For all of her contributions to the teaching of life skills to youth and spiritual enlightenment to recovering substance abusers, “Mama” Brenda Matthews is perhaps best known for her bare bones spiritual poetry performed at open mic settings over the past decade.
Her performances take the form of a sance, with Matthews arms extend into a “holy ghost” posture as if addressing the Gods. She then unleashes an emotionally charged soliloquy clearly addressing the audience but never quite directly.
Her words speak of both the cultural and spiritual identity of black people, particularly women.
Last Friday at Lafollette Park, 1333 N. Laramie, Mama Brenda was honored with a tribute event, sponsored by Poetry on the Patio.
“Our paths had crossed several times before I really got to know her,” said Poetry on the Patio founder Markell Mooney. “Her and my mother both attended the Million Woman March in Philadelphia nine years ago, and my mother was beaming about how wonderful a person she was.”
“Later we met again when she came to talk to students at the school I teach at [William H.] King Elementary,” Mooney added. “I was impressed by how effortless she worked with the kids, and they hung onto her every word”
Mooney said they later became acquainted through Matthews’ Spoken Word Cafe performances hosted by Poetry on the Patio. She became his mentor from then on, he said.
Mooney and several Chicago poets convened Friday to pay tribute to Mathews’ unique talent. Her performances can be emotional, rarely failing to make even the most hardened audiences tear up.
“I was recovering from a drug addiction when I met ‘Mama’ Brenda,” said Kimberly Dean, a West Side business owner, who first met Mathews during a motivational speech given at Women’s Economic Security.
“She helped me discover who I was as a woman and served as my mentor when I was getting back on my feet,” said Dean, who was receiving job training at the facility. “I thank God for her everyday.”
Last Friday’s performances very much kept in style with Matthews’ style of poetry.
Khadijah, a graduate of Iowa State University and spoken word artist since 2003, recited “Dance to the Rhythm” where she takes Matthews’ message of female empowerment and weaves it into her own experience.
“Reasons I moved to the beats of sin with that guy in mind/Taking a walk on the wild child while wind in trippin up flights on purpose.”
Poet Blackpeace, who also taught with Mooney, said he was deeply impressed by her impact on the children in his class.
Afterward, singer-poet and business owner Sa’alek thanked Matthews for inspiring her throughout her career, particularly when she first started performing. Matthews, she said, encouraged her to overcome her concerns over the audience reception.
“I was scared to perform at first because I felt that any mistake I made would make me not want to perform again,” she said. “[Mama Brenda] was always pushing me and telling me how much she enjoys my poetry. She was a powerful influence on me.”
Mama Brenda didn’t perform herself, but below are a few poem excerpts from her CD
“Somebody Better Say Something”:
Soul Food: “Soul Food was sitting down to Sunday dinners at my Grandmas house on Sundays after church. It was my uncles’ removing suit jacket and unfastening cufflinks and rolling up shirtsleeves. It was Ida taking off that tight girdle; Doris stepping out of pointy-toe shoes and grandma saying ‘I know you didn’t wear that to church. Reverend know he can preach can’t he?”
Coltrane, about jazz saxophonist John Coltrane: “It is true; See and you shall find…God/As he plays his saxophone he talks to God without words; each note was a word greater that we ourselves. Oh yes, Coltrane knew God ?” it was with the sound of each note Coltrane called out to God in a musical language you couldn’t understand but you could feel it stirring in your soul; just blow Coltrane.”