, work so much, no time to decompress.
Another one goes like this:
I just cried for my
Son, because someday I could
Become a hashtag.
He cried for me when
He saw my tears. We both are
Crochet Kingpin reflects on both himself and his environment. “I’ve always shot to be a very honest writer”, he explains his work. “Often we live lies. We hide behind everything else. I’m afraid that folks use poetry or Hip Hop to cement their mask. In my work, my goal is to take my mask off when I’m sharing my work.”
With this honesty, he also wants to achieve a special goal. “At the end, I want the audience to feel that they know more about me and that there is a little bit of me inside of them”, he tells. Also, he wants people to be more comfortable with themselves by showing that they are not the only ones in uncomfortable situations. “I think there is something like communal healing and my work is geared around healing and self-discovery”, Lawson-Brown adds.
When he is not performing or listening at a poetry slam, he can be found on the Metro, simply riding around and documenting his life through poetry, as well as making scarves and hats. It is an unusual picture and he attracts attention with his look: A “Hip-Hop” guy with sneakers, wide clothes, gold necklaces and a cap who sits in the rail car and crochets, writing down some notes from time to time. “I can’t help, my best poetry is written in two spaces: On the toilet and on the Metro”, Lawson-Brown says laughing.
“People-watching on the Metro is a wonderful thing. This and the noise of the Metro triggers something and a line will just hit me. Inspiration just falls out of the sky and then I have to write, no matter where I am.” Because of his unusual look with the crocheting things, people approach him very often. These encounters mean a lot to the Washingtonian man and lead to funny and unexpected conversations: “My favorite thing is when I see another guy and he walks up: ‘Yo, I crochet too!’ And I’m like: ‘Oh you don’t have to keep it a secret, it’s okay!’ And we end up exchanging tips on the Metro!”
With all of those different encounters and activities, it’s hard to imagine that Dwayne Lawson-Brown still has time for family. But when he’s asked about all those different things, he answers: “First, I’m a father. My little son Darius is six years old by now and full of joy! His energy makes me push to be better.” Darius lives with his mother in Baltimore. On occasion, Dwayne is there and he talks to his son every day on the phone.
“His mother an I are no longer together but we’re still friends”, he voices. “But we go into parenting like a team. To be successful raising a child, you need to be a team whether you’re together or not. Every now and then, the two of us go to brunch or to happy hour and talk about life. It’s 2015, we have to figure out how to parent even if the parents aren’t lovers.”
Lawson-Brown himself grew up without his father, his mother raised him on her own in Southeast DC. “My dad left when I was three, just conflict with mama”, he says. “I missed him and scribbled letters to my dad. I wrote stuff that influenced me in my poetry style.” Also, his family situation as a child was the reason why he started to write.
When his mother Wanda Barnes, 50, who recently got married again, found out about her son writing poetry, she wasn’t surprised: “I write and I knew that it is in the family!” The Mother and her son still have a close relationship and they also live together. Thinking about all those years, Wanda Barnes notices one thing: “He always was pretty much the same as he is now! Very active, he did not like to sit still much, we had to keep him busy.”
Through this period, writing became the activity that engaged the young man the most. The first time he performed his poetry was at the age of sixteen. Back then, Lawson-Brown just started at a new high school.
“I was this Goth awkward kid”, he admits. “And being a Goth awkward kid in Southeast DC just doesn’t spell socially great.” Until then, he also didn’t realize that DC is the political city that it is. “You never realize what’s in your backyard”, he explains.
Becoming more interested in the greater things happening around him, he went to a poetry event where he got a job for writing poetry for a HIV prevention nonprofit organization. That made him start to read out his poetry and gave him confidence. Realizing that sharing his words could effect others pushed him a lot. The second push in his life was when he met his best friend Drew Anderson 15 years ago.
“He hosted an Open Mic with this poem that spoke directly to my heart”, Lawson-Brown says. “Through his poetry, I started to realize: Wow, I can be really touched by this word. I want to effect people like he affects people. I want to create the change that I want to see within others by being an example.”
That self-characterization sounds pretty ambitious. But it also matches what his best friend and poet Drew Anderson alias Droopy the Broke Baller, says about him many years later. “Dwayne is like all of the elements of Hip-Hop in one person”, he states. “And also, he’s a person who wants to make everything around him to be better without coming of he is better than everything around him.”
Watching the two friends now, performing and hosting together at different Open Mic events, you can see what a well-rehearsed team they are and that they share a lot of interests. “He means everything to me”, says Anderson, who just turned 37, expresses. “He’s like my little brother, he’s my pair, he’s someone who looks up to me and who I look up to at the same time.”
Because he is perhaps the person, that knows Lawson-Brown the best, Anderson also finally solves the mystery of how all those different interests of his best friend match better than you would expect at first sight. For Anderson, the clue is, that his mate does all his work and projects from his heart.
“I couldn’t see him just do a job that he wouldn’t take within”, the 37-year-old man explains. “Everything he does, he brings into everything he does. Because he’s a HIV health educator, he would bring that into poetry and bring dance into poetry and Hip Hop into the way he educates around health awareness. He’s just a very dynamic, multi-fascinated and multi-talented person.”
But also a vibrant, good-humored man like Dwayne Lawson-Brown had his dark days. As a young black man he wasn’t always thinking positively about his future: “So many things have happened in my life that make me feel: I could not have made it here. Trayvon Martin could have been me”, he says, using exactly the same sentence as Barack Obama did in his speech in July 2013 a few days after the George Zimmermann trial in that case.
“Mike Brown could have been me, in a real way”, he continues referring to the Ferguson trial. “I haven’t always been this nice little articulate boy. I definitely had mouthed off to cops and saying all this stuff. Anything could have happened. We [black men in his social periphery] celebrate every year.
Lawson-Brown was so pessimistic about his future that he didn’t make any life plans and just wasn’t prepared to be a grown-up. “We end up late to the game”, he explains. “Around 25 you have a midlife crisis as a black young man around here. What am I doing here? How am I going to buy a house? How does buying a house even look like?” Right now, buying a house is exactly what his ultimate dream is. He wants to create a place that the DC’s poets can own for themselves to realize all their ideas there.
The orientation problems in life he felt in his 20s were also reflected in his early poetry. 2015 is an important year for him looking at his future goals, but also in terms of dealing with his past. Besides the plans for his first record coming out in May and his first time of performing in a foreign country, Iceland, he is working on his first book right now that he wants to publish this year, including his new and old poems. He is not ashamed for his first steps into poetry.
Also, this late process of growing up and not being already settled in life at an early age could have helped Lawson-Brown to become a better poet. “I feel like I didn’t start getting good until … maybe now! I’m still growing! I feel like every artist is growing as long as they live.”
The special attitude he has is that he reworks his early writing, trying to improve and complete it instead of leaving it behind. The 31-year-old man thinks, that in 15 years, exactly the same thing will happen with his current poetry. “I feel like your body of work should be a living document the same way you are a living document. And you have a chance to take your past and take it forward with you.”
Talking about his work process, Lawson-Brown still sits on a bench after his evening as a poetry host. All the clapping and snapping guests left, a staff member vacuum-cleans the floor. Thoughtful the poet strokes his striking beard and adjusts his cap. At this late hour, he thinks about what this philosophy might mean for his future. Because this never-stopping process of improving and growing also has one conclusion: His perfect poem could maybe be his last one.
He starts to smile. “My masterwork will be my final thought!”, he calls out while laughing. “Whatever that last thought is, it’s gonna be like Boom! Maybe it’s gonna be some simple stuff like: LOVE. I feel like love is the answer for everything. We’re gonna be here like 50 years from now and you will say: Dwayne, your final words, what are they gonna be? And I will say: Love. And eat more pancakes. It’s the meaning of life: Love … and pancakes!”