Philadelphia’s Ursula Rucker is way too young to be the focus of so many ancient honors, honors usually reserved for arts’ elders and legacy holders. Then again, who has more of a claim to legacy than she? Rucker – the poet and activist many of us first got to know through Black Lily nights at the Five Spot, and recordings with King Britt and The Roots – is the empowered, all-enveloping sort of artist whose work deserves retrospection and reflection, closer looks and broader strokes.
What could be broader than being celebrated by Philly’s Mural Arts, with her face on a wall and all?
After making her the central artist honoree of the annual Mural Arts’ 2020 Wall Ball, on Thursday November 12, Rucker will be the centerpiece of its Mural Arts’ Open Movement Night, honoring Rucker for her creativity and her inspirational drive since the early 90s.
“Supa Sista Presents: Open Movement Night, Honoring Ursula Rucker” is an all-virtual, open mic event like the one she hosts in Germantown, with its 7 pm RSVP for tickets and donations HERE. To this point, an upcoming list of additional performers, curated by Rucker, will be listed shortly. So far, this “interactive and powerful open mic” will feature performances by Rucker, Naila Francis, H Prizm aka High Priest, and Annielille Gavino.
Rucker and I check in with each other, often, even if those talks don’t result in interviews. Like the rest of the world, she is deeply and radically affected by the continued bloodshed of Black bodies and has not – in an interview forum – been able to reflect such sorrow.
She did, before the pandemic, drop a track, “Or Stay Alive” written and recorded with Dusseldorf, Germany DJ-producer Daniel Rateuke.
And I did find this one chat that I did with Rucker, for the premiere of the live performance tone poem “Dear Philadelphia,” that revealed a little bit of where her head was at the tail end of 2018. Not only does our conversation have relevance now, it speaks of Rucker’s celebration of this city, her city, that currently seeks to celebrate her in much the same way.
“ I am so Philly that sometimes I just have to check myself,” she says with a laugh.
“I’ve lived in Germantown for the last 16 years and it’s had everything to do with what I wrote for ‘Dear Philadelphia,'” says Rucker, calling the “gentrifiers” in her neighborhood “hot and heavy. You can see them spying. Every day new buildings are being erected. Because I know so many community activists, I hear about how developers are going hard for Germantown. It puts us all between that rock and a hard place, because we all want the finer things in life — the new restaurants, the cool shops — but, at what cost?”
Rucker isn’t only scared about how to teach the traditions of her neighborhood and her culture to her sons and their girlfriends, while change is so rapid. She wants to know: “What’s going to happen to the round-the-way girl when Germantown is gentrified? Are you gonna remember her, her glory, and her history? That’s what ‘Dear Philadelphia’ is for me. That’s how I feel about this looming beast.”
Rucker loves the “Dear Philadelphia” musical mix of jazz structuralism and open-ended improvisation (“I love having room”). It plays into the manner in which her writing and sing-speak vocalese has changed since her start. “I am freer and braver now,” Rucker says in regard to her writing.
Most of her writing, on albums such as 2003’s Silver or Lead, has embraced a larger picture and speaks of the world and its Technicolor tales. Yet, within the last year, she has focused on locally-driven projects and Philly-inspired stories.
“Philly pours out of me so much that I have to calm down and rein myself in,” says Rucker, as if beaming with pride. “It’s so easy to be here and celebrate this place with all of its bumps and all its bruises and all of its bright spots. I’ve been doing the Philly-centric things because I have been getting so many fascinating calls to do so — I am called to be here. And I’m cool with that. There’s nothing more interesting about having unique opportunities to champion this city.”