Dahlak Brathwaite was a recent college graduate and a rising star on the hip hop and slam poetry scene when he was pulled over with a bag of magic mushrooms in his car. In his native California, this meant entering a drug recovery program to avoid a felony conviction.
“This wasn’t the path that I had imagined for myself,” Brathwaite says. “I wasn’t an at-risk youth, I’d never even gotten suspended in high school, and I found myself walking the line of freedom and jail. I had just graduated from college and had to go back and receive totally different type of education.”
Entering a program where he was constantly being told that he was a criminal and a drug addict, Brathwaite even started to believe it himself. Fortunately, he had his art to turn to. He appeared on HBO’s "Def Poetry Jam" and the Brave New Voices international poetry slam, and released an album called “Spiritrials” that told his story in hip hop form.
He’s now adapted that album into a stage show that blends music, spoken word poetry and dramatic narrative to relate his own experiences as well as those of people he met in the program. “Instead of coming at it as I may have in the past from an outside perspective, solely as a critic, I bring a very personal perspective, reporting from within the system.It gives me an opportunity to contribute to the national conversation about mass incarceration and the effects of the war on drugs, tying them together with a spiritual aspect that this recovery program inspired within me,” Brathwaite tells us.
Brathwaite has begun to take the show into prisons and to teach workshops in the cities where he performs. It’s his way of dealing with the arrest’s specter, which continues to dog him to this day. “It doesn't just exist as a shadowy figure haunting the back of my brain,” he says.
“It actually exists as a permanent record that everybody has access to. But instead of letting people project a narrative onto me, I took ownership of it, leaned into it, and contributed my voice to my own story. I hope it can be enlightening and enriching to others.”
If you go:
Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine St.