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Twelve Literary Arts Goes 'In Search Of The Land' With New Album

Donnie Lyneé records vocals for "In Search of the Land" [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]
Ngina Fayola records a song

Five years ago, award-winning poet Daniel Gray-Kontar founded Twelve Literary Arts as a poetry collective for young writers of color.

He's long wanted to create a recording of poetry and music dedicated to his hometown.

Twelve Literary Arts Executive Artistic Director Daniel Gray-Kontar [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

"There's never been an album that has really showcased poetry and simultaneously that has brought together a number of musicians to tell the story of Cleveland," Gray-Kontar said.

In December 2019, Twelve Literary Arts received a $50,000 national grant from the Joyce Foundation to do just that.

Gray-Kontar enlisted Detroit sound recording artist Terrel Wallace, also known as Tall Black Guy, to produce the album.

Terrel Wallace, aka "Tall Black Guy" [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

"We were supposed to introduce him to different artists while they were out playing so that he could get to know and see these artists perform. So we were going to take him to the Bop Stop, the Grog Shop, Happy Dog...everywhere that had music and musical acts. We were just going to take him there so he could listen to all of these different folks," Gray-Kontar said.

Soon after winning the award, however, the pandemic hit and there were no concerts to attend at area clubs.

"So then we had to just completely think about how do we create an incubator that will, you know, person by person, that will allow him to interface with these artists," Gray-Kontar said.

For Wallace, the drastic change in plans meant he and his young family had to move to Cleveland for the duration of the production.

Terrel Wallace and his son Drew [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

Wallace worked at Twelve Literary Arts' building in Glenville, known as the Twelve House.

It was converted into a recording studio where Wallace could work one-on-one with the poets and musicians.

"I was able to know these particular artists on a personal level as well as an artist. And that was kind of giving me more understanding how to approach, to even produce a track or just kind of get into their minds and things like that," Wallace said.

One night, the recording of a tune involved multiple musicians.

Mariama Whyte, Daniel Gray-Kontar and Terrel Wallace during a recording session at the Twelve House. [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

"Typically in a session, to kind of make it a move a little faster going forward, you would have about four to five, six people continuously kind of around each other, and we could not do that. We had to choose like one day and it was literally everybody was in their own separate rooms at the Twelve House, and we had a jam session," Wallace said.

"In Search of the Land" cover art [Dakarai Akil]

With Wallace arranging the music, Gray-Kontar curated the poets for the project, which was dubbed, "In Search of the Land."

He decided to mine the talents of his Twelve Literary Arts students past and present.

Leading off the album is Mary Barrett with her poem "Blackwards" about a young African-American woman discovering her voice in Northeast Ohio.

Mary Barrett [MiLisa Coleman]

"It's been a real process, finding your voice in Cleveland, that's kind of been the case with every artist that I've known in Cleveland, but once they find their voice, it's super beautiful," Barrett said.

Barrett was amazed at how Wallace was able to transform her poem with the music.

"I'm so used to the poem and have performed it so many times, I've heard it so many times that it was the music that surrounded it that made me feel like it wasn't just a poem anymore, that it was a part of something much bigger, something so beautiful. So I think that's what it was like hearing it for the first time, that it wasn't just a poem anymore," she said. 

For poet Deija Vinson, she dug into personal, local and national history for her poem"Redline Kid."

It was inspired by a presentation she saw on the practice of redlining, the tactic of segregating minority families and businesses by denying loans and thus preventing them from moving to more prosperous communities.

Deija Vinson [Stephen Bivens]

Shortly after the presentation on redlining, Vinson was asked by a work manager about where she lived.

When Vinson replied, "East Cleveland," she said the manager was surprised based on how Vinson presented herself at work.

"And so that came off kind of insulting to me, because it's still where I live, like it's still the people that I see every day. And if you think that my neighbors are beneath you, then you have to think something about me," Vinson said. "It made me kind of upset to have to deal with that kind of situation at work, to deal with having to talk to people or to deal with trying to explain away where I'm living, just to make other people around me feel comfortable. And so I was like, let me take all of these negative feelings and put them in a poem."

TDash, Daniel Gray-Kontar and Mark Who? [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

For Gray-Kontar, the essence of the album "In Search of the Land" can be found in Tiyana Williams' "Hey Hood."

"The fact that you're hearing from a young black woman, 18 years old, saying to you, 'The hood is not something that you can only consider from a deficit. It's something that's also beautiful. And how do I know that? I know that because I'm beautiful. And it made me.' So in a story about inner-city Cleveland, you translate that to not just mean the hood, but to mean Cleveland," Gray-Kontar said. "All of these negative stories and all of this nonsense that people write and say about Cleveland, well it can't be all bad because it made some of the most beautiful people you'll ever see."

Mariama Whyte [McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company]

Gray-Kontar said he hopes all Clevelanders sit down and listen to the album from start to finish.

"The end of the record sums it up. It's LeBron James, 'Cleveland, this is for you.' This is our love letter to Cleveland. Every artist on here loves this city very much. And I think you feel that love in this record," Gray-Kontar said.

You can listen to "In Search of the Land" for free, starting Saturday online at Bandcamp, Soundcloud and the Twelve Literary Arts website.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.