Remembering Clinton Powell

WE ALL WANT to start off the New Year with something positive. But we won't get that chance this week, as Savannah has sadly lost one of the most beloved members of the local arts community.

Clinton D. Powell passed away Sunday at age 40 after a long illness.

I won't pretend to be one of Clinton's closest friends or collaborators. But for the past decade I had the pleasure and honor of writing about his prolific activity with his groundbreaking Spitfire Poetry Group, his founding of the Savannah Spoken Word Festival, his work in local schools, and his forays into local theatre.

During that time, Clinton impressed me as one of the most genuinely good-spirited and positive people I'd ever met. He was also one of those rare souls who is born not only to seek self-expression for himself, but to nurture self-expression in others.

Clinton appreciated plainspoken honesty, so I'll be frank about this. Generally when white journalists write or talk about an African-American in the arts, they almost always do so within a socio-political context, through the prism of the artist's race.

By framing every black cultural figure as an activist, the media gets a two-fer: 1) We can bring in the arts, which is noncontroversial and something our audience always likes, and 2) we can satisfy our political correctness quota by mentioning societal problems -- poverty, inequality, racism, etc. -- without having to discuss actual solutions to those problems.

But while Clinton's tireless work in bettering the lives of young African-Americans in Savannah was something he cared very deeply about, he was first and foremost an inspiring artist, and that's how I'll always remember him.

Like all great artists, he appreciated beauty and truthfulness above all else. And to him, words -- the profane ones as well as the pretty ones -- represented the greatest beauty and the highest truth. He communicated that love of language as well as anyone I've known.

Hip-hop inspired spoken word was his chosen mode of self-expression, but Clinton would have made any language come alive anywhere he was, whoever he was, with anyone and everyone around him.

If he had lived in ancient Greece, he'd have staged plays in a stone amphitheatre. If he had lived in Elizabethan England, he'd have performed Shakespeare. If he had been born in Africa, he'd have been a griot, a storyteller.

For all I know, he was all of those people at one time or another. But in this life, he was a skinny black dude who graduated from Beach High, with the dreads of a prophet, the soul of a poet, the presence of a performer, and the patient heart of a teacher.

But appearances and background never mattered to him. Nor did they matter to anyone who knew him, because Clinton was Clinton regardless. He transcended.

While a warm old soul, Clinton's warmth could run hot, a trait I always liked about him. Though he was painfully thin on the best of days -- I'm not sure he ever weighed more than 100 pounds at any point in his life -- there was steel underneath the diminutive exterior. He wasn't to be trifled with when it came to the things he felt most ardently about.

Something he said to me once made a deep impression. I was interviewing him about one of his spoken word poetry slam programs in the schools, and he mentioned why encouraging kids to be active in the arts is so important:

"Not everyone can be an athlete," he said.

A simple sentence, but one that said so much. It not only cut to the core of the anti-intellectualism plaguing our society today, but enabled someone like me, from such a different background, to completely relate to what he was saying through my own life experience.

It also said much about the life's work of this man who, though a soccer player himself, always identified with those who weren't the jocks or popular kids in school, a man who though small in stature was artistically larger than life, a man who used his skills not for self-promotion but to encourage the most vulnerable among us.

That was Clinton Powell's genius, and it will be sorely missed.

The outpouring of emotion in the wake of his passing has been enormous. It continues this weekend, as many of the people who loved Clinton and worked with him will gather to celebrate his life and legacy at 7 p.m. this Friday at the Savannah Theatre on Chippewa Square. Sponsored by the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah, the event is free and open to the public.


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