Hidden Figures: Ursula Rucker #BlackHERstoryMonth 3/29

Hidden Figures: Ursula Rucker #BlackHERstoryMonth 3/29

Ursula Rucker is a poet, performer and spoken word recording artist whose work revolves around personal history, family, and place, namely Philadelphia and other urban environments. She has released five solo albums and worked with artists such as producer King Britt, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Clarence Williams III, and The Roots. Born and raised poor in the Germantown neighborhood of Pennsylvania, Rucker grew up in a tumultuous household, and often found solace in writing. After graduating from Temple University’s journalism program, Rucker rose to prominence in the mid-90s by performing poetry based on her life in open mic nights, becoming a fixture at Philly club Zanzibar Blue in Center City. Over time, Rucker became friends with several prominent figures in the Black arts scene including The Roots, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and DJ Jazzy Jeff; she met many of these people at open mic nights and a recurring ‘Back To Basics’ dance party at club Silk City. Rucker became known for her signature style of delivering rageful and brutally honest verse in a soft spoken tone, which a friend and fellow poet described as “like stabbing you in the stomach with a knife while giving you a hug and saying I love you.”

In 1994, Rucker recorded her first spoken word recording, titled ‘Supernatural,’ which became a popular dance remix, and when poet Ntozake Shange was unable to provide rap group The Roots with a spoken word piece for their debut album ‘do you want more?!!?!!,’ Rucker was called. Her poem, ‘The Unlocking,’ served as outro to the record, and after it went gold The Roots invited Rucker back to contribute outs to several other records, including their groundbreaking album ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Rapper ?uestlove calls Rucker his ‘personal savior’ for her contributions to The Roots first album. Her spoken word often deals with the harsh realities of inner city life, ruminating on drugs, sexual abuse, power, racism, and sexism, from a pointedly Black woman’s perspective.

Her work with The Roots elevated her to in-demand status within the conscious hip-hop world, as magazines like Vibe, XXL, and the Philadelphia Inquirer clamored to interview her and print her work. She also began to tour extensively, performing at venues such as the Theater of the Living Arts and the Painted Bride Arts Center along with other festivals, universities, and art spaces throughout the US and Europe. Rucker teaches at Muhlenberg College, and is a Philly 360 Creative Ambassador and recipient of Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She was also the subject of the 2008 documentary Ursula Rucker: Poet, directed by Michael J. Dennis.

In 2017, she wrote an epic poem for the piece Logan Squared: An Ode to Philly, which was meant to reflect Philadelphians’ voices and visions for the city. The work was presented as part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Center-supported, citywide Monument Lab exhibition. In 2018, Rucker was named a Pew Fellow, and launched a 90-minute autobiographical performance piece called ‘My Father’s Daughter, which she describes as a memoir and epic poem and has toured live.

“I stand for poetry as a source of profound truth. That truth, for me, is connected to the idea that cities are places that redeem our strivings and leave us longing; the ways family life shapes and shakes us, and brings us back; and the thought that artists safeguard stories and struggles.”

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