“Let me tell you a fact about myself that almost everyone feels the need to remind me. I am black,” says Aubrey Barnes in the opening line of his most popular poem.
The Rock Island-born spoken word artist goes on about often being asked if he’s from Africa and how he should be allowed to keep his “eyes open and and teeth showing” during a game of laser tag. “Otherwise, I’d be cheating,” he writes.
In “Black Like Me,” Barnes, 26, also notes that friends tell him, “You aren’t like the black people on TV.”
It’s one example of what makes Barnes, who stage name is Aubs., a self-described “paradoxical poet.”
Putting down a collection of stories by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, Barnes talked at a Davenport cafe earlier this week about his array of literary influences. They range from southern gospel music to Kendrick Lamar to Langston Hughes, which differs from other poets who are influenced, as Barnes said, by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe. Barnes writes about activism, relationships, race, society, etc. in quiet coffee shops and performs them with the urgency of a battle rap.
“A lot of my writings come from a faith aspect but at the same time talk about societal issues,” he said. “Because of that, people don’t know where to put me or what box to put me in.”
So far, it hasn’t mattered. Barnes is creating his own box.
Growing up, Barnes and his family primarily listened to southern gospel. At around 13, he heard rap for the first time.
“I heard it and I knew I wanted to create something like it,” he said. “So I started writing.”
His passion for poetry continued, mostly privately, through his time at Rock Island High School and while attending Iowa Central Community College and St. Ambrose University, where he studied elementary education and ran cross country and track.
Then, at an open-mic in the summer of 2014, Barnes took his hobby to the stage for the first time.
“I had no idea what a poetry slam was at first,” he said. “I thought poetry was just 17th century stuff. It kind of blew my mind how everyone articulated themselves in this artful manner.”
Barnes was hooked. He started performing at open-mic nights around the Quad-Cities and region.
Here, he said, spoken word and slam poetry “felt like a foreign art.”
“There weren’t really places specifically for poetry and spoken word,” Barnes said. “I didn’t feel like I had a community of people who understood my art and pushed me.”
So, he created his own community of lyricists, called Roaring Rhetoric, about three years ago. Barnes hosts workshops and frequent open-mic nights, featuring 10-20 performers, at Connect Coffee House in NorthPark Mall.
“When you have art that deviates from having any musical accompaniment and it’s just the artist and their voice, it brings a different feeling and a different impact,” he said. “You’re just hearing their voice. Music hits me hard, no doubt. But when you hear every word and just their voice, it’s way different.”
At those events and several others each month, Barnes shares his own brand of words, which he hopes “provokes thought, empathy, graciousness and love for each other.”
That line of positivity attracted Terrell Boyd, founder of a Quad-City based performance label, called New Rise Entertainment, to Barnes’ art.
“He has a style I don’t think a lot spoken artists have,” Boyd said. “He’s his unique self and people really resonate with that. He brings a presence that captures you.”
The Chicago-born musician started the label because he “thought there was a need for positive entertainment in all genres.”
“Growing up, I listened to a lot of hip hop that had sexual undertones and was violent and all of that,” Boyd said. “I had a desire to offer something different because I believe what you watch and listen to on the regular influences you.”
And he said people are “hungry” for influences such as Barnes’ poetry.
“We’re all going through stuff,” he said. “We want to hear something that says, ‘You can accomplish it. You can make it through or do something different.’”
That goes for Barnes’ poem, “Black Like Me,” in which part of his goal is point out — and make light — of certain labels attached to race, writing at one point, “I mean when was the last time you went to an ice cream parlor anticipating all flavors to be same? That’d be lame.”
Another one of his goals?
To highlight all kinds of artists in the Quad-Cities.
“We have so much awesome art here that people don’t know about,” he said. “We’re so quick and so apt to jump to support the Kendrick Lamars or the Taylor Swifts and people we don’t know. And it’s like we have a Kendrick Lamar and a Taylor Swift here in our town. We need to celebrate what’s here in our community.”
Along the way, Barnes is making his own dreams a reality.
As of two months ago, when he quit his day job as a para-educator, Barnes is doing this full-time. And you can expect to see his debut book of poems, titled “Unfinished,” out in December.
The title, along with the period at the end of his stage name, Aubs., is a nod to one of his philosophies on performing.
"All art is meant to provoke thought," he said. "It's not over at the end of my poem. What matters are the conversations and thoughts that happen after I'm done."