Musician, activist, educator, community health worker – Juba Kalamka wears many hats. And he’s recently added “author of a book” to the headwear.
Says Kalamka, “I’ve been in a zillion anthologies. But this is my first poetry collection of my own.”
Juba Kalamka is a founding member of the gay hip hop group Deep Dickollective as well a musician in the queer nü-metal group Commando, alongside bandmates Lynnee Breedlove of Tribe 8 and the Homobiles, “RuPaul’s Drag Race’s” Honey Mahogany and others. He’s also the founder of the music label sugartruck recordings.
Creative people tend to have more than one outlet, though, and another for Kalamka — aside from music – is writing. In his book “Son of Byford,” published by Oakland-based Nomadic Press, he touches upon themes such as movement, education, race, queerness and community.
Kalamka says the poems in “Son of Byford” were written after moving to the Bay Area in 1999. He crafted the overwhelming majority after completing the master of fine arts writing program at the New College of California. The manuscript was submitted in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic’s widespread presence and subsequent toll.
“I think that was more interesting for me in a different kind of way – that it was done before the pandemic began. I think it would have been a very different book…it would have changed thematically what I was trying to touch on. Not that it couldn’t have been done, but I think that I wanted to do something different than that and just again, happenstance, having already submitted it,” Kalamka says.
Kalamka sees poetry as similar to music lyricism, noting a link between “poems on the page” and song lyrics on the back of albums and in liner notes.
Of the latter, he shares, “That was something that I gravitated to, probably starting with ‘Songs in the Key of Life,’ the Stevie Wonder album. I was about 6 when that came out. And that had a huge multi-page booklet with all the songs in it.”
Reading those printed lyrics on albums like Wonder’s was a draw for Kalamka when he was younger, and he sees a connection between them and his own written work.
He comments, “There’s some overlap around that, because it’s essentially a book – a song book, a chapbook of lyrics. That was kind of the way it was set up – as an album-size chap.”
In “Son of Byford,” movement is a recurring concept, factoring in locations and, correspondingly, Kalamka’s personal history and experiences.
He says, “There’s a lot about the Great Migration, diasporic experiences and conversations that I had with family members about that – about moving from the southern United States or experiences they had in the southern United States that inform their experiences in the U.S. North and Midwest.”
His own move to the East Bay – specifically Oakland, where he currently resides – is a topic in the book’s pages, as is his family’s move farther west in Chicago, from the North Lawndale neighborhood to the Austin area.
This relocation during his childhood involved a transition away from the Afrocentric education-focused school that he attended pre-K through first grade that happened when he went to Byford Elementary, a public school in Austin.
While there is a tie-in between Run-DMC’s song “Son of Byford” and Kalamka’s book title, there is also a strong and significant connection to the school.
“It was this important formative place where I started to come to understand the larger world, in the sense that there’s a way that you can exist, and particularly as a small child in very specific smaller cultural communities, and how those communities can seem like the world and they are the world to a great extent,” Kalamka says.
As part of the African American community, one aspect Kalamka particularly considered was naming, including the names of institutions, such as Byford Elementary.
He notes, “Most of the schools I went to, the average person couldn’t tell you who they were named after. So I had to look up William Byford, and I learned he was central to women’s health education; he took humane approaches to gynecological health and to women’s reproductive health.”
His research illuminated a connection between Byford and his own health care-related experiences, such as his role as community health services director at St. James Infirmary in San Francisco.
While “Son of Byford” is Kalamka’s first book-length project, he doesn’t intend for it to be his last. He’s interested in putting together one featuring Deep Dickollective lyrics and possibly illustrations, and is working on another with poems based on advertisements from 1970s comic books.
And book-related advice? Kalamka has that, too: namely, about those that have been banned. “Read all the books they tell you not to. That’s a big one for me because they say, ‘Don’t read it.’ And when I say that, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any good. But the ability to make one’s own decisions about it is important.”
To purchase “Son of Byford,” visit https://www.nomadicpress.org/store/p/sonofbyford.