by William Abbott
Ed Mabrey just released a three-cd collection called “Blackbird Airlines,” and it is remarkably sharp, the sort of poetry and music and drama that slides along your subconscious. The idea of Blackbird Airlines is that of an airplane that you never leave, that is taking off and landing. First class is always reserved for police officers, second class is reserved for media and politicians, and coach is always exclusively reserved for blacks. With that set up, you are ready for poetry.
The overall theme is that of inequality, of the microaggressions and macroaggressions and discriminations, especially from the police. It’s about Black Lives Matter and how society tries to sabotage and disassemble that idea. It’s poetry. It’s storytelling. It’s music. With snatches of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and various versions of Nina Simone’s very different “Blackbird.”
There are a number of poems spread through the first two cds, from “Truths about Black Superman” to “Libretto of the opera: Death of a Black Boy” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMxopjaPBsA) to “Passacaille Africanus.” Mabrey uses his wit to even out the seriousness of the messages: “Black Superman uses his laser vision to write #blacklivesmatter across the face of the moon.” And the comments and asides about being able to breathe are both smart and harsh: a reference to “Can’t breathe Wednesday” is one of many. The poem “Human,” asking if black people can be human and not less-than, with so many examples of how white society holds them down, is almost a manifesto in itself. And the poem “Dear White People” will make you very aware of how uncomfortable white people can be with talking about racism and the ways white people try badly to relate to them.
In any collection of poetry, one worry is that of boredom. If you listen to the same poet reading for a whole cd, much less multiple ones, many expect to lose interest. But mixing your poetry with different music and related stories, along with a remarkable stage/vocal presence, Mabrey will keep your attention focused on his message.
Of course, we’re here expecting the poetry, but the music, remade and remixed in different styles, will make up your soundtrack for days. Passing mention of songs you already know, with different lyrics, will fit over what you expect, changing what you expect. And the story of black people on the airplane being abused and frightened and intimidated in so many directions by so many people. The third cd, “Blackbox,” is made up of more of the music and stories.
The cd also comes with a series of posters and art of various sizes, and the cd case itself is art. The number of people in the cast, visual artists, and musicians is a large list in itself, making this a large-scale effort and a very successful collection. But you should expect little less from such an accomplished poet and performer: a TEDx speaker, a four-time winner of the Individual World Poetry Slam, a two-time winner of Indie Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam, a poet who has been touring for a decade now, and a touring comedian. Ed Mabrey may not be on your poetry radar yet, but you should expect him. Until then, grab “Blackbird Airlines” from his website, www.blackbirdairlines.com or download from CD Baby and listen for yourself.