Michael "Mikemetic" Donovan (Photo by Ken Penn)
Like the melodious sounds etched deep into the grooves of the vinyl records he loves to spin, DJ Mikemetic is an immutable talent in Richmond's ever-evolving music scene, its hip-hop offerings in particular. The renaissance man, whose birth name is Michael "Mikemetic" Williams, is also a bassist (for a years-long stint, he played with soul/indie rock band Photosynthesizers, of which chanteuse Sam Reed was also a member), local thought leader, art enthusiast and sometime music historian (who contributed to William & Mary's Hip Hop Collection), and the farm and garden education manager at Renew Richmond (he writes curriculum designed to expand local students' learning beyond the classroom with hands-on, community gardening initiatives, and spearheads program implementation, such as this one at George Wythe High School).
Ahead of his lecture, "Black Rhymes Matter: The Form of Social Activism In Rap Lyrics," at 9 Pillars Hip Hop Cultural Festival in Charlottesville on April 18, Williams talked with us about his music, his manifold projects and "Hood Haiku" (Fist City Press), his forthcoming book of poetry.
Richmond magazine: You have an eclectic background, musically and otherwise. What all have you done here in the city?
Williams: I hosted a show on WRIR over a period of time. For many years, I was in this band called Photosynthesizers. I left in 2012, partially because I got burned out with band gigs, but mostly because I wanted to produce more meaningful DJ-led events. I started a monthly event called Afro Beta, which I helped lead for about 7 years. [The last one was in December 2016, at Emilio's.] I really wanted to promote a cultural, interactive event, that brought people together to experience live musical art from the African Diaspora . ... We would bring extra drums, so that guests could come up and drum with us if they wanted.
As a DJ since I was 12 or 13, I’ve always bought a lot of records, so recently I then came up with the concept of the Wax Museum, held at Hardywood every first Friday [of the month]. About six or seven vinyl DJs across the city participate, spinning "handpicked sound," which is what I call our music curated just for Hardywood. When you go to a brewery, there are several types of craft beer; this is craft music to go along with it. DJs who have participated include Area Woman, Sister Goldenhaze, Sean Lovelace from WRIR, and others. Wax Museum also examines album cover art, from the past several decades to the present. How does the art reflect the times, and why do artists choose to do this?
Mikemetic spins. (Photo by Michael Hostetler)
RM: Let's talk about your new book. What is "Hood Haiku," and why did you write this?
Williams: I grew up in Virginia Beach, and my mom was an English teacher. I went to public schools for six years, then private school from 7th grade to graduation. High school was interesting; I went to a 98% white high school, but lived in an all-black neighborhood. So, I learned how to code switch, to communicate fluidly with a variety of different people from different backgrounds. I came to VCU in 2001, and I started hearing that I “talked white,” or I didn’t seem like a "real brother," meaning that I didn’t fit the mold of what some people thought I should be as a black man. But I viewed my background, my black experience, as just as authentic as anyone's. "Hood Haiku" is the culmination of the experience in my life, trying to navigate what seemed to be opposing narratives. When I was living in Jackson Ward around 2009, I started writing these pieces about things that I see going on there — gentrification, loss of respect for the community, etc. Many [of the poems] had to do with race, culture, what was happening in the world. I started writing them free-form at first, but then I thought it would be cool to limit my words, to really get to the essence of what I was trying to say. One of the things I like about haiku is that it’s a strict form; it takes discipline to write them.
In terms of the "hood" part of the title, I must say this: There’s a difference between “the hood” and “the ghetto.” "Ghetto" has been given a negative connotation. "The hood," to me, is a reflection of my community, my neighborhood and black culture. I was raised in the hood, and I put that into my poems. The term "haiku" paired with "hood" almost seems like an oxymoron, which was intentional. People who live in the hood are stereotyped a lot — that they don’t know how to speak properly, that they use broken English. [In the book] I incorporated a lot of black American slang, which typically redefines words for our own purposes, so the poems are an expression of the black experience, in a strict poetic form.
RM: "Car on cinder blocks./Ridin’ the bus to work now./An everyday struggle.” This poem struck me, and immediately reminded me of Richmond's ongoing transportation system issues. How do your poems reflect Richmond’s current reality and challenges?
Williams: I think there are some [poems that] resonate specifically to Richmond. I lived in Philly for many years; I would see hundreds of kids on there going to school every day. So public transportation bridged the gap in a lot of ways. But in Richmond, we are still struggling to get a basic bus system that meets the needs of people that need it the most. That’s something that we still haven’t gotten right. Like the Pulse bus line: Many of the lines that are cut would limit access to transportation [by] people who need it most, which many of us are concerned about. In every city almost, including Richmond, in certain parts of town, in the stores and the bodegas, there’s a ton of unhealthy options — liquor, cigarettes, candy — but no healthy options, because it’s a food desert. So so poems reflect that reality. Some of my poems speak directly to Richmond’s gun violence problem, too.
RM: What's next?
Williams: Later this spring, I'll be giving public readings and creating public experiences based on the poems. The book has five chapters; each reading will be based on a different chapter. I'll also be doing a national book tour this summer, stopping in Detroit, New York and hopefully Los Angeles. I'm working on future volumes of the book, to expand on the hood haiku concept. And of course, I'm continuing my work in the community centered on healthy food access, and I just started performing live music again with a group of long-time Richmond musicians. We don't have a name for ourselves yet, but we're excited to see where this takes us.
"Hood Haiku" will be released April 21, and will be available for sale at Fist City Press for $14; it will also be available in local bookstores later this spring. Catch Mikemetic at the next Wax Museum event at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on May 5, 6 to 10 p.m., featuring DJ Rattan (AKA Rei Alvarez, frontman of Bio Ritmo). Free.