Her voice was powerful and her presence overwhelming.
Poet Brenda Matthews, whom many know as Mama Brenda, touched and influenced many with her spoken word artistry, as well as her activism in the community.
Matthews, 55, died Thursday of natural causes. Along with being a poet and activist, Matthews was an actress, singer, playwright and health advocate. She began doing street poetry on the West Side in the 1990s, the same streets dominated by gangs and drug dealers. But Matthews, with her stirring renditions, would command those streets in the times she spent there.
As a spoken word artist, she was known for a booming voice. Speaking in a clear tone, she sounded sometimes like a preacher, other times like a signifier, but was always a storyteller. Along with her words and prose, Matthews was truly a performer, eyes closed, face scrunched in pain, or agony, or joy depending on what truth she was telling at that particular time.
A lifelong Chicagoan, she would become a social advocate, as well as a mentor to youth and aspiring poets. Markell Mooney, founder of Austin’s Poetry on the Patio, considers Mama Brenda a mentor. She performed at his first Poetry on the Patio event in 2003, held in honor of his dad who died that year, and taking place in the family’s home backyard.
“That same night Brenda Matthews showed up…and a few other poets showed up, and before you know it, we had about 10 poets show up that night. And I was just overwhelmed; I was in awe of the turnout,” Mooney said in a 2012 Austin Weekly News interview.
Matthews also performed at Mooney’s Spoken Word Café events in Austin. In summer 2006, he and several fellow poets, friends and admirers gathered in Austin to pay tribute to the “Poet Queen” in an event at LaFollette Park, 1333 N. Laramie. Mooney, who organized the event, recalled that his mother first met Matthews at the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia.
“My mother was beaming about how wonderful a person she was,” Mooney — who also goes by Kell-O-G — said in a 2006 interview. “Later we met again when she came to talk to students at the school I teach at [William H.] King Elementary. I was impressed by how effortless she worked with the kids, and they hung onto her every word.”
Mama Brenda would mentor and help many others, including those facing life challenges such as drug addiction, poverty and HIV/AIDS. Her poetry often addressed these and many other issues. She released several CDs, including Somebody Better Say Something (2005), where she dealt with topics ranging from “Soul Food,” to jazz artist John “Coltrane.”
She spoke on college campuses, with community groups and also performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. News about her failing health, which was related to diabetes, spread throughout the Austin community this week.
“She is one of the most noted, most powerful spoken word artists in the city and also the country,” said Malcolm Crawford, co-owner of Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., Friday.
Matthews last attended the center’s annual Kwanzaa Celebration in December 2013.
“She is responsible for many, many young people being involved in the arts,” Crawford said. “I had her speak to a whole school once. She was able to get their attention. I still remember one piece called ‘The Pink Cookie.’ She has some good anecdotes that were memorable.
“Some people, you know, you can call and they can pull people together, lots of people, in five seconds. Those of us, who I consider are on the grind, are going to know exactly who Mama Brenda is,” Crawford said. “She’s been out here a long time speaking truth to power.”
In a spoken word piece done in March 2013 at Columbia College’s Butterfly Poetry event, Matthews performed an original piece called “In Life,” where she talked, again, about overcoming adversity.
“In this life some rain must fall. And life turns you every way but loose, and you ask yourself a question: ‘Why must I face adversity? Why, why should tragedy feel like a lover?’ I got to climb higher and lean toward the call of God’s mercy; my voiced parched from singing sad songs with sad melodies, but I keep walking ’cause I hear freedom calling my name.”
In an interview Friday, Mooney recalled that he organized the 2006 tribute to show appreciation for her contributions to poetry and her mentorship to aspiring wordsmiths.
“When new poets who haven’t heard of her meets her, it seems as though they appreciate the majestic flavor that she brings,” he said.
And it’s that flavor that helped elevate Austin out of the shadows of violence too often associated with the community. Mooney said Matthews “reps” the West Side because she had a deep understanding of its residents, history and political struggles.
“It seems as though the West Side is always in her blood, and the blood of the West Side goes through her pen onto that pad. You feel it in her words, in her books,” he said. “She will always be a West Side legend. She will always be a Chicago legend.”
Remembering Mama Brenda
There are many words admirers of poetess “Mama” Brenda Matthews use to describe her style of spoken word. Spiritual. Moving. Prophetic.
But Markell Mooney, founder of Poetry on the Patio, an Austin institution that cultivates poetry in the community, described her poetry as “soul food for the senses.”
“It’s like the way Bessie Smith sings the blues,” Mooney said Friday in response to Matthews’ death Nov. 20, from complications of diabetes. “She does that to poetry. The way she gets the crowds attention is the way she can get a family arguing over something very petty or selfish to stop.”
That commanding lyrical presence on the stage, and the messages she evoked through her poems, conjure up the euphemism “Big Mama,” for Mooney. Her voice, he said, is soothing and commanding all at once.
“Big mamas know how to keep families at peace,” he said. “They can settle things on the block. They can settle things in a household, and she is just that. She is the Big Mama of Chicago poetry.”
A motivational speaker, Matthews worked with both youth and young adults for more than 25 years. St. Sabina Church pastor Father Michael Pfleger Friday expressed dismay over her passing.
Matthews often spoke at his South Side church. She participated in marches and rallies with Pfleger, who said Matthews always had a deep love and administration for children.
But Pfleger noted the city lost a prophetic voice unafraid to tackle issues of violence or social injustice. But, he added, those issues always came from a tender place.
“She was Mama Brenda. She always spoke from a mother heart,” Pfleger said. “We have a lot of great spoken word artists, but she always came from a mother’s view point. You felt that motherly love in her challenge.”
Mooney, a spoken word artist himself, recalled when Matthews first performed at Poetry on the Patio in 2003, an event held to honor is father who died that same year. Mooney was seeking artists to perform at the event and Matthews was one of the first to sign up. Mooney knew of Matthews and was thrilled that she wanted to perform at his event.
“She has always been a big supporter; she has been the push for me to do what I’ve been doing.”
And that support extended beyond the stage. Matthews had her own organization, Imani Nia Ministries, a cultural arts program mentoring youth on writing and self-expression. Still, she spoke to kids in Mooney’s youth program in 2005, where he taught poetry, theater and drama at the park district.
“She just elevated the pointers that I had given them about trying to be a writer, how to perform on stage,” he said. “She was just genuine with her words. She just gave clear cut messages on how to love yourself. She gives them a sense of hope that you are not alone and that you can be a star in this world.”
—La Risa Lynch