Malcolm-Jamal Warner on Grammys, poetry and respectability politics

INTERVIEW: As the 65th Grammy Awards approach, theGrio spoke with actor-poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner about being nominated in the Best Spoken Word Album category, winning his first Grammy in 2015, and his new album, “Hiding in Plain View.”

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Malcolm-Jamal Warner has mastered many fields in his career. From “The Cosby Show” to “The Resident,” his acting career continues to thrive to this day. He’s also had a successful run as director for music videos like New Edition’s “N.E. Heartbreak” and the Nickelodeon sketch series “All That.”

However, one of Warner’s biggest passions is poetry and spoken word. So much so, that he’s recorded four albums and won a 2015 Grammy. As the 65th Grammy Awards take place tonight, February 5, Warner is up for another Grammy, this time in the newly minted Best Spoken Word Album category.

Warner’s album, “Hiding in Plain View” deftly observes the effects of systemic racism on Black America while holding the mirror up to Black Americans and himself. He spoke to theGrio about his Grammy nomination and his new album. 

Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Photo Credit: J Squared Photography

In 2022, the Recording Academy announced that five brand new competitive categories were being added to the Grammy Awards. One of them was “Best Spoken Word Album.” Warner said he and his contemporaries are thrilled with the new addition. 

“For us in the poetry community, it’s a long time coming,” Warner told theGrio. “But we’ve been campaigning. For the last couple of years about having our own poetry category.”

Warner credited fellow poet and 2023 Spoken Word nominee J. Ivy with helping to lead the campaign to add a separate category specifically for poets. In the past few years, Ivy and other poets had to compete in the “Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album” category. Warner said the odds in that category were not “evenly yoked” after audiobook wins for Don Cheadle and Michelle Obama in the last few Grammys. 

Warner’s album, “Hiding in Plain View,” is nominated in the new category, and he is humbled about it. “We’re all happy that finally, for the first year, poetry has its own category,” Warner said. “And for my record to be one of the first in that [category] feels good.”

In 2015, Warner won his first Grammy Award for his collaboration with Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway. Their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” won that year for Best Traditional R&B Performance. 

“It’s one thing to get the Grammy with Robert Glasper — which, that’s amazing in itself. But to be recognized for my own record, it’s just another level of gratification and validation. And even [though] I don’t do it for validation, it’s still very validating nonetheless,” he said.

Warner’s contribution to “Jesus Children of America” was a stirring, poignant poem dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. Warner said the collaboration happened by chance. 

Glasper planned from the start to have a poem about the shooting paired to the track. One of his friends, whose daughter was a victim, was originally supposed to write the piece but bowed out. 

“I literally happened to be hanging out. I’m in the studio, he’s mixing the record. He’s like, ‘Yo, my man couldn’t do the poem. Do you have a poem on Sandy Hook?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t. But if you give me the track, I’ll go upstairs and write one.'” 

The fast, prolific way in which Warner was able to craft such a poignant poem in such a short space of time is a testament to his well-honed talent. He has been writing and performing poetry and releasing albums for nearly two decades. While he’s writing about a myriad of topics, his new album, “Hiding in Plain View,” focuses more on social and political commentary.

Warner says most of his love-related poetry was written while he was a single man, looking for love or bragging about his ability to love. Upon meeting and marrying his wife following the release of his previous album, he didn’t feel the need to write about love for his next project; he had found what he was looking for. 

“Through the years I’ve been doing poetry, I’ve been known for love poems about relationships and social consciousness,” Warner explained. “[On] my last record, ‘Selfless,’ there’s a song with Ledisi called ‘Brand New Day.’ And at the end of that song, I say ‘I’m holding out for that iconic love like Cliff and Clair.’ I met my wife the month I put that record out. Hmm. So it’s like, ‘Oh, I have that.’ So, I’m not writing about that.”

Warner’s approach to writing and recording “Hiding in Plain View” was inspired by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. He used tracks like “So I Run” and “Banging Knuckles” to talk about the nuances of how Black Americans are perceived and treated in America, as well as the role Blacks play in perpetuating it. 

“When Black Lives Matter first came out, I took that as a mantra and a reminder for ourselves. And with Black Lives Matter being politicized, I think that was lost. For this record, I felt like I was called to kind of remind us of the necessity for Black love and healing. But at the same time, you know, not ignoring the state [we’re in], and our complicitness in that.”

One track on the album, “Black Fist Beautiful,” discusses how the predominantly white-owned entertainment and music business pushed Black stereotypes in music. But he also spoke about how some Black listeners would rather have fun than deal with the truth, exemplified by the line, “we used to fight for our right for freedom, but now we fight for the right to be dumb for free.” 

“When I think about my parents’ generation, my dad was very active in the civil rights movement. And I think aboutthe artists of that time — Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Maya Angelou. And I think about their art during those times. And, you know, fast forward to where we are, it’s like ‘what the f**k are we doing?’” he explained.

Warner was aware that tracks like “Black Fist Beautiful” might be seen as preaching respectability politics. After years of watching Bill Cosby receive criticism for spouting such rhetoric over the years, he was concerned about how he conveyed his own message. So much so, that Warner recruited a Howard University professor to be his “respectability politics police.”

“When I look at what happened with the message that Mr. Cosby was trying to deliver, I was also able to see the parts of that that [were] missing; that made it easy for the backlash, because people felt attacked. And I’m like, ‘OK, well, this message has to get out. But I also have to be very clear that there’s no room for it to be misinterpreted.’”

Malcolm-Jamal Warner attends SCAD aTVfest 2020 – In Conversation With Malcolm-Jamal Warner on February 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2020)

The standout track on the album is its title track. It’s the only poem unaccompanied by music on the record, and for good reason. Warner digs deep into expressing vulnerability but acknowledges the importance of keeping some things personal as a celebrity in a society where public figures tend to overshare. 

“That was the most difficult piece to write because it made me have to really sit still,” Warner said. “There weren’t [social] issues to hide behind. I had already done a lot of poems that had to do with the state of the people. And I was able to do other poems that took the focus wasn’t on me. But to have to do this piece and make me the focus made it the most challenging piece to do.”

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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