By Verbal Adam | OBSERVER Correspondent
You can see live poetry on the first Thursday of every month at the Guild Theater in Oak Park.
For the last 20 years Jeff Nash and Cornel West — both nephews of presidential candidate Dr. Cornel West, the latter being his namesake — have been organizing PoHop sessions in Sacramento.
On Friday, September 1, Dr. Cornel West himself, also a poet and author, will be headlining a special PoHop at the Guild Theater.
Jeff Nash — whose stage name is J. Nash — is of Black and Portuguese descent, and though his heritage stretches from Arkansas to Cape Verde he was born and raised in Sacramento.
His grandparents and their 13 children were the first in his family to move to Sacramento. His mother worked at and retired from the Blue Diamond factory before becoming a nurse. His father was a longshoreman and construction worker. After his parents split, Nash took on more responsibilities at home.
While his mother worked long hours he would look after and care for his younger sister. “That’s where I kind of got my skills at being a nurturing father — I had to raise my sister, basically, so I just couldn’t get up and go,” Nash explained. “I had no free time to do anything, especially not running around in the streets. When free time becomes more available, that’s when you kind of start finding trouble. And I wasn’t looking for trouble. I wasn’t a troublemaker whatsoever. I wasn’t a bully or whatever, but I could protect myself.”
He credits the structure of his life as one of the reasons he didn’t get caught up in gangs and violence. Taking care of his sister, his academics, and playing sports didn’t leave him with much time to get in with the wrong people.
In 1987 he began attending Valley High School in south Sacramento. He quickly became a celebrated quarterback achieving over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards. The support from men like his father, uncles and coaches helped him process the time he was growing up in.
By the mid 1980s, the crack epidemic had devastated many Black communities, gang violence was on a meteoric rise, and opportunities for young Black men seemed sparse. “My two areas where I lived at the majority of the time were claimed by the Bloods and Crips. So just walking out the front yard to go to the store, you know, if I got the wrong stuff [colors] on, somebody would say something. So when I was in high school, I never really went outside. I had school, football practice and I came right home,” Nash told the OBSERVER.
His cousin Cornel, who goes by “Corn” or C. West, also had a structured upbringing. Attending Catholic school from K-12 and also having a decorated sports career at Christian Brothers High School, religion and faith became large parts of his life.
After graduating from Christian Brothers he attended University of Nevada, Reno on a football scholarship and later played professionally for the Reno Bearcats before returning to Sacramento.
The father of two credits the church and community for shaping him into the man he is.
“To see organization and service, and to see it from your own people lets you know that there is hope out there,” West said. “Whenever I would go to my dad’s church, Shiloh Baptist Church, that’s where I would see a whole lot of just Black people power and Black people doing things for the community.”
The Black Panthers, who had a strong presence in Sacramento, helped shape West’s mindset.
“It wasn’t necessarily the members of the Panthers, but their ideologies and the way that they presented themselves and things that they wanted for the people,” he said. “It’s always about breaking bread, making sure everybody has enough food and nourishment, things of that nature. So it’s been huge because we still do that today. I mean, poetry is what we feel is food for the people.”
Poetry Helping Other People is the meaning behind the name PoHop. The stage is open to musicians and artists, as well as an open mic segment for those inspired to participate. After pausing the events during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nash and West are back with a vengeance, expanding PoHop from a poetry session to a community writing and training program.
“I just knew it was something that was needed. We felt like it was a service that we needed to get back to and we wanted to do it and at least have something to give people, basically just trying to let people know that through spoken word there is a way to keep the torch lit,” West said. “I think poetry is so vast with understanding because it doesn’t just take on one meaning, it takes on the view of whoever’s interpreted it. And when I read it one day and then I say it again another day, it takes its own personality.”
Dr. West will be live at the Guild Theater Friday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. The Guild Theater is located at 2828 35th Street in Oak Park. Normally, PoHop is held on the first Thursday of every month.