Craig muMs Grant grew up in the Bronx, and when he was 11, a family friend gave him his first rap record, the 1979 hit, “Rappers Delight” by Sugarhill Gang. Painfully shy, he started sidewalk rapping with older boys in the neighborhood, but kept his eyes shut and more often than not, was teased out of the circle.
So how did he go from that shy kid to the internationally respected rap artist, actor and writer best known for his role as Arnold "Poet" Jackson on the HBO series Oz?
As he says in the voice-over to his reel on YouTube, "They found me at the Nuyorican Poets Café doing poetry, brought me in, and then let me do some acting."
Actually, it was a little more complicated than that.
After six years of hard work honing his craft in appearances at the Nuyorican, muMs was featured in the documentary SlamNation, and approached by Darnell Martin, an executive for Oz, who offered him an audition.
“You don’t find an agent, an agent finds you,” muMs said, and while he is grateful for how his career has gone, he doesn’t downplay the downside of the record industry, where gangsta-rap artists have been fatally shot, and one famous rapper he auditioned with told him, “I already got a big Black guy.”
Likewise, he doesn’t idealize the movie and TV industry, where high-stakes auditions might be attended by 25 studio executives, all looking at their Blackberries.
“They break you down, but you build yourself back up,” he said.
Hip-hop finds its “literary feet”
One of the ways muMs has built himself up, is breaking into new genres.
“Freestyle rap turned into poetry; poetry turned into playwriting; playwriting turned into short stories, and hopefully those will turn into a novel someday,” he said, and read aloud his poem, “Angels in the Realm of Paranoia,” that pulls from verse, acting, and storytelling.
“That’s like Adam and Eve in a reggae club,” he commented on the piece, and in a second poem, delivered an hallucinogenic, albeit anti-drug message.
MuMs’ visit was set up by Lara Stapleton, in tandem with BMCC’s African American Heritage Celebration committee. He met Stapleton, a Lecturer in the BMCC English Department and Advisor for the Student Writer’s Guild, “back when she was a bartender at the Nuyorican,” he says.
Both Stapleton and muMs emerged as writers from the Lower East Side literary scene that gave rise to slams and performance poetry.
Stapleton’s 1998 short story collection, The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing, won the Pen Open Book Committee Selection and Independent Bookseller Selection, among other awards.
While Stapleton honed her writing throughout the nineties, muMs’ work changed in that, “I slowed it down, really concentrated on the words,” he says.
“I would gesture with my hands, but it wasn’t rap, and I fell in with people who were just like me—who loved hip-hop, but were too literary for it. Hip-hop hadn’t found its literary feet yet.”
Putting it together
MuMs has performed at hundreds of cafés, colleges and universities across the U.S., Europe and Africa. He’s a member of the famed NYC LAByrinth Theater Company, and is known for his roles on Chappelle's Show, Law and Order, The Sopranos, Everyday People, and other network TV and cable series.
His playwriting credits include In the Last Car, which won the Audience Award in the 2003 Downtown Urban Theater Festival, and Morning Breath, a short film he wrote and produced, landing Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival.
One of his latest works-in-progress, the epic poem, Paradox of the Urban Cliché, is being developed into a book, play, film and album.
“I like long poetry,” muMs says, and cites Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, among his influences. He also likes bringing disciplines together, and is writing a piece for tap dancers.
“It’ll be a poetry and tap choreo-poem,” he says, and will open at The Joyce Theater in Chelsea, this summer.
Filling a page with joy
Before his writing and performing career, muMs went the academic route. Early milestones included a Congressional nomination to go to West Point, and a few semesters as an architect major at Norfolk State University, in Norfolk, Virginia.
He then returned to NYC, and completed a semester at City Tech, CUNY, studying mechanical drawing. He worked as a nurse’s aide at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, and in 1994, enrolled at BMCC—“I was a nursing major for like, a day,” he says—but by that time, he had discovered the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, and embarked on another kind of education.
In the Q & A following his talk at BMCC, a student asked muMs what writers have influenced him the most, and he cited authors as diverse as Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, and African-American writer Ralph Ellison, who authored the highly canonized Invisible Man.
He also listed Nigerian poet Ben Okri, American rapper Rakim Allah, and 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. He talked about novelist Tennessee Williams—“I like the ways he would borrow from his life”—and William Shakespeare, who “was playing with language,” he says. “People didn’t talk like that—he was having fun. That’s what I want to do.”
MuMs recommended that BMCC’s aspiring writers “try the pen-to-paper strategy. You write for 20 minutes; don’t pick up the pen from the paper, then go back and chisel at it,” and he shared his perspective on “trying to be an adult, within the confines of hip-hop,” where content is geared toward much younger people.
“I’m in bed by 10, 10:30,” he admitted, adding, “I still love hip-hop,” despite trends that have damaged young people’s values, he believes—and cost him a few fans.
“I railed against ignorance in hip-hop, when gangsta-rap came out,” he says, “and I got black-balled.”
Finally, he told the students, “Listen to your own instinct. Listen to your gut. At every crossroad, I go for the simpler path.” He referred to early 20th-century writer Henry Miller’s “Commandments” for writing, and paraphrased one of his favorites: “Don’t write when you’re mad or sad, just write from joy. Filling a blank page with words should be done in joy.”