Jeff Love, founder of 5A Artist Management, wants to subvert the image of poets as unpaid beatniks. He credits the movie Love Jones for shifting that image away from “something that’s relegated to a dark little corner room, everybody dressed in black clothes snapping like beatniks. It’s not like that. I view poetry as something that should be respected–where the artists are compensated just the same as any hip-hop or R & B act.”
5A is one of three local agencies now representing local poets. Chi-Pro Entertainment manages Kim Ransom and Malik Yusef, but it deals primarily with music acts. Contemporary Forum represents established writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Rohan Preston, Mark Turcotte, and David Hernandez; Love thinks it’s geared more toward the academic set than the current generation of poets who find themselves in clubs and other nontraditional venues performing for young, ethnically mixed, demanding crowds. “I want to see poetry in places you would never think to see it,” he says. “And that’s where 5A comes into the picture–so we can get Chicago and the world to recognize the talent right here in our hometown. Because you wouldn’t know about it from what the mainstream media cover.” Love has managed to get his clients gigs at local and out-of-state colleges, high schools, and bookstores; they also do things like read for Cabrini-Green kids.
Now 27, Love is an Englewood native bred on old-school hip-hop and house music. Around the time Love was born, his father retired from the military and accepted an engineering job. His mother sold handmade arts and crafts. “She goes around to churches, workshops, and fairs to sell those handcrafts,” says Love. “That’s probably where I got my entrepreneurial spirit.”
Love recalls hearing the sounds of mix tapes and rap battles echoing across the back hallways at Lindblom Tech, where his friends would hide to listen to Twista and Eric B and Rakim or try a few break-dancing moves. “The best thing about being in the middle here in Chicago is that we take influences from both coasts,” he says. “So the ‘true heads’ at that time tried out their own skills, inspired by the fame of rappers and Chi-town DJs.” He thinks that hip-hop has since lost its edge. “It’s an art to spit in the establishment’s face but to do it in a literate manner. Hip-hop had a lot of that back in the day and more thought put into the writing of rhymes. It’s not like there aren’t still political and social issues to talk about, but kids have chosen what they perceive as the high road. It’s not about the word for most artists now–it’s about the clothes and the money and all that.”
After high school, Love joined the navy, serving from 1987 to 1990 and traveling to France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. On track for the Naval Academy, he took classes in criminal justice and planned to become an officer, maybe go to law school. But, he says, “By the time I got to the end of my stint, my political consciousness was opening up, and I was coming into my own as a writer. Keeping in touch with things going on here in Chicago, I knew the poetry scene was going strong, and I wanted to get back home and write.” His first open-mike readings when he returned were at the now-defunct poetry club Spices, and small publications such as Scoop Jackson’s the Agenda, an underground monthly political magazine, began printing his essays.
Love worked as a freelancer and picked up the microphone at HotHouse and Lit-X, but he also took a job as a customer-service manager for a market-research company. “Throughout that whole time I knew that it wasn’t someplace I’d stay for a long time. I never viewed myself as someone to get a pension or anything like that. So I took the skills I got from the military and corporate America and applied them to 5A Management.”
5A started in 1994 as a nonprofit artists’ collective. Love came up with the name sometime between watching Seinfeld and reading the Revolutionary Worker. “I happened to be watching Seinfeld one day–one of my favorite shows. Dig this–Jerry’s apartment is 5A. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger–The Odd Couple–their apartment is 5A. Jerry is a comic, Oscar’s a sportswriter.” A few years before, Love had read an article in the Revolutionary Worker about CIA files. “The CIA denotes the level of danger a person presents by placing a certain amount of asterisks beside their name. Five asterisks are reserved for writers, because writers are those who can chronicle history, write the truth, assert the power of the pen, basically.
“Mario was my first 5A poet,” says Love, referring to the Lit-X and Guild Complex events programmer. “5A began as an organization that represented urban music. We worked with hip-hop acts and a couple bands like Tree Roots and the Travelling Caravan, which is still a part of 5A. There was a drought in the Chicago entertainment community as far as good, competent, professional representation.”
It was Mario who suggested managing poets to Love. “I knew that if I was going to make any kind of headway in doing poetry,” Mario says, “I figured there has to be somebody to take care of the business stuff. I needed somebody to handle the day-to-day bookings. Ultimately I joined up because I want to get the same respect a musician gets. What I do is just as important. I was already working with [Love] managing the hip-hop acts, and so I asked him to take care of me as an artist.”
Love soon began taking on other poets. “He was smart enough to realize that there are such good poets in Chicago,” says Mario, “and he figured he could do something with all that talent. Now he’s legitimized the business so quickly, and he has some staples like Reggie Gibson,” the poet who wrote and performed poems for Love Jones.
Love gave up his office job in September 1996, then revamped 5A as his own for-profit agency. He also began to scale back the number of hip-hop acts he represented (he now handles only two music groups). “With Chicago hip-hop, honestly, a lot of the kids doing it are not ready,” he says. “They aren’t ready for the rigors of business or the commitment and time it takes to get your career going. Not to mention the fact that, more often than not, Chicago hip-hop acts get signed to independent labels. If you’re on an independent label you have to work twice as hard as an artist coming out of New York–and you have to do a lot of work with the label to make sure your project is done the right way.”
Love also started talking to other writers and found that up-and-coming poets had nobody looking out for them. Gibson, for instance, “went into the movie Love Jones with really no representation. Not to say that he was shafted–but what I asked myself was this: how much better off could he have been if he had someone to look out for his interests? To have legal counsel at the ready for contracts, to make sure everything is on the up-and-up, and to promote his spot in the movie two months prior to its release?” Love says he came up with a list of people he wanted to work with. “The first one that came along after Mario was Reggie Gibson. From there it snowballed. I’ve been blessed because I haven’t had to pursue talented clients.”
Without a business model to follow, Love mixed the approaches he’d seen the mainstream entertainment industry use. “What we guarantee is number one, your business will be taken care of, and number two, you’ll be standing on a lot firmer foundation as an artist. We set up an atmosphere where the artist doesn’t have to worry about booking the gigs, or making sure that the sound is right, or making sure that they’re getting paid, or even finding a ride to a gig.” He adds, “Our services to clients come at a reasonable rate, because I didn’t want to get into a situation where the clients are too busy paying us back. I don’t like being in debt, and I don’t want anybody else in debt.”
Love first meets with a client to make sure they can work together. “We don’t want people who are in it just for the adulation and applause–we look for writers who are serious about the art.” After signing an interim contract with the client, Love checks on outstanding contracts and other legal obligations, helps pull together the client’s business records, and puts together a packet of biographical information. The early bookings are 80 percent paid gigs and 20 percent unpaid performances for charitable organizations or causes.
Love’s current clients include Tina Howell, Dred Sista Ren, Tyehimba Jess, Tara Betts, Marian L. Hayes, Innervisions (aka Avery R. Young and Smokie), and even a self-publishing Dallas native, Von, who was lured to Chicago by Love’s deal. The most recent newcomers include poets outside the predominantly black scene 5A represents. Puerto Rican poet and arts administrator Eduardo Arocho signed right before Korean-American University of Chicago student Dennis Kim. “Even though most of the clients in 5A are black, there are different stories coming from each one of them,” says Love. “The diversity is already there. But everyone has a story to tell–black, Latino, Asian, whatever–and 5A has to reflect a poetry scene that, unlike the city of Chicago, is not at all segregated. I don’t think black people, or any people for that matter, can afford to marginalize themselves.” Diversifying, Love admits, is “a business decision too. Because poets coming from different cultural backgrounds can reach different crowds, so I have room to play with lineups, depending on the audience, venue, and vibe.”
Love thinks he has enough poets for the moment. Blackwords Press is now printing works by Gibson and Quraysh Ali Lansana and rereleasing a title by Tyehimba Jess. Love’s clients will be appearing on WGCI and V103 and on CDs that will be released in the spring. Love is also developing writing workshops that will be offered in January. And he’s still writing a monthly column for the poetry monthly Tunnel Rat and working on a book of his own essays and short stories. “We’re the next generation, we’re the next purveyors of the word,” he says. “Our place in the literary scene is to continue to be the modern-day griots, to continue the chronicling of our history and the hopes for our future.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeff Love photo by Nathan Mandell.