"One thing I know," says Daniel Gray-Kontar. "I don't want to be 50 years old, rapping. All due respect to Snoop Dogg, I don't want to be running around on somebody's stage, saying, 'Throw your hands in the air like you just don't care.'"
Gray-Kontar is 46. The dusting of white in his goatee is the only visual evidence that he's not 10 years younger. He's a versatile writer and artist and says that he has always tried to find the medium that allows him to best express himself, the medium that makes the most sense for the times. In the past, that medium was journalism; in the past, it was hip-hop.
"Right now, it's poetry," he says. "Poetry allows the same capacity to play with language and rhythm and meaning, but without some of the restrictions of rap."
Performance poetry is also one of the key subjects taught and explored at the Twelve Literary Center, in North Collinwood, which Gray-Kontar founded last year. There, teenagers participate in a fellowship where they learn performance poetry and "various aspects of social justice." (Right now, five teens from Twelve are representing Cleveland in the Brave New Voices youth slam poetry festival and competition in San Francisco.)
In every aspect of his life and work, Gray-Kontar is committed to young people and advocating on their behalf. He was a creative writing teacher at the Cleveland School of the Arts for many years and has always believed that in society, "young people are often spoken at or spoken to.
"But it's incumbent upon us to listen," he says. "Young people live in this world too, and they often have answers that go overlooked."
One of the goals of the Twelve literary space, in fact, is intergenerational performance and dialogue.
"We've had conversations about race in this space," Gray-Kontar says, sitting on one of Twelve's comfy couches that form a perimeter around a performance area. "We've had conversations about class. We've had conversations about gender equity. The perceptions that young people have are different than those of older people. Both perceptions are equally valid, and that tension between them helps us unpack the issues. It's about mutual respect."
Gray-Kontar is also a recent addition to the Northeast Shores board of trustees. In that capacity he focuses on education issues and sits on the governance subcommittee. He says right now, he's intent on developing increased youth leadership opportunities.
It should come as little surprise that when he was tapped to collaborate on a play to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the historic Carl Stokes mayoral election, Gray-Kontar insisted on bringing youth on board.
"That was the one thing I said to [Karamu House president Tony Sias]," Gray-Kontar says. "I said I'm down. I just need to make sure young people are involved."
The resulting play, a 'choreopoem' called Believe in Cleveland, utilized documentary material, hip-hop lyrics and scripted dialogue. It was performed in June at Karamu and featured significant written contributions from local teens. Gray-Kontar says he's excited about the possibility of another run of the show (not at Karamu) later this year.
For now, though, he's thrilled to be at Twelve. He says when he was let go from from CMSD — like a lot of artist-teachers, Gray-Kontar didn't have his teaching certification — it was the first time he'd cried in a long time.
"But it turned out to be the best thing that could've happened," he says. "Now I can bring the same message I taught at [Cleveland School of the Arts] to youth all over Northeast Ohio." — Jeff Niesel