Jun 25, 2020
Brilliant Writers Was, 'Unapologetically Dope and Black and That's What Made Him Beautiful'
One time, Jeffrey Bolden showed up at a Halloween party covered head to toe in purple glitter.
That costume may have grabbed the room’s attention, but then he held it by performing a lyrical essay — part poem, part memoir. It was what he called a “song-story.” The party of more than 30 people stopped; they were spellbound by his literary rap.
Then, there was the time he gave a presentation to the Dean and his mentor at Chatham’s MFA program about lack of representation, how important it was for there to be better conversations, and how it was necessary to decolonize the syllabi. He did so knowing that whatever changes might happen wouldn’t affect him, but his advocacy would make the program better overall. He wanted to make it a better place for Black writers and other writers of color in the future.
There was that other time when he was supposed to give a reading at a gallery crawl on Penn Avenue and he took the stage and just stood there. Then, he pulled out his phone and started laughing. He kept laughing until the entire audience was laughing with him.
That was Boosie.
And there was the time when he wrote about his suicide plan; the siren song of it, how he didn’t know how to sing or write his way out of the abyss. That dragon was always hiding somewhere. It was a cagey demon he had to battle often in his life.
That was Boosie, too.
Jeffrey Bolden was known to everybody who loved him and knew him as Boosie. He died on Tuesday, June 23rd, after being hit by a car while out walking on a back road near his mother’s home in Mississippi. He was just 32-years-old.
* * *
Boosie came to Pittsburgh to attend Chatham’s MFA program in creative writing. While here, he struggled to get his work out into the hands of readers. He struggled with the insecurities and doubts and pains that all writers do; he battled the hurdles and challenges facing Black writers, specifically. He also produced a tremendous amount of work and changed Pittsburgh’s literary community forever.
“I write because it’s all I have. Writing is all I’ve ever had,” he wrote once. Maybe it felt that way when he wrote it, but he did have more than writing. He had more than the composition notebook that kept him company: he had a community of fellow writers and friends. He built his community of creators — lovers of the spoken word and lovers of the written word — all of whom are rocked by his passing.
“Can you imagine what 40-year-old Boosie was going to write? Can you think about what 50-year-old Boosie was going to do?” said Brittany Hailer said. Hailer, a contributing writer to the Current and was the first friend Boosie made in Pittsburgh. “I think he was going to disrupt all of this, and now it’s gone.”
“We actually made plans to collaborate. We never ironed out how it was going to look, we just knew that we wanted to work together,” Brittney Chantele told me. She and Boosie first met at a reading. A hip-hop artist and poet, Chantele was blown away by his work and they became easy friends. “We didn’t know if it was going to be like he spits poetry on top of something that I’m singing or we both do poetry. But I regret not fast-forwarding that and getting that going sooner,” she said.
The other thing Bolden found while living in Pittsburgh was a publisher for his book. "Wolves" will be released in November by Tolsun Press. Part memoir, part fiction, it is both prosaic and lyrical (more Nipsey Hussle than Longfellow). As often happened with his work, music is both text and subtext, explicit and thematic.
“But soon lyrics were floating through my mind, melody was forming in the malaise, and gave my daydreams color and rhyme,” he writes in the first track of Wolves.
“When I read it, I thought it just had such an interesting, cool voice and perspective. I wanted to snatch it up right away,” recalled Brandi Pischke, Boosie’s editor at Tolsun. “He told me he listened to a lot of different kinds of music when writing. It inspires him and inspired him to write the pieces that he wrote for the book. The way we worked was to get it to flow like an album. Some of the tracks were hard and in your face. Some of them would bring you back down to earth a little bit.”
Fully bathed in the tradition of hip hop, Boosie knew every phrase and ellipse, every tone and undertone. He brought it all together to create his written voice and his performance style, layering and signaling and mixing in a wholly original way.
One of Boosie’s friends, a writer who overlapped with him at Chatham and who is now pursuing her PhD at Pitt, Caitlyn Hunter spoke about his genius for performance: “Oh yeah, that man could command a stage. He was like Malcolm X meets Assata Shakur meets TuPac.”
Said Chantele: “And he just had the illest bars.”
“The way that he would perform and read … he has a writing style that, obviously, is heavily influenced by hip hop. It really does make you feel like you get lost in the song. The way he writes, you get into it and it’s like putting on an album or playlist and doing something around the house but being locked into that playlist the entire time,” explained Cameron Barnett. Barnett is a poet and educator, and author of the brilliant collection, 'The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water.'
“You may not have understood all the references, but even if you didn’t understand the references, you still got the message. That, for me, is the most successful thing an author can ever do: bring you into their world and so you’re like, Okay, I’m into it. I’m buying whatever you’re selling, dude,” said Hunter.
* * *
Even with his prodigious gift for poetry and performance, Boosie bridled at being boxed in by other people’s assumptions and expectations. He loved fantasy and sci-fi and anime, too. He published a mythical fantasy story called, A Blues for Niah in the Signal Mountain Review.
“I think he felt like he was getting a message from various corners that he shouldn’t be writing in these fantastical spaces. That he should be sticking with what he knows, and writing his own life,” Sheila Squillante told me. Squillante is a poet and essayist who taught and mentored Boosie when he was getting that MFA at Chatham.
During his time in the MFA program, he was one of very few Black students (there were no Black professors.) Being a Black writer was important to him. But he wasn’t the Black writer that somebody else wanted him to be: that was equally important to him.
“It was never lost on me that many of his audiences—many of these rooms—were predominantly white. We talked about his frustrations—the failings of this city, his disappointments. But it was always part of his project, his energy, and his generosity to invite people into his worlds,” poet and friend Shannon Sankey told me via email.
He demanded much of himself and his art. He was always working on something, always thinking about ways to be better and write something that felt right to him. Squillante observed, “He was somebody who insisted — he insisted on himself, if that makes sense.”
“I remember having a conversation with him where he said, I want to write about Black joy, I want to write about Black imagination,” she added.
But it was hard to hang on to that joy in these times. The pandemic was pressing down on him hard. He had to take two buses to get to work. His mom and sister were both nurses. He was flat out scared of coronavirus.
He radiated at readings, filling the room with his presence. And so the adversity and limitations of the pandemic rode heavy on his spirit. Even with the excitement about his book, the idea of virtual readings and a virtual book tour took some of the joy out of his book launch.
* * *
Everybody tells stories about his generosity of spirit. Boosie would gift people small things. These were not grandiose gestures, but small gestures that lived in compassion and attention: a delivery of fried fish from Hook’s Fish & Chicken; prose poems he wrote for people he loved and then put on his Instagram feed that he called Love Letters; artwork that he made for his friend — a picture of a Black woman with the text, ‘Black Woman Is God.’
That generosity expanded in bigger, more significant ways as an artist who never felt threatened by the success or platform of others. Hunter said Boosie was an unashamed fanboy when somebody’s work moved him.
“His song stories — he was even playing with genre in the hip hop world. He integrated lyrics from Jay Z or Nipsey Hussle. Here’s the thing — if you’re white and you’re listening to Boosie, he’s a genius. If you’re Black and you’re listening to Boosie and you know all the references he’s making, he’s astronomical,” said Hailer. “He’s weaving all this music into his own poetry and that itself was genre-defying. Is he a rapper? Is he a poet? Is he an essayist? He just fucked with genre and did whatever he wanted. It was amazing.”
The literary community is greatly diminished by the loss of Boosie’s unique talents, his electric performances, and his ability to bridge and connect genres (and people.) Lovers of art are deprived of what might have come next from him. The city of Pittsburgh is a less vibrant and welcoming place without his necessary and distinctly Black voice.
One of the best descriptions of Boosie is what his friend Hunter told me about her friend: “The one thing I will say about Boosie is that he and his work are living proof that Blackness doesn’t live within a box. He is showing the multiplicity and variety of what Blackness can be that so often gets overlooked or questioned or challenged. It’s unapologetic. He was unapologetically dope and Black and that’s what made him beautiful.”
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on June 25, 2020
Photo of Boosie courtesy of Eric Boyd