Get Real: Spelling New York with a J

Get Real with Carla Stockton

As Joel – pronounced Jo-El, but you can call him J – Daniels will tell you, he is pure New York. “They’ll carry my bones out of this city,” he likes to say.

“i smell of New York.

of brick and concrete. of crack smoke and homicide. if crack smoke died, it
would rest here. rotting bodies and baby mommas. red hot sirens with words
spoken in between handclaps, handicaps and firearms.”

But Joel’s New York old school.  Old school like Piri Thomas, Alice Walker, Jimmie Baldwin or the first Bob Dylan, New Yorkers who embraced New York as a character in works of art with real heart, who didn’t flinch from pointing out that there were too many rich folks and too much poverty and no stomach in between.  Like Joel, those bygone observers exuded New York in their blood, their sweat, their tears, their sighs, and they hated the inequities of New York, the stains that marred its welcome signs. People would say to them “New York – a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  And they would answer, thank goodness – that means we have more of it to ourselves.  Their voices are not silent, but they languish in old curiosity shoppes, obscured by anthems proclaiming New York the happening of happenings, by lyrics that tell you “the streets will make you feel brand new; big lights will inspire you.” Lucky for us, we still have Joel to tell us what is.

Joel Daniels pronounces his name Jo-El, but he easily answers to just J.  (Photo by Gavin Thomas Photo)

Joel Daniels pronounces his name Jo-El, but he easily answers to just J. (Photo by Gavin Thomas Photo)

This man is a poet who loves his city, warts and all.  If you want to make it here, he’ll tell you, you gotta dive in, get dirty, know what’s for real.  Don’t pretend we all wear Bulgari and aspire to have our faces splattered across Vanity Fair.  He loves the New York he has watched from the fire escape of his project home on Creston Avenue, near Fordham Road in the down and dirty Bronx, since he was a little boy dreaming words instead of fancy cars.  From there he watched –  still watches – the Piraguas vending shaved ice and syrup, the kids playing ball, chasing each other, dodging traffic, the hustlers, the dealers, the tired parents dragging themselves home from back-breaking shifts.  He loves them; he stays in the Bronx to be near them, to write them and to sing his gratitude.

Joel Daniels is grateful to the “Strong, independent beautiful single mom” who raised him and his brothers–strong siblings, each with his own reaction to this ‘hood, but all evolving into the kind of men their mother hoped they’d be.  As soon as J could walk, his oldest brother danced with him to classic hip-hop of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and he was enthralled with the poetry, the rhymes, the language, the stories of Gil Scott-Heron, who had lived nearby, of Grandmaster Flash, his brother D, the voices that spoke the language of his neighborhood, the truth of the streets.

At some point before he could count how old he was, he heard the words of a storytelling rapper named Nas.  As Joel tells it, “Nas’ use of the English language is a beautiful sound to behold. Like, you go through his verses, and there is so much wordplay and depth entrenched in the stories he told.” Inspired by Nas, Joel found a voice for himself, the voice of a poet with stories to tell. Stories about his Vietnam vet dad lost in illness and PTSD, about his mom, who insisted he pursue his education, and about his vecinos, his classmates.

In eighth grade, after playing MLK in a play and after flawlessly delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech, his clairvoyant teacher Ms. Petrowski encouraged him to learn some Shakespeare and wow the auditors at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.  He did, he became an actor, and the world’s windows flung wide.  He discovered new textures and learned to listen to unfamiliar accents.  He worked with gifted teachers like Jamie Winnick, who taught him and his classmates about collaboration, about ensembles, about creating art.  And his voice soared.

Joel lost his passion for acting when a casting agent said he’d get work, so long as he played drug dealers and pimps; he wanted none of that.  So off he went to Temple University.  But Philadelphia was not NY, so he returned, not just to NY but to acting too. He is studying again, improving his poems, and perfecting his voice. He’s performing all around the city, emceeing, rapping, sharing his art. And sometime soon, he’s headed back to school right here in his city.  He wants to learn, to strengthen that voice that’s already praising New York . . . old school.

Have a listen:

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Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.

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