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With Artivism, Poet Abioseh Joseph Cole Targets Cognitive Dissonance

Abioseh Joseph Cole

Before his recorded performance of “O’ Say Can You See,” poet Abioseh Joseph Cole tells us, “Any protest is designed to start a conversation. If you don’t like this piece, let me know, and let’s talk about it.” It’s the purpose of his art — poetry through which he shares the informed truth, with style, about the callously indifferent attitudes that make countless victims of members of our species and others. 

O’ Say Can You See,” which begins with a riff on The Star-Spangled Banner that doesn’t flinch at all in describing these United States as “the land of the free and the home of the slave,” lets every listener know that during performances of America’s national anthem, Cole “will sit.” 

“That poem was a response to and inspired by Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem,” Cole said, “and seeing a lot of the negative response to that.” While he’s trying to wake people up to the ugly realities of our society, Cole doesn’t set out to be confrontational in his work. If it comes across that way, it’s because he’s reacting to ongoing emergencies and atrocities. In “These Cops Is Killaz,” he describes an America in which “a small violation leads to a few cops aiming. I don’t even have to make a wrong move and there’s a few shots blazing.” 

“It can come across as protest because people are so misinformed,” he explained, “so they may feel some offense from some of the things that I say. For the most part, it really is just in response to the ignorance that I see on a regular basis.” And while he doesn’t necessarily or always think of his work as protest art, he has used it in that context, reciting such poems as “I Am Not Food” at organized protests outside businesses that trade in suffering. 

Until a few years ago, Cole’s poetry was written to be set to music. “I Am Not Food,” which, with lines like “It’s only pain and fear I see. I’m only bred to feed their greed” is framed as a plea for mercy from victims of industries that use and commodify animals, was one of several poems written during a time in which Cole was transitioning in approach and style from hip-hop to spoken word.

“‘I Am Not Food’ was the piece that really opened my eyes to the necessity of having emotions in my pieces,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do with the metered rhyme. It’s very difficult to stay in a rhythmic pattern and convey the same emotions.” When he first recorded “I Am Not Food” and performed it to music, Cole said, “It didn’t generate the response from the audience that I was looking for. It was kind of just falling on deaf ears — they were more into the rhythm of what I was saying as opposed to the words I was delivering. When I did it a cappella and broke up the meter and just started to free-flow it a little bit and give it a little bit of the emotion and tone inflections, with a lot of pauses and a lot of time to reflect on what was said, it definitely generated more of a response from the audience.”

Still, the music can’t be removed from his work. Cole’s poetry is, in the purest sense, word-music designed to instigate the kind of critical thinking that’s not generally encouraged by our culture. 

“When you look at more recent pieces like, say, ‘Guilty’ or ‘Dissonant Cognition,’” he said, “there’s still a rhyme structure because of my history in hip-hop, but it’s not metered, it’s very much more open. It’s more of a conversation as opposed to a song. And I think the biggest difference between spoken word and hip-hop is that you really are trying to have a conversation with the audience. You’re really trying to spark a dialogue as opposed to just entertaining them — or as KRS-One would say, ‘Edutain them.’ Spoken word for me is much less about entertainment and much more about the conversation.”

Whereas he used to set poems to music, Cole now begins each piece with an idea, and without a template. “It really is just the topic,” he explained. “What about this topic do I want to elaborate on?” There’s also the audience to consider. “I try to evoke a lot of emotions” in each piece, “and I try to make it as personal as possible, because the more personal it is to me, the more personal it can be for my audience members. I’m trying to sell them on a concept that I feel they need to understand better. … I really just try to connect with them in a way that if somebody has the complete opposite point of view, that after hearing my perspective, even if they don’t agree with it, they would understand it.”

That seems like an intellectual exercise. But it has more to do with art’s power to pass through preconception and defensiveness. And emotion is the vehicle that allows that passage. “When you combine feeling with thought,” Cole said, “you’ve got something that’s very powerful. And that’s what art is to me. Art is combining emotion with intellect, with the emotion driving the intellect.”

Cole isn’t working to connect himself to his audience. He’s ultimately interested in connecting his audience to themselves, to their attitudes, and to the victims of their behaviors — behaviors that are generally encouraged by our culture, while critical thinking is not. Our species’ callously indifferent treatment of others, the subject he’s dealing with in “I Am Not Food,” is “something that is completely foreign to 90 percent of the population, which doesn’t see animals as anything but things, they don’t see them as people, they don’t see them as individuals who have feelings and experience pain.

That portion of the population is the audience Cole’s after with poems like “I Am Not Food” and “Dissonant Cognition,” which he describes in the poem as “the psychological state of positional hypocrites,” explaining, “I don’t mean that as an insult but as a common reality, especially in a carnist world where death isn’t considered a casualty but rather accepted quite casually.”

“‘Dissonant Cognition’ isn’t for vegans,” Cole said. “Vegans will love the piece because it says everything that they like to say and like to hear, but it wasn’t really written for them. They already know all that stuff. This is for the people who are cognitively dissonant when it comes to animals. They’re inseparable, the audience and the work.”

He doesn’t need people to like his work. He wants them to connect to the ideas his word-music is designed to communicate. It’s his purpose as an artist, as the opening of “Guilty” explains: “They say I make them feel guilty, but no. I simply use my wordplay to slay misconceptions of innocence and pride, whereby you feel guilty when you are indicted by your own mind. I am a poet, at war with the times …”

Experience Abioseh Joseph Cole’s poetry

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