When Tef Poe headed to Ferguson five years ago, he went in the capacity of concerned son Kareem Jackson.
“I wasn’t going out there as a rapper,” Poe said. “I was responding as a man who has a mother that lives in Ferguson.”
He stepped foot in Canfield Green Apartments, where unarmed teen Mike Brown was gunned down by then Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 and instantly connected to the tragedy.
“I walked those same streets, dealt with those same police,” Poe said.
People piled into Canfield from every corner of the region on August 9. Others from across the nation, and the world, came to Ferguson in the days and weeks that followed to be a part of the movement. Thousands took to the streets demanding justice – and stayed.
Poe ended up being one of the frontline protestors who demonstrated nonstop for several months.
“I think it was really a collective consciousness – the collective conscious of this generation all moved at the same time because we were all seeing the same thing happen at the same time,” Poe said.
In the two weeks prior to Brown’s death, two unarmed black men had been killed by police in Ohio and New York City. But there was a different energy with Brown’s passing.
“Originally, I didn’t think it was going to become what it became, but when I got there, I could tell that it was different,” Poe said. “That people had reached a tipping point.”
He described the experience as a heightened sense of connectivity.
“We all knew what time it was – what happened, and it didn’t need any explanation,” Poe said. “None of us can take credit for organizing that response from the community. His blood organized the response – his blood pouring out onto the pavement was what brought people out.”
When asked for reflections as the region observes the five year anniversary of the Ferguson unrest, Poe asked that the community not lose sight of the inciting tragedy.
“We can’t talk about these five years or reflect without giving sincere condolences to his parents,” Poe said. “We covered it with the word ‘Ferguson,’ but they actually lost a son.” It’s less about Ferguson and more about their actual son, Mike Brown, being gone.”
He feels proud to have been a part of the movement that took place in Brown’s memory.
“I kind of feel like my role in the Ferguson uprising was a person that was going to be there to tell the whole story,” Poe said. “Not trying to lead or trying to give myself a soapbox moment – but to be in the position to one day say, ‘I saw this happen from start to finish, and this is what I saw happen. With no finesse added to it, just, ‘this is how it is.’”
As a rapper, the storytellers of the hip-hop generation, he felt it to be his responsibility.
“You know how you have old orators in the village that say, ‘We saw this back in the day and this is how it happened’,” Poe said. “Somebody has to live to tell the children. That’s what it was for me.”
The experience changed him and how he approaches his art.
“It matured me a lot – It gave me a different view of the city than what a lot of people may have from their perspective of being artists,” Poe said. “It kind of erased the space in my music where I would kinda just make stuff up for the sake of entertainment. It was too much going on for me to be wasting my time with fiction.”
While he admitted that a he suffered from depression after it was decided that Wilson wouldn’t be indicted, he went on to tell the true story of Ferguson to the world.
“The city itself has been through a lot,” Poe said. “It’s sad the way that I’ve seen the media, institutions and political people in general take advantage of the grief.”
‘A different kind of Fellow’
In 2015 Poe applied for a fellowship through the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. The lead of the program to which he was applying, Walter Johnson, told him that he stood a good chance of being accepted for the program.
Johnson brought Poe to Harvard to do a talk. Soon after, he was sent an offer letter.
“I was a different kind of fellow for them,” Poe said of the fellowship that focused on politics and social activism. “It’s a post-doctoral fellowship, and I don’t have a high school diploma.”
After successfully completely the year-long fellowship, he moved over to Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Research Center called the Nasir Jones Fellowship – named after rapper Nas – which focused on music and black history.
“When I got out of the car [on campus], the first sign I saw said, “What does God have for you at Harvard?” Poe said. “When I saw that, I took it as a real sign as to this is the moment when we are going to see if you are just waiting for the first big opportunity to switch up.”
On the music side, Poe landed a deal with major label Tommy Boy in 2018. The label recommended that he apply to become a United States Cultural Ambassador. He was selected. On Sunday, he just returned from a three-week trip to Jordan as part of his duties.
“I’ve been on a fellowship at Harvard for the last three years pretty much doing the same thing I did over there which is connecting people that have a certain understanding of hip hop to a broader view of what hip-hop is capable of,” Poe said. “Also – just representing my city in a very dignified way.”