Poet, rapper, hip-hop artist, educator, activist, and community leader are but a few of the titles that define Phoenix resident Myrlin Hepworth, who got his start doing slam poetry on Mill Avenue while simultaneously studying English at Arizona State University. As Hepworth sees it, it was something of a double major.
"While I was doing slam poetry on Mill Avenue -- literally, on the street, the unaccredited school -- I [was] going to ASU and studying formal writing and what makes a compound sentence and why Faulkner and Hemingway are opposite ends of the same movement, and stuff like that," says Hepworth, also a Phonetic Spit co-founder.
His street earnings paid for his education and, formal degree in hand, Hepworth now gives back to the community that nurtured and supported him, visiting dozens of high school classrooms each year. He's started an Alzheimer's poetry project in which he reads classic poems to patients, but his more telling platform is engaging young minds with the concept that the power of language and the strength of poetics can help get their messages across. His organization teaches youth writing and performing in communities all across the Valley.
"We believe when you write and perform, you express the reflective process, and you're given space to reflect on yourself," he says.
The effort has been extremely rewarding, as students have opened up and let their emotions flow, he says. Many, he proudly adds, have taken to performing themselves. Some hated poetry before Hepworth arrived on the scene, he says. The problem was the delivery method, not the words themselves.
"Part of what they're teaching them is archaic language," he says. "The language of our time is hip-hop. There's mainstream hip-hop that's been commoditized, but the poetics of my time are in [the] hip-hop medium, the poetry of the people that shapes the generation of the time. Older generations grew up memorizing poems their whole lives, but that's not how it is now."
Modern poets share their words with music, and it's evident in the popularity not just of slam poetry, but hip-hop -- from street level to major labels -- in general. As an educator, Hepworth tries to impart the sophistication to understand that something that NAS or Tupac Shakur wrote is as important as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or William Cullen Bryant.
"I want to bridge the gap because they all have something to say," he says.
Hepworth was raised on poetry. His father was an English professor and publisher of literature in the Northwest. Hepworth often found himself enduring poetry readings as "the little kid outside . . . using the stick to fight the imaginary whatever." Subconsciously perhaps, Hepworth absorbed the rhythms and timbre of these poets. At home, his mother filled his head with the diverse sounds of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Willie Nelson -- artists whose samples now fill Hepworth's music. A ninth-grade teacher bridged the two mediums, providing Hepworth his hip-hop introduction via "some really cool records" by A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots. These proved influential in cementing Hepworth's poetic vision.
"As a kid, I didn't really have aspirations of being a hip-hop artist because I didn't know what being a hip-hop artist was," he says. "I knew what mainstream hip-hop was, that's all. I didn't know that I was hip-hop. I didn't realize those things until I came into my own as an artist completely, as an educator, as a writer, as a musician; all those things flood in together."
Though he initially focused on perfecting his voice through spoken word and slam poetry, Hepworth eventually realized that he, too, needed to put music behind his words. While he was more than happy pushing his poetry on Mill Avenue, he needed to get out of the street and into the studio if he was to really be heard.
"I could continue to do spoken-word poems, and that's how I've set myself for seven years. I've paid my rent, car, tuition as an artist. But the best circulation you can get for a poem is on BuzzFeed or a viral video," he says. "But there's something special about the seduction of music. Music just has more reach. Someone is playing a Biggie [Smalls] song somewhere right now, whereas one of my poems, probably not."
Hepworth is emphatic, however, that his move into hip-hop and the release of his lengthy 17-track debut, The Funky Autopsy, was not monetarily motivated. (Available at myrlin.bandcamp.com, the purchaser names the price.) Rather, the album was created with the purpose of Hepworth's using a broader medium to speak his mind and create a connection with the listener.
"I don't have commercial aspirations. If you look into my music, it becomes abundantly clear by the time you reach the end of the record. There are so many layers of it, it's in-depth and complete, [but] my vibration is not to become some type of celebrity. It might come with the territory at some point, but it's not what I care about.
"What I care about is that feeling when you see an artist . . . when you feel something in the room and there's nowhere else you want to be," he says. "There's a vibration and you're connected. Not because you're supposed to idolize [the artist], but because you trust and feel naturally. I love that experience, be it a 300-seat theater or outside a coffee shop. I'm about that. I have to do that, I'll do that my whole life, but I'm not trying to be a thing because I think I deserve to be somewhere. I think what I have to say is important, but I don't think I have to be praised up. If I was serving that type of intention, then my music and who I am as a person would be totally different and not authentic."
Hepworth does care about his words -- and his community. His songs are not degrading toward women, not boasts or personal send-ups -- he doesn't claim to wear Gucci or drive a fancy car -- but he does tackle social issues from the misguided stereotypes about hip-hop and the artists making it to hot-button topics such as racism and immigration.
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"Arizona I Love You but . . ." from The Funky Autopsy, exemplifies this ideal. While Hepworth proclaims his love for Arizona on the whole -- his adopted state of 10 years -- he shows his disdain, adding: "Arizona I hate you, 'cause you keep bringing me down." The lo-fi track reveals his nagging mixed feelings about our controversial state, full of geological wonder, yet also full of hatred and prejudice.
"To the Rescue" floats on a buoyant Bob Marley sample, the cool respite to the song's heavy lyrics about Hepworth's difficulties dealing with racism growing up as a youth of color in a small Idaho town.
"The job of the poet is to be ruthless enough to tell the absolute truth, and that's within people, and they carry that within their own masquerade. You have to speak to the humanity of everyone. My job is to humanize and create avenues for people to reach inside and find out more about themselves," he says. "That's what I want to do, absolutely. Absolutely!"