The Twin Poets - Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills
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For Twin Poets, a lifetime of using art to reach Delawareans leads to a national first
By: Christopher Yasiejko
A year after Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, as residents remained disconnected from their homes, their schools and their parks, the Twin Poets of Wilmington, Del., visited New Orleans as part of a weeklong project designed to resurrect communities and individual spirits alike.
Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha (pronounced choo-QUO-cha), the identical twins who two years earlier had turned heads with a spoken-word performance on the HBO series "Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry," helped to clean and re-dedicate a playground. They led a writing workshop for adults and another for children. They recited their own poetry.
When they'd finished performing a poem, a representative of a record label approached them. He wanted Al and Nnamdi to leave with him, right then, and visit a studio. He had to get them to record the poem so it could be used by one of the label's rappers, one of which is Lil Wayne.
The Twin Poets had encountered such introductions before. And, as in those instances, Al and Nnamdi graciously declined the invitation. The messages weren't in line with their messages.
"Why would I prostitute myself for a few dollars?" Al says. "I don't want the kids to remember that I was on Lil Wayne's album or this or that. I don't want that. I want the kids to remember Mr. Mills for what I stood for, for the work that I do daily."
The work he does daily -- he's a family therapist and, with Nnamdi, recently launched a community-based mentoring program called Art for Life Delaware -- is as recognizable in the city as are his dreadlocks, which stretch a bit farther down his back than do his brother's. Nnamdi, who since 2012 has served as councilman of Wilmington's First District, was born 45 years ago, two minutes before Al.
Both brothers are veterans. Both are vegetarians. Both are fathers -- Al has two children, and Nnamdi has three.
Now, both are preparing to traverse the state as Delaware's 17th poets laureate. According to the Library of Congress, theirs is the first co-laureate appointment at the state level.
Their performances beyond Delaware have included shows in New York at the Nuyorican Poets Café and the Apollo Theater and in Philadelphia at The Painted Bride. Their most widely known piece, "Dreams are Illegal in the Ghetto," was featured in the 2003 season premiere of "Def Poetry."
"We don't feel like we've missed out on anything," Al says. They've capitalized on their choice to live and work in Wilmington in lieu of chasing potential fame elsewhere.
"We see the ills in our community, the things that are going wrong," Al says. "And we feel that art truly is our way to help address some of these things. Given the appointment, I think we'll be able to put poetry and art in places and conversations where it hasn’t been in the past. In reference to the violence, in reference to the detention centers, the work-release programs -- I just think that art plays a part in the whole scheme of things. I think, so often, it's completely overlooked as even part of the solution, which we truly feel it is."
They want to take their work throughout the state, especially to schools where kids haven't experienced spoken-word performances. They are seeking a broad reinvestment in the arts within schools. (Nnamdi is chair of the City Council's Education, Youth & Families Committee and is a member of two others.) They see an opportunity to take poetry statewide, inviting parents and their children every Saturday morning to try their hands at writing competitions.
They especially want to reach disaffected young men before those men reach for a gun. For those whose actions have led them to correctional facilities, Al and Nnamdi will bring their artistic tools inside the walls. And, as veterans themselves -- Al, who served in Kuwait and Iraq during the first Gulf War, has post-traumatic stress disorder -- they want to extend their roles to Veterans Affairs venues.
The Twin Poets' appointment comes at a time of increasing awareness, nationwide, of rifts that remain in America's racial landscape. Spotlights are being shone on examples of excessive force by police, the victims of which often are young black males. The laureateship, Nnamdi says, gives him and his brother an opportunity to present their community's needs in a different way.
"We come from a very community-centered family," Nnamdi says. "That’s just the way we were raised. It was never about us as individuals. It was always about our community, about the work we do to improve our community. The more you say, ‘I,’ the less you’re focused on the community.”
As children, they lived in a house at 26th and Madison streets in which their grandmother also ran a foster home. At 7 or 8 years old, the twins were using art and storytelling to elicit smiles from the foster children.
Their younger sister lives in that house now. When Nnamdi visits and steps out of his car, he says, "It’s impossible for me not to start picking up trash on the street."
Their father, William "Hicks" Anderson, was deeply involved in the same community from the 1970s through his death in the early '90s. Indeed, when the National Guard commandeered Wilmington's streets for nine months in 1968 in the aftermath of riots, Anderson was among a handful of community leaders granted free passage by the governor. During the ensuing years, he helped convert neighborhood gangs to social clubs.
That pedigree fuels his sons' art as well as their activism.
"Our struggles are not just our struggles," Al says. "It’s worldwide. We were in Brazil, and we visited these detention centers. The hopelessness I saw in their eyes is the same hopelessness we see in Wilmington."
From an early age, an uncle encouraged the twins' interest in writing. They would read poetry together, then practice writing in the styles of those poets.
Nnamdi, his brother says, tends to write poems of greater length. Al enjoys journaling, especially first thing in the morning. He calls it "capturing my dreams." He carries, at all times, two journals. One, a pocket-size notepad, bears the burden of Al's negative musings. Such thoughts, he has found, gather speed quickly; suddenly, he'll notice, he has filled a page with angry thoughts.
And so, to provide himself balance, Al carries another, slightly larger, journal. It is reserved for positive reflections.
"That's my struggle," he says. "That's what I do throughout the day -- Look at that lady smiling! Look at her picking up her kid! -- I'll remember that, and I'll jot that down. Look at the way this lady's walking her dog! Those happy moments. Somebody in the car next to me at a stoplight, dancing."
At times, such as when he's driving, Al will record his captured moments as voice memos on his cell phone. But he enjoys the physical act of writing, and he prefers the feel of pen on paper.
The duo has a busy year ahead. In addition to the laureateship, Al and Nnamdi will see one of their poems, "Homework for Breakfast," reimagined in collaboration with a local graphic designer as an illustrated children's book. They also will publish, with a local company, a new collection of their poetry.
Their live performances, however, are unique presentations of their written words. Onstage, Al and Nnamdi's voices mesh -- one will start a line, and the other will finish the thought; one will recite the thread of a story, and the other will sprinkle atop the cadence a series of witty asides. They punctuate each other.
And the intermingling of their voices isn't their only method of collaboration. Al and Nnamdi are in close physical contact throughout their performances -- one may gently embrace the other, or rest a palm on a shoulder, or tug at his brother's shirt.
"As black males, there’s often that hardened exterior, where you have to be a gangster or whatever," Nnamdi says. "And we break that down, where it's OK to express your emotions and your love, your care and concern for another person, even if it's a male. This camaraderie, this brotherhood, it's in everything we do, and it’s sorely missing from our community."
Their creative process is similarly collaborative. Nnamdi will send a text message -- "Let’s write about this," or, "Here's a topic for the new poem" -- and Al might've just written about the subject the day before. Sometimes, Nnamdi will share a specific line that already had taken residence in Al's head.
Years ago, they would rehearse for three hours in advance of a performance. If they were scheduled to appear in New York, they would practice en route to the venue.
By now, their rapport has become second nature. On their way to a venue, they'll discuss what amounts to their setlist -- the poems they'll perform, and the order in which they'll perform them. They might listen to one of the CDs of their spoken word.
"I know what my brother is thinking," Al says. "He knows where I am. I know when to chime in. It's just a gift. It truly is."
The pair, meanwhile, is aware of the image they wish to present of young, black males. Nnamdi says he never has "a dress-down day." Every day, he wears a suit and tie.
"I do that to show value," he says. "When someone would look at me maybe in jeans and a t-shirt, they'll feel different than seeing me in a suit and tie every day. That's a part of this. Our community needs to see we are individuals who are committed to the struggle to improve our community."
But he and Al don't see themselves as anything apart from the neighborhoods in which they have spent their lives.
"There is nothing different between us and the people we grew up with," Al says, "some who ended up being murdered, some who are in jail, some who are standing on corners doing nothing. The only thing that separated us from them was art. We are able to say first-hand, via testimony, that this is what art can do. Coming from the grass roots, from these same streets, to be able to say, 'No, art changed my life. Art made this possible for me.'"
And that's what he and his brother explain to children and adults alike.
"This isn't just a poem," Al says to those who listen. "You're not just writing a poem or an apology letter. You're writing your words. You're telling your story. What is your story?
"There's a space on that bookshelf that's missing, and that's your story. You may be the next great author. But if we never tell these kids that they can write and they can be great, we won't have that story."