The Negro Artist and making space for black voices in Iowa

Speaking with spoken word artist Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey — Jason Smith/Little Village

Caleb Rainey, aka the Negro Artist, came to Iowa City to earn an English major at the University of Iowa. He was drawn to the UNESCO City of Literature because of its renowned standing as a writing town. Hailing from Columbia, Missouri, Rainey was one of only 57 black men, in his undergraduate class of over 4,000 first-year students, who were not part of a Hawkeye sports team.

“I was really excited to come to Iowa City because of the writing community,” he said. Rainey got his start writing in high school but had never been to a reading before attending Iowa.

When he tried to join the local literary milieu, though, Rainey found there was little room for young black artists.

“Everyone loves writing here. Everyone appreciates it, but it seemed very niche. There seemed like a type of writing that was appreciated here and it became really hard to feel like I fit there,” he said.

So he organized, became an event producer, and built the community he did not find. He created space for black voices.

The Negro Artist and making space for black voices in Iowa

Spoken-word artist Caleb Rainey talks about how he turned his loneliness into a connection with the community and how that helped empower him as a writer.“Not all of my pieces are going to say things explicitly about blackness. But I’m talking about love and my experiences with love so they’re going to be about black love, because I’m a black man … Langston Hughes changed my whole view of what it meant to be an artist.”Full story:

Posted by Little Village Mag on Thursday, December 6, 2018

“It’s made me grow in a way of being way more community-oriented than I thought I was going to be,” Rainey said, “It’s changed my writing and changed how I spend my time, where my energy goes. I spend as much time writing now as I do organizing or producing events and making sure other people get to share their stories.”

In 2015, he founded a literary magazine with a friend, Shawn Boursiquot. Together, they established Black Art; Real Stories as a way to share and amplify and uplift black voices on campus and “create and support a black arts community.” The first issue dropped in 2015. Both graduated with English degrees in 2017.

Rainey curates and emcees a monthly event, Drop the Mic, the Iowa City incarnation of a series started in Cedar Rapids by storytelling org The Hook, which brings two featured writers, a musical act and opportunities for open mic performers together.

Schedule for Black Art; Real Stories. — Jason Smith

He later took on his controversial stage name and gives full credit to the 1926 Langston Hughes essay titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

“Not all of my pieces are going to say things explicitly about blackness. But I’m talking about love and my experiences with love so they’re going to be about black love, because I’m a black man … Langston Hughes changed my whole view of what it meant to be an artist,” Rainey said.

In the essay, Hughes wrote that the urge towards whiteness and becoming white is a “mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America.” Hughes acknowledged that the mountain is rocky and the peak is high: “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites.”

Racial division cuts black artists like Rainey today just as it did 100 years ago.

So how does his artist name affect blacks versus whites?

“Even in the black community there’s a little bit of an anti-blackness … It gets tricky because those are my people, and they’re a little upset with me sometimes. But I get it,” he said, “No one really says ‘negro’ anymore. But it also harks back to this time in which ‘negro’ was the phrase we were using versus ‘colored’… As a white person, you have to all of a sudden come to terms with that. You have to decide what that means and what you’re going to say and how comfortable you’re going to be with the fact that I’m black.”

Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey performing at Sanctuary during a Black Art; Real Stories event — Jason Smith

How would he advise white people who are reluctant to talk about race?

Most white people, Rainey said, live in a white bubble.

“It’s your job to know you’re in a bubble and work your way out of it … because I can’t afford to go a day without thinking about [race],” he said.

He recently won the Des Moines Poetry Slam and the Iowa City Poetry Slam and is a two-time winner of the Fire and Ice Poetry Slam. Rainey has also performed onstage in New York City at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for their All That Hip Hop, Poetry, & Jazz event.

Working with the Iowa Youth Writing Project, he has helped launch spoken word clubs at West High and Liberty High. Both school clubs began this year, and Rainey leads students in generative workshops to develop poetic style and practice performing.

You can follow Rainey on Facebook, check his blog, or listen to some of his other performances on his YouTube channel.

Rainey listens to an artist on stage during Black Art; Real Stories — Jason Smith

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