Arts & Culture

Even before George Floyd was killed, Iowa City artist was raising his voice for change

Spoken word performer Caleb 'The Negro Artist' Rainey seeks to expand understanding through his poetry

Caleb #x201c;The Negro Artist#x201d; Rainey of Iowa City performs his spoken word piece, #x201c;What You Need to Hear,#x
Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey of Iowa City performs his spoken word piece, “What You Need to Hear,” which was submitted and accepted in the 2019 Button Poetry video contest. He posted this reaction on his Facebook page June 24: “At the risk of sounding too sappy, I will only say this: I have dreamed of being on Button Poetry’s youtube page for most of my life, and today, that dream came true. I am crying.” (Courtesy of Caleb Rainey)

Spoken word artist and Columbia, Mo., native Caleb Rainey, 25, came to Iowa City in 2013 to study English and creative writing at the University of Iowa. After earning his degree, he stayed, partly because he had a partner there, but also because he said he “saw a lot of potential to create and connect with the writing community.”

He has succeeded — performing his poetry across the Midwest, Colorado, New York City and London, and winning multiple poetry slams. A published author, he’s written two books — “Look, Black Boy” and “Heart Notes” — and as a UI student, co-founded the literary magazine Black Art; Real Stories with Shawn Boursiquot, to showcase Black student work. Rainey also developed IC Speaks, helping local high school students find their voice, and he has appeared in two Mirrorbox Theatre plays in Cedar Rapids.

Recently, he discussed his performance path and the various ways he uses his voice as Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey to chronicle his Black life experiences to help effect change.

Q: How did you find your voice and decide to channel it through spoken word?

A: Originally, I thought I’d be a novelist, and what ended up happening is, I perform a poetry piece on stage to impress a girl at 16, and it worked. And I realized that I like being on stage, I like having a platform to physically speak the words that I was writing. And my mom always said that I should have been an actor, and now I am. Before (appearing in plays), that was like the middle ground, the compromise.

But instead of being an actor, I could go on a stage and say my own words. And it felt powerful and I felt heard, which is really big. And so having that platform, that’s something I continue to do on and on, and even though I ended up getting my degree in creative writing with an emphasis in creative non-fiction, I actually stayed going to the stage. That medium offers a type of connection to people that is so tangible and so there. So I keep going.

And after a while, I decided that’s really what I’m going to dedicate the work to — is to having ways in which I can get on stages and then connect with people and have important conversations face to face.


Q: What do you hope to impart to readers of your poetry and to your listeners?

A: I think all of my work asks my readers and my listeners to grow — to be open and to be vulnerable and to listen. I try really hard to share my own experiences in very honest ways. Some people have read my poetry, and said, “I can’t believe you would share that with people.” The idea is that I show vulnerabilities so that you can match it, so you can feel that, and we can grow together in that.

Q: What subjects do you explore most often?

A: I explore three things, really. I explore race relations, as pertaining to Black and white America and what that means to growing up in the Midwest. And then I also write about love and romance and heartbreak.

My third topic is that I write about my Black identity with the other identities that I hold. What does it mean to be a Black man? What does it mean to be Black and Christian? What does it mean to be Black in whatever else?

In talking about unpacking that identity, I can see complexity.

Q: Your performance name is Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey. That is a word that we don’t really use anymore. Why do you use “The Negro”? What do you hope to give that word or what does that word give to you?

A: It does two things. One, it gives reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” It’s a lot of my own view of how to be an artist.

Langston Hughes says to a young Black artist that wants to just be known as an artist: “You will always be the Negro artist, and there’s beauty in that. And that’s good. Accept that, appreciate that, rather than trying to run away from it.” So that was really powerful for me as I was trying to identify myself as a writer.

But also, it is one of the easiest ways to start a conversation. At so many events in which someone has to go, “Why do you call yourself that? Is it OK if I can say that? Is this a trick?” It allows us to flip the door into easy conversation, to talk about how we feel about race relations, how we feel about Blackness. And it immediately brings that to the forefront, to get the conversation started. ...


“Negro” is not a bad word. It derives from some interesting words, right? But in and of itself, it’s not a bad word. And that’s what I tell my MCs: Definitely say “The Negro Artist.”

Q: How has the recent Black Lives Matter movement affected you personally and your artistry? Has it come out in your artistry yet?

A: It actually affected me — it affected me a lot.

When the murder of George Floyd happened, I found myself really overwhelmed. I had been writing for years now about race relations, and having dedicated myself to this work, I felt like I was making a lot of change. I felt like I was meeting with a lot of white people and helping them open their eyes and learn more about what it is to be Black in America.

And then George Floyd gets murdered, Breonna Taylor gets murdered, and I go, “Have I been doing anything? Has anything worked?” And so it was wildly discouraging, and that made it really hard to want to do any more work that I’d been doing.

But luckily, I had my own support system. I got to lean on people that love me and can give me that support. They helped me more — helped me have that moment of grief and that sadness, and then move forward in my work.

I have written a few new pieces. I have been trying to tackle this topic in a new way, but also accepting that I’ve already been writing this.

This is new for a lot of white people, in particular. This is not new for us Black people. We’ve been having this fight for a long, long time.

Q: Do you feel safe in Iowa City?

A: I think there’s an interesting thing there, where I can recognize that I am safer than some, but I don’t think Blacks in America can ever feel completely safe. So I would say “no” is my gut reaction, but I want to recognize that there are worse places than Iowa City, for sure. There are places that are harder for you to be Black in, but that does not mean that it’s completely safe here.

Q: What messages do people of color need to hear right now?


A: This may feel like the same fight, but progress is happening. History shows us we take five steps forward and three steps back, but that is still progress, and we still keep moving.

Q: What messages do white people need to hear right now?

A: It’s time to leverage your privilege. Use it in every way you can to help someone that is not you.

Q: In what other forums have you used your voice? Have you explored any other venues or avenues?

A: I used to write a column for The Real Mainstream, and I also do a lot of teaching. I started a program called IC Speaks, and so I teach spoken word to four different high schools in the Iowa City area. And I lead a lot of workshops out about, wherever I can. ...

Q: What kind of reception do you feel from audiences outside of what you might consider your comfort zone — the life you know in the Midwest?

A: My work has always been received really well. It’s interesting when it’s outside of the Midwest. For Black people, it seems novel yet understood. Like, “Oh, that’s new. That’s a different way of looking at the racism we also face, but we get it.”

And I think for white people, that actually seemed a little more accessible, they seem to receive it really well and want to unpack that a lot more.

And I think part of it is because the way I present my work is less confrontational, because I’ve had the luxury of being in the Midwest in which our racism overall is a little less confrontational — the way that we both experience it and address it is oftentimes times less in your face.


Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles and issues in race relations locally right now?

A: The biggest thing now is accountability — is to make sure that we are at those open forums and sharing what our thoughts are and making sure that the City Council is living up to what they said they would do. The marches and the direct actions, those are all sexy work. ... But now we have to really do the work of follow-through.

Q: How do you hope to contribute to that conversation?

A: I hope to continue creating art and work that can be showcased and used in talking to a few other white allies who want to really amplify Black voices, so I hope to do that. I am also just hoping to still be a body in the masses. As much as I lead in a lot of my other spaces, I’m OK with following those who have already started this fight at a different level. ...

Q: Have you participated in any of the protests or marches?

A: Oh, yes. I actually have COVID right now, so I have not been able to in the last two weeks — I’m just about done with my self- quarantine. But before that, I was going. About every other night I was out — mostly in Iowa City, a little in Cedar Rapids. I was planning on making it to the Capitol (in Des Moines), but then I didn’t want to endanger people, so I stayed home.

Q: Like with IC Speaks, how do you help others find their voice?

A: The biggest way I can help people find their voice is to create a space where they feel completely valued. When you feel valued, you feel safe and you feel allowed to be yourself. And when you do that, you open up room for exploration of your own ideas, your own feelings, and what you truly believe.

And so for me, it’s always just trying to get people to talk about things that are sometimes hard to talk about, but in a space where they feel comfortable to do it. ...

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