The danger of black ice is you never truly see it coming.
In mere seconds, it shakes your reality and perception, spinning it out of control and opening your eyes to new, terrifying truths.
It’s an apt description for poet Lamar Manson, who has built his reputation as one of the preeminent spoken word artists of the millennium under the moniker Black Ice.
“The breadth of his work is pretty expansive and definitely inspiring,” says Nick George, founder of The Listening, which is bringing the spoken word artist to Lynchburg for its second Signature Sessions event, which gives local artists the opportunity to perform alongside major names in the poetic community.
“When it comes to spoken word, he’s definitely a legend in terms of taking it to that next level of being a commercial success.”
Ice didn’t come up with the name on his own.
“I was described that way by Abiodun [Oyewole] from [The] Last Poets and Sonia Sanchez within the same two-week period,” the Tony and Peabody Award-winning artist said during an international phone call from his home in the Netherlands.
Having Oyewole — a founding member of The Last Poets, the group often credited with creating the blueprint for hip-hop — and Sanchez, who is often associated with the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s, “describe me as such gave me the green light and the OK, to say this will be my stage name,” he says.
Before he was credited as one of the pioneers that made spoken word a mainstream art form, Black Ice was a barber in Philadelphia who spit rhymes during his free time.
“You’re on the pulse of black male America in the barbershop,” he says. “We cut everybody from the biggest drug dealers to the most renowned ministers.”
Working at an epicenter of black American life in Philly would eventually become one of the pillars of his poetry, which frequently dissected the societal ills he witnessed within his community.
“He pulls no punches,” says George. “He’s not afraid.”
Knowing that his most famous works — which include themes of gang culture, institutionalized oppression and police brutality — still resonate with listeners is both a positive and a negative.
“Narcissistically, artistically, my [work’s] timeless. Dope. Unfortunately ... it’s still relevant, maybe more relevant today than when [I] wrote it ... which means we haven’t done any better.
“So, yeah. It’s a double-edged sword. When it’s truth, it becomes timeless, but for these things to still resonate through people because the experience is still very real and very current, that says a lot about our society.”
In 2001, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons signed Black Ice to his label Def Jam and gave him a spot on “Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry,” the spoken word TV series that premiered on HBO in 2002, during the era of “Sex and the City” and the early days of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The series, which ran until 2007, featured guest artists like Dave Chappelle, Kanye West and Nikki Giovanni. Black Ice performed on each of the show’s six seasons, as well as its theatrical version on Broadway, where the New York Post called him “diamond brilliant.”
The TV show would go on to win a Peabody and the Broadway show, a Tony.
Following his rise to fame on “Def Poetry,” Ice became the first poet to receive a then-highly coveted “Hip-Hop Quotable” in The Source magazine, which, according to Vulture, highlighted the best rap verse of a given month. He also became the first poet to be featured on BET’s “Rap City,” according to his biography on American Program Bureau (APB), a global speaker agency.
He has opened for Mary J. Blige, toured with groups like The Roots and performed alongside Jay Z and Stevie Wonder at the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia, one of several benefit concerts around the world that coincided with the 20th anniversary of Live Aid in 2005.
His poem “410 Days In the Life” was sampled by Kendrick Lamar, and according to the profile from APB, his work is utilized in high school curriculum and courses at Harvard and Columbia universities.
While Ice says all the awards and accolades certainly mean something — especially to a “black boy from North Philly” — it’s the latter in this list of accomplishments that mean the most to him these days.
“When I’m teaching, and when I’m cracking young minds, that’s the dopest [expletive],” he says. “... That’s when I feel most gangster.”
Ironically, Black Ice wasn’t originally interested in words.
“I was a visual artist first, and then, at one point, I wrote a story in elementary school, and my teacher called my mom and said, ‘Boy a writer, make him write about everything.’ ... It was torture up until I realized that little girls like sonnets. Then I was a sonnet-writing fool.”
Still, the spoken word artist says he didn’t truly get into the intricacies of writing until he heard LL Cool J’s 1985 hit “I Need a Beat.”
“That was really my inspiration to really start writing in the form of lyric. Langston Hughes had been shoved down my throat and all of the Harlem Renaissance [poets]. The classics, Shakespeare, and then other obscure stuff like Kafka. But it was LL who made me go to the pad and the pen.”
Black Ice still sees the connection between spoken word poetry and hip-hop.
“Anything having to do with lyric is intertwined with poetry,” he says. “Music, song, it’s poetry first. Rakim says rap is rhythm and poetry. It’s poetry syncopated to a rhythm. It’s the same energy. The same lyrical intricacy.”
He likens the two to an analogy about horses.
“MCs are racehorses, they’re thoroughbreds. They have to start at a certain point and have to get around the track within a certain time. Whereas poets are like Arabian stallions that are allowed to kind of graze free and run and slow down when they want, to speed up when they want to.
“That’s the freedom we have as poets is that we don’t have to adhere to syncopating our thoughts to a certain time, beat or whatever.”
Ice, who now lives full time in the Netherlands, continues to write for the masses, albeit less frequently than before.
Everyone is talking these days, he says, and too many voices speaking all at once inevitably means nothing penetrates the noise. Plus, how can he write about the issues facing black America when he no longer lives in the U.S.?
“Sometimes I felt like who am I to say something about what’s happening over there,” he explains.
When he does having something to share, Ice has a distinct process: he workshops his poems like those in the theater community workshop new plays.
But, unlike those artists who gauge how their work will hit mainstream audiences, Ice practices his poems-in-progress before an imaginary audience of literary greats. Filling the seats in his head is “every great writer, speaker that I’ve ever admired,” he says.
There’s civil rights figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X sitting near British literary masters William Shakespeare and Lord Byron. Science fiction forefather Franz Kafka in the same crowd as Zora Neale Hurston and Jay Z.
Ice calls this group of famous figures, which also includes James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Leonard Cohen, his workshop.
“I can imagine, when I’m saying these lines, what these facial expressions will be,” Ice says. “And if I don’t get those facial expressions, the piece is not ready.”
It’s not necessarily about receiving a standing ovation from his inspirations, he says. It’s about making a statement, and through that statement, helping push others along the path to change. This, Black Ice says, is the continuing power of the poetic voice.
Poems, he says, shift existence.
“When you can stand in front of a group of people with no music and no effects and affect — and hold people in aesthetic arrest — and make people think and make people cry, and inspire people to do better to do something different, to move a certain way ... that’s the power of that word.”