On Compton, Music, and Performance of the Self: A Conversation with Amaud Jamaul Johnson
BY ALAN CHAZARO
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of three poetry collections, Red Summer, Darktown Follies, and Imperial Liquor, which was named a finalist for the 2021 UNT Rilke Prize and The National Book Critics Circle Award. Born and raised in Compton, CA, his honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Dorset Prize, as well as fellowships from Stanford, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, and Cave Canem. He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is the Halls Bascom Professor of English.
Alan Chazaro: Imperial Liquor felt layered and complex in so many ways, as well as shifting and elusive. What sort of questions were you asking in these poems, and what were you exploring when you first set out to write it?
Amaud Jamaul Johnson: I left Compton in 1992, in the wake of the LA Rebellion after the Rodney King verdict. It’s probably a mix of my middle age and being so far from home, but writing this book, I was processing my adolescence as a sort of tunnel, wondering what happened in South Central. Not just waves of violence—we experienced a profound generational shift. Thinking about that period between the Watts Riots in ‘65 to the ‘92 Rebellion, I was trying to build a vocabulary around how my community changed. Intellectually and emotionally, Imperial Liquor is a meditation on Compton in the late 60s and early 70s, particularly its music and the significance of car culture. Of course, life in LA is living in your car. Driving is such a huge part of that world. Being stuck in traffic is one thing, but I used to just fill up my gas tank, grab a few cassette tapes, and roll. Low-Rider culture predates Hip Hop, so R&B was on my mind and runs through these poems. Groups like The Chi-Lites and Delfonics. In a way, their music felt like a wedding of the hyper-masculine and the hyper-feminine; you would see these tough dudes who listened to love songs, the slow jams, doo wop. That was the soundtrack of our community. So I wanted to write poems that leaned into that sound and how those voices shifted the landscape, made what was ugly, beautiful, or turned beauty inside out. In ‘68, after Dr. King’s assassination, Black communities across the country fell apart. I was born between fires. I’m the product of a failed romance, one both intimate and political. As a poet, I was focused on personal histories, and constructing my private mythologies about Compton. In Imperial Liquor, I wanted to center myself and the speaker in an uncertain space where you’re not sure what’s coming, you don’t know what’s around the corner.
AC: For me, your book felt very real and personalized, but never cliché. As a Mexican American male, I often think about single-narratives, tokenization, exotification, and stereotypes—and how I challenge or perpetuate them as a public voice. It can be dangerously easy to play into certain tropes and I think it’s something we have to navigate more frequently as men of color. But you did a great job in presenting a complex, nuanced, and multi-sided identity, while still honoring your upbringing as a Black man from Compton. It’s a hard balance to achieve. How do you write about yourself and your community without flattening that experience for a mainstream audience?
AJJ: There’s something about seeing a history taking shape or how a place emerges into a public consciousness, about the names people remember and the names that are never spoken. I remember when Eazy-E was selling tapes out of a powder blue Suzuki jeep in front of my high school in the mid-80s. Why was he the one voice? There were so many underground artists who never broke through. We were all in the middle of something exciting, but we couldn’t see it. Compton felt like an island. Maybe it was a sinking ship. I’m not writing from survivor’s guilt, but I know there were all of these talented writers, thinkers, athletes, musicians, and professionals who didn’t have the emotional or community support to make that next level. There were so many people like the Williams sisters, Richard Sherman, and DeMar DeRozan, or Kendrick Lamar and Ava DuVernay, who got lost along the way. I learned not to take anything for granted. I understand something about luck.
My second book, Darktown Follies, concerned Black Vaudeville. I was thinking about African Americans in blackface, and what it means to make a fool of yourself. Tokenism, exotification, stereotypes, these are forms of slow death. What does it mean to essentially internalize grotesque performances of identity based on the imaginations of others, seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes? Bert Williams was one the great vaudeville performers of the early twentieth century, and his most popular song was called “Nobody.” Blackface humor is an act of erasure, of invisibility. Again, that’s death. Writing Imperial Liquor, I wanted to picture the audience differently. Concerning nuance, I wanted to cultivate intimacy, but I had to imagine a different audience. I’m now on the outside of Compton looking in, and remembering what it felt like as an insider, oblivious of a larger world. For example, there’s no “notes section” at the end of this book, but it’s full of allusions and references. Now, I’m not comparing myself to Miles Davis in any way, but at one point in his career, he played with his back to the audience. I think when he performed, he closed his eyes and dreamed he was elsewhere.
Given the time I’ve been away from Compton, and how long I’ve lived in Wisconsin, I struggle explaining the whole narrative of my life. But when I go home, Wisconsin might as well be Russia or Mongolia. I’m foreign there, and I’m strange here. It always feels like I’m performing something everywhere I go. If you think about diction, every room we enter has its own vocabulary. You use a different rhythm or tone depending on the context. I code switch. I’m a man of many faces. In this book, poem by poem, I’m evaluating and reimagining a vocabulary that might be appropriate for a particular subject. I’m tearing my body and my consciousness apart. It’s about healing and finding balance, even if I can’t imagine a home where I feel connected in every conversation. I’m circling around something. It’s like the body as a negative, in terms of trying to identify a gravitational pull that will help me process the self. I’m thinking about landscape and place, but also realizing that places transform over time. The Compton I remember doesn’t exist. The population has changed. So many have been incarcerated, or have died, or have moved to other communities, so my memory is connected to something that is profoundly in flux. Sure, I’m imagining audience, but I’m also trying to find a balance between what actually exists and what is purely popular culture and fantasy.
AC: Definitely. I noticed a lot of those references to music and cinema from different eras, particularly Blaxploitation and Motown, and how they have such a prominent role in this collection. It creates a vivid texture from a certain time and place that I really enjoyed—even if I didn’t personally know every single reference. It was almost like a museum of cultural artifacts from the speaker’s memory on display for readers to wander around, from Black Leroy to Nino Brown. How did these influences arrive to you, and when did you know they would be a major part of these poems?
AJJ: If there’s a poem that unlocked something in this book for me, it was “Delfonic.” I was thinking about old school R&B and trying to figure out how to sing these songs back into the landscape. Every block in Compton has a hidden soundtrack. The streets sing and I want to return that song. Maybe I’m trying to write a duet but shaping a song between body and landscape. The music is my Google map. It’s how I navigate place and memory. When I hear Zapp or Teddy Pendergrass, I’m home. And as long as the record spins, some people are still alive. The music is a kind of shorthand, a dialect, which provides both a narrative structure and an organizational strategy. In addition to music, I loved movies. Of course, Hollywood was another planet. I hadn’t visited Hollywood Boulevard until I was 18. But the film industry still had a gravitational pull on my life. When I was younger, I used to ditch school and go to the movies. Matinees were the best. I loved that feeling of escaping into a dark cool space in the middle of the day, then disappearing into another world. I wasn’t the best student. Whatever I learned about narrative form, or the construction of a character, I pulled from watching The Godfather (Part II) or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I loved being surrounded by other people of color in a movie theater and how everybody would talk back. This was a form of call and response, but instead of church, we were yelling at the screen. The movie poems in Imperial Liquor are ekphrastic projects, but I was also channeling my childhood, yelling back at the screen. This was my dialectic. I think this also helps me to feel less alone.
Sure, I’m interested in the personal, but I’m also thinking about how certain references create a shorthand for what surrounded me. What did the group DeBarge represent in the 80s? My book opens with a quote from Switch: “There’ll never be a better love.” Bobby DeBarge was the lead singer to that group and the eldest brother of the DeBarge family. They were all thin and light-skinned from Grand Rapids, Michigan, I think, but there was something tragic about them. I don’t know if “gangster,” is the right word, but it’s like they rejected whatever would have made them “pretty,” and many of them went to jail and struggled with substance abuse. So, I’m often circling back to questions of glamour and struggle. They’re my touchstones, which existed outside of the mainstream—there’s no David Bowie or Madonna in these poems, even though I’m writing about the same time period. It’s more of a closed and refined circle, about what was changing between the 70s and 80s and 90s in a deeply segregated community. So many people have a fixed opinion about Compton. I understand the power of images, but I’m not trying to reimagine someone’s rap video. I wanted to recreate what was happening in my home to help me understand my developing identity.
AC: Identity is such a core component of this book. In particular, the way Black masculinity arises organically throughout, but not always in the same ways. There are notions of danger, hyperbole, uncertainty, and performance, but also of tenderness, love, joy, and fathering—each emerging at various points and forms. The speaker captures this contradictory energy beautifully in “Place Your Bets” when they admit “I’ve hammered / the hitch in my giddy-up into some broken cool.” Can you elaborate on this duality of being “broken” and “cool” at once, and how that notion unfolds throughout the poems?
AJJ: I was interested in the relationship of body and style, a stylized self, of person and personality. That idea of the crip walk, for example, and the stroll, of Crip and crippling, of brokenness, how something like that can be transformed into something beautiful. I have two sons, and we often talk about what it means to be cool, sometimes as a survival instinct for African American men, and also about responding to pressure. Maybe “acting cool” is a way of negotiating stress. How should they behave during a “routine” traffic stop? So, I want them to understand something about narratives of control, physical control, and emotional stability, but also how much work that all takes, that balancing act which is about the body and the mind. That hammering, that’s kind of the psychological and emotional work to achieve a performance of brokenness, but also transforming what’s broken into something beautiful. It’s almost Blues-like, rethinking, reworking the pain into music. Or, it’s like the crip walk as a moment of celebration, like when Serena Williams decided to do a crip walk on the sidelines at the 2012 Olympics and then received criticism about it. She made Compton visible on an international stage. Braids, beads, body, whatever. It’s complicated. Obviously, this is about Black cultural expression, but this idea of how men walking with a limp and a cane, that a certain brokenness represented masculinity, and when you’re younger, you don’t really think about what it means. Maybe if these men were returning from Vietnam, or victims themselves of gun violence at home. For others, this was purely performative. What does it mean to embed trauma into a performance of Black masculinity? What does it mean to hold onto that when you move through different landscapes? There’s a way that I was taught how to walk because of where I lived, and I have to do that in language as well. I’m trying to write with a limp, a gangster lean. Don’t judge me. Emily Dickinson said, “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” I have to code switch and evaluate how I move and how I speak; I hope this anticipates community.
AC: Wow, that’s deep. I never thought about it that way, but I can see how that physical brokennes can play into the performance of coolness for some, especially young men of color.
AJJ: Even thinking about it in relation to the use of the n-word in Black communities, to take that brokenness, a sort of hobbling, with so much pain, and trying to take power back from a word, to say it’s mine. When I say I’m from Compton, the first thing people bring up is NWA. Some words have so much power and baggage. To claim where I’m from is an act of unloading, or unpacking, this word.
Love songs are the heartbeat of West Coast Hip Hop. Think about what it means for someone to take a love song and scratch it, then play it backwards, then strip away the lyrics, then lace it with profanity. That was a pushback against the original sensibility of the music. We’re still trying to figure out how we talk about a generation of children that refused to sing, who stopped singing. The way we understand the break is transformative; it’s not just about pain or a kind of dismantling, but it’s an aggressive reimagining of the body and sound. As artists, what does it mean to model that? How can a poem understand the Black vernacular tradition? I’m talking about jazz, blues, gospel, but also fragmentation, pushing back against certain grammatical rules and pushing back against a limited sense of self. This is our work as new writers.
AC: That’s hella interesting. It makes me think about Douglas Kearney and how he really pushes the boundaries of grammatical writing in that way. How does that emerge in your writing?
AJJ: Doug is one of my closest friends. We started in workshops together at Howard University as undergrads. I think we’re always in conversation, even though our poems are very different—we are very spiritually connected. I believe in acts of self-sabotage between poems and books. As if I’m trying to tear my aesthetic down to see what it will heal itself back into. It’s the idea that this growing is happening in the images but also syntactically. With each book, I’m really trying to challenge myself, constantly asking what it means to write a poem, and I’ll kind of strip everything down to the basics and rebuild the voice from there.
AC: I get that sense of shifting voices in your book. And that’s so cool that you know Douglas Kearney, he’s one of my favorite poets.
AJJ: When I attended Howard, I was surrounded by so much beauty and talent. It was staggering, really. And we stood on “The Yard” just staring at each other, almost in a sustained state of shock. We had John Murillo, Doug Kearney, Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as some of the writers. But we also had Taraji P. Henson in theater; Ras Baraka, who is now the Mayor of Newark; Marlon Wayans was there at the time; we had musicians and Al Freeman who played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, who was the Dean of the Fine Arts School; and Bill Duke, too. The energy there was incredible. Ta-Nehisi writes beautifully about this, but leaving Howard, you felt a sense of responsibility to pause and acknowledge that experience, and how to radiate that intimacy of a close circle of Blackness, and carry excellence elsewhere.
AC: I think you achieved that, especially with the cover art and title. I loved both—Imperial Liquor has such a California vibe to me, especially if you are living in a working-class neighborhood or near a freeway, and the cover is just gorgeous, serving as a modern-age collage and ode to Blackness. It actually reminded me of the artwork for Migos’ second album, Culture—which also features fast cars, gold jewelry, and a mirrored effect. Why did you choose this particular piece from Rashaad Newsome and how did you land on this specific cover and title?
AJJ: With the cover, there are layers of what is beautiful, and what is beautifully suicidal, an unsustainable desire for luxury and transformation. I admire Rashaad’s work. He was a visiting artist here a year before I published this book. I wrote him a support letter when he came to Wisconsin for a semester. He did some work for Solange a few years ago, too, for a compilation album called Saint Heron. I loved the album cover he did for her. He also did something for Nipsey Hussle. I liked the idea of these golden crowns and transforming bodies and space, something that seemed overly ornate. It is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. And if you think about these liquor stores and how much broken glass is embedded in the asphalt, it’s almost as if the parking lots were encrusted with diamonds. I had all of this in mind: the cars with the metal flake paint, or pearled paint jobs, and the neon signs of the liquor store, and how these intersections can represent the heartbeat of a community, for better or worse.
The title of the book is also loosely connected to the death of Latasha Harlins in 1991. She was actually killed at a place called Empire Liquor Mart. She was a 15-year-old girl who got into an argument with a Korean store owner, and she was shot in the back of the head as she was leaving. The shooter was convicted of second-degree murder, I believe, and was sentenced to community service. In thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement, Latasha Harlins was my introduction to this history of struggle. Of course, this conversation starts with Ida B. Wells and anti-lynching legislation.
Also, Imperial Highway is a long drag that separates Compton and Watts from other places in LA. Maybe being south of Imperial, or even living near Imperial made someone “ghetto.” Thinking about the word “Imperial” I kept circling back to the concept of Americans being drunk on power. Metaphorically, “imperial liquor” is what it means to be American. I’m interested in the seduction of imperialism and its ultimate pitfalls.
AC: I love that, the idea of imperialism as something we drink. I noticed your book had many of these subtle and masterful layers, and you never hold the reader’s hand, but allow us to reach our own conclusions. There are lots of these shifts in your collection. I’m curious—what was your process in organizing the book? I’m interested in how you determined the sequence and order since there are so many moving parts in relation to music, nostalgia, trauma, childhood, and comfort.
AJJ: A poem is like a braid, and we’re braiding image and sound to construct narratives; each poem is an act of constructing a consciousness. The challenge becomes how you create waves of thought across poems, a braiding that is both sound- and image-based but also connected to emotional shifts. To feel nervous? To laugh? To feel fear or pleasure? How are those things held next to each other? My first collection was organized into three sections. My second was in two. In this book, there is no section break. And I’m constantly trying to figure out what it means to create an experience where there is a tunnel. The first poem is very short, a short burst to focus the reader, and then there is a shift between longer and shorter poems throughout. Poems about spectacle, poems about fear and anxiety. I think I’ve always been interested in spectacles of violence and desire, the idea of seeing and being seen. I’m trying to figure out what danger represents, but as a man of color in particular, I’m aware of how I might make someone else nervous because of how they might see me. This is all non-verbal, of course, and we’re constantly reading for these signs. In this book, there’s a structure connecting how, and where, I’m aware of bodies, but also how bodies are positioned and who is looking at whom as situations shift. There’s a lot of public and private viewing taking place in the early part of the book—danger as racial profiling, and the way bodies are policed within communities. Then, in the latter part, you have this film section, which is more of a passive viewing, as if the reader is in a chair and watching bodies on a screen. This is a shift towards consumption, and a different kind of dance. In that sense, perspective and projection closes the book rather than opens it. They’re very tied to each other in terms of viewing spectacle, but the sensibility becomes different.
AC: I appreciate that complexity. I very much felt a sense of home in your book, even though I was born in ‘87 and am from a different community and generation, but I know how certain places and people can sometimes be misunderstood or stereotyped. I really connected with what you achieved in this book for yourself and your city.
AJJ: Thank you, that means a lot. Moving in these spaces I’m trying to hold on to something. These poems are lifelines for some of us in this community. It’s strange because when I’m in Wisconsin, it feels like I have to perform, like I’m on stage, and I can’t fully explain to people what it was like for me growing up, but when I’m home, I’m also performing, and I can’t really translate what life is like for me in Wisconsin.
AC: For sure. I feel that. Are you still working on poetry at the moment? It’s been a challenging year for all of us; I’m wondering how you’ve spent your time lately? You must be busy running the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but do you have any upcoming projects on the horizon?
AJJ: I’ve been interested in essays for the past year. I’d love to write an essay collection. The pandemic has affected me in a profound way, because it challenged my ability to daydream. I just want to wake up from this. If I slow down and create a space to be quiet, my thoughts usually circle back to our existential crisis; I’m thinking about health, friendships, frustrations. It’s been harder to write poems because of that. My metaphors are really restricted. But there’s something about the essay that allows me to dive into a subject, and I’m interested in engaging readers more directly in a particular way that essays give me room to do, in ways I normally wouldn’t do in a poem. Talking about the lack of hand holding in a poem… I’m willing to do that in an essay, to be more direct. I joke that every personal essay I write is a failed poem because it lacks compression. But prose creates different opportunities for dialogue. Before the pandemic I didn’t feel comfortable with prose. I used to think I never had a prose poem in my body. I’m changing. Maybe I’m growing up. I guess I’m grown.