Ise Lyfe Speaks Out, Looks Inward

He's known as an activist poet, but his new show has personal dimensions.

Through more than a decade of poetry slams, album releases, music videos, and magazine articles, Ise Lyfe has been remarkably good at keeping his personal life under wraps. That’s no easy feat. The Oakland-raised emcee was an It-guy from middle school forward. He came to poetry in high school, took a job promoting parties for Def Jam at age eighteen, and got on the righteous path shortly thereafter. In the ensuing years, Lyfe worked with several nonprofits and released a spate of metaphor-sluiced hip-hop albums (the second of which is quite good). He won the National Poetry Slam in 2001, appeared on Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry, and penned a solo show called Who’s Krazy?, about a one-dimensional man and the pursuit of happiness.

Many poets traffic in emotional terms; Lyfe managed to stay political. He opines about everything and never shies away from radical points of view. He’s known for importing battle-rap-style pugnacity into spoken word. But when it comes to first-person disclosures, he’s more apprehensive. “We’re always talking about how we feel about the world, we never talk about ourselves,” Lyfe said, referring to himself and his poet-peers. “We’ll get up onstage and say, ‘Man, the government is on some bullshit!’ We never say ‘Man, last night I was on some bullshit!'”

So it’s refreshing to see Lyfe take a confessional stance in his new solo show, Pistols and Prayers, which happens Friday, March 19, at Berkeley Repertory Theater (2025 Addison St., Berkeley). Largely based on Lyfe’s book of the same name, it mixes prayers, poems, anecdotes, rhymes, and humor, much of it culled from old journal entries. Lyfe will play three characters: himself, a voiceover narrator, and a wise old dope fiend named Uncle Randy — actually a throwback from Who’s Krazy? He’ll also return to several themes that have become his stock-in-trade: homicides in Oakland, modern technology, the Obama presidency, and the question of a “post-racial” society. He’ll include a piece that analogizes the struggles of African Americans to those of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, plus a spoof about wireless communication devices. “I make fun of people who treat cell phones like electronic leashes,” said Lyfe, whose cell phone probably rings seventy times a day — not counting text messages. For all its social dimensions, Pistols and Prayers also gets fairly intimate, particularly in a sketch called “My Grandmother Died Today.”

Lyfe said he’s gone the first-person route before, albeit in a more oblique way: His last album, Prince Cometh, included a line about his little sister being incarcerated. He’s also made reference to a homicide he witnessed at age fifteen, which steered him toward poetry. Such glancing admissions don’t compare to an intimate diary entry about a grandmother’s death, especially when it’s delivered onstage, but Lyfe said he’s ready to go there. Pistols and Prayers features original music by singer-songwriter Melanie DeMore and cellist Michael Fecskes, plus hip-hop breaks by DJ DC of 106 KMEL. It’s all part of a new performance series sponsored by Oakland organization SpeakOut. 7 p.m., $10-$20. or


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