October 06, 2013

Speaking Life's Truth's


Wanda Robinson better known as Laini Mataka was born and raised in Baltimore, Md., one of 10 children, and was raised by her Grandmother. She's been writing poetry since the age of thirteen. Her first paid writing gig was composing letters, at a quarter apiece, for girls whose boyfriends were being sent to Vietnam. She wrote about, she says, "things I knew nothing about": "it was all about love- 'oh, he broke my heart!'"

As the war progressed and she entered college, her work became more political. After hearing R&B singer Arthur Prysock's poetry-based 1969 album, "This Is My Beloved," she decided to set some of her poems to music.
She read poems into a tape recorder with a stereo playing in the background, then she played the finished product for her classmates at the Community College of Baltimore. A local DJ, Anthony Davis played some of her work on his show. Soon after, she got a call from Perception Records which invited the 20 year old if she would like to come to NYC to cut a record.

When Laini (named for a settlement in Kenya's central Province) was picking music for her album, the label opened it's library up to her. "They said to use any music I wanted - they owned the rights to everything," she remembers. She selected a great deal of material from Black Ivory, a soul trio from Harlem- and then walked into what she describes as a sort of disorganized, never-ending party. She remembers label folks keeping artists working however they could. "Whatever you wanted, they would get it for you," Mataka says. Laini wanted nothing was what she told them!

After recording her album "Black Ivory" in 1971, performing doggedly to promote the record - at a beauty pagent, on an episode of Soul Train she never saw - Laini fled, feeling overworked and underpaid. "I hid," she says. "I said i'd never give my work to white people again to exploit me, and I didn't."

She went home to Baltimore, where she put in time at the CSX railroad, in libraries and in a warehouse. She didn't want to deal with labels, agents or producers anymore, but, encouraged by friends, met with a guy who'd worked with Maya Angelou. They took a cab ride, he disrespected her, she got out and didn't take any more meetings.

In the meantime, Laini says, "Me And A Friend," was cobbled together from tracks she recorded for Black Ivory. Although she's never listened to the whole recording, she did once read the lyric sheet. "They didn't know what I was saying," she says. "They misspelled a lot of words."

Still the disc has done a lot to maintain her profile among crate-diggers. DJ Shadow, the British electronica duo Pressure Drop and New York house producer Floppy Sounds have all sampled Laini's work. And those are just the "Credited uses." No doubt since Perception records went bankrupt and the catalog was purchased, she probably could regain some of the ownership of her work.

In the mid - 70s, Mataka met Paul Coates, owner of Baltimore's Black Classic Press. Once he began the process of starting a publishing house, he told her that is she waited for him that his company would publish everything she wrote. Coates made good on that promise. In 1988 "Never As Strangers, In 1994 "Restoring The Queen." And, in 2000 Bein A Strong Black Woman Could Get You Killed," were all published by Black Classic Press.

Laini Mataka is the real deal. Even 30 years ago her voice was uniquely original and still is even today!
She would even like to sing. "I want to mix it up," she says, "start a song, then stop in the middle, like a jazz musician (her favorite music) run a poem, then pick up on the other side."

But for now, she's continuing to work with young writers, constantly composing poems and trying to finish up a novel about a childhood boyfriend who was killed. That last project, she admits, is giving her some trouble. "It needs a happy ending," she says, "and I don't know anyone who's having one right now."

To purchase the work of Laini Mataka CLICK HERE

To catch Laini Mataka on Facebook CLICK HERE

Listen to Spotlight On jazz and Poetry's "Spotlight Conversations with Laini Mataka" hosted by Clayton "Bigtrigger" Corley, Sr.

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