Finding Affinity: Sung

This month I want to do something a little different than my normal blog posts.  I recently spent five weeks in Vietnam and while in this drastically different culture, it made me think about how we relate to each other in Milwaukee.  Hear me out for a second.  At first, the country seemed so foreign that I could not relate at all, but after spending time there and getting to know the welcoming people, I started to realize that we have a lot in common.  Milwaukee sometimes struggles with this because as many of us know, it is a very segregated city.  This series called “Finding Affinity,” that I will occasionally post, is meant to help us find similarities in each other rather than differences.  If we can connect with one another, maybe we can make the world a more peaceful place.

 

Affinity:  /noun/

  1. a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something.
  2. a similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship, especially a resemblance in structure between animals, plants, or languages.

 

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“All of us, we’re not so different.”  Those were Sung’s words as she led me through the narrow paths of the rice fields near Sapa in Vietnam.  Sung was our tour guide, who proudly showed my friend and I around her village in the far north of the country.  We followed her for three days up and down steep dirt roads beneath banana leaves and foggy skies.  The only item she carried was her small, vibrant bag draped over her shoulder, made using of the colors of her village. Adversely, we were weighed down with our large backpacks hugging our waists, with the newest back-support technology.  It was a simpler way of life that she shared with us, but not necessarily an easier one.

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Sung is 38 years old, no taller than four and a half feet, with five children and a husband.  The family lives with her husband’s parents because that is the tradition in her culture.  While Sung works the rice fields and leads tours to support the family (as most of the women do), her husband’s parents take care of the children and the home.  Having her children in school, Sung explains to us, is more important than anything because she wants to give them the opportunities she never had.  And isn’t that what all parents want?  Her daughter recently taught her how to spell her own name because Sung never learned to read or write.  Yet, her spoken English is nearly perfect, thanks to the tourists she has talked with every day for the last 6 years.

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My friend and I shared long conversations with her, revealing pieces of each other’s lives for about 10 hours a day, and we slowly came to realize how similar we are, regardless of the cultural differences.  We are all searching for happiness and finding a balance in our lives.  Often all of us must compromise our hobbies and desires for our obligations.  The moment this all became obvious was when we took a break from hiking to swim in a peaceful river at the base of a waterfall.  As I was sitting on a rock drying off, I noticed Sung was perched atop the adjacent boulder with her long hair let out, deep in thought looking over the valley.  It was her bold independent gaze that I recognized in myself; a woman determined to achieve her goals, no matter the cost.

We often get caught up in the conveniences and privileges in our lives, but we too easily forget that we all want the same things: peace, freedom and happiness.  Sung opened my eyes to her way of life and made me realize how lucky I am, but the truth is that we all have challenges and we all have to find a way to make the most of what we’ve been given.  On our last day together, we walked up a dirt road with the occasional motorbike zooming by, to sit above what seemed like endless rice fields stretching below us.  I tried to imagine what life would be like if I called this home.  After sitting quietly next to Sung for a few minutes, I looked at her, and she looked back and smiled.

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Kavon Cortez-Jones

When you first meet Kavon Cortez-Jones, you will be inspired by his optimism and avidity for Milwaukee.  Also known as K.J., he is a poet, spoken word performer and to some, a mentor who is immersed in Milwaukee’s art community.  His dedication to writing is remarkable to say the least. “I don’t think I’ve missed a day of writing in the past 10 years,” says Kavon proudly before mentioning that he has filled 65 composition books.  But his words don’t stop at the end of those pages, rather he makes a point to influence and teach others what writing has taught him.  Through performances, collaboration with various art organizations, and the written words in his book Club Noir, Kavon is very much a part of the city’s pulse.

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Currently 23 years old, Kavon grew up in the Harambee neighborhood of Milwaukee. Everything changed for him when Kwabena Antoine Nixon and Muhibb Dyer came to his elementary school to perform poetry for the students, as part of their “I Will Not Die Young” campaign.  “They wowed me with their performance and that was the spark,” explains Kavon. Ever since that day, he was inspired to write and become a poet but did not know what to write about until he met Paul Moga, an educator at Riverside High School who opened up new possibilities for him.  That’s when Kavon discovered performance and slam poetry, focusing his efforts on that medium.  K.J.’s early life in Harambee was challenging but writing carried him through and allowed him to express himself in the only way he knew how.  Now he tries to share his love for writing with others in the community.

After high school, Kavon started performing his poetry at open mics around the city such as Linneman’s and Miramar Theater, and now runs an open mic called “Express Yourself Milwaukee,” which happens on the second Friday of the month at 1300 West Fond du Lac Avenue in collaboration with the Express Yourself Milwaukee youth organization.  After gaining recognition, he began receiving commissions to perform at places like the Kimpton Hotel and to run poetry workshops for students at Whitefish Bay Middle School and Riverside High School.  “It’s beneficial for folks in Milwaukee to learn poetry because it’s so subjective. All you need is a notebook and a pen, and you can just create your life all over again. You can tell your story,” states Kavon.  He is also an intern at TRUE Skool, an organization where youth come to express themselves through hip-hop and the creative arts as a means to educate themselves in social justice leadership and entrepreneurship.  When Kavon teaches workshops, he has the kids “splash the page” or simply write down whatever is in their minds for 15 minutes, helping them to understand the self-discipline of writing.

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Kavon’s proudest achievement is his book Club Noir which showcases his writings from ages 18 to 22 and acts as his “coming of age story,” as he puts it. “I realized that poems kind of spilled out of me cuz I started writing about what I wanted to write about… That book is a dream come true.” As explained in the book’s introduction, Club Noir is Kavon’s imaginary utopia; a cafe by day and club by night, located on Doctor M.L.K. Drive that welcomes all people, specifically catering to the black community and is a safe haven in the midst of our complicated world. “Every city civilian from oldies, youngins to passionate visual artists and writers garrulously make the place come to life,” writes Kavon in his vibrant introduction.  Dive into his book to feel the essence of Milwaukee and the nostalgia of his youth.

If you want to have a genuine, engaging conversation, reach out to Kavon on Facebook (search Kavon Cortez-Jones) and he will most likely offer to meet you at one of the many coffee shops around the city where he finds his muse.  Listen to Kavon perform two of his poems by clicking the audio links below.  The first is called “Paris of the Midwest,” written when he was 18 years old and is featured in his book Club Noir.  The second poem is called “A Love Letter to Milwaukee,” written in 2017 at the age of 23.

“Paris of the Midwest”

“A Love Letter to Milwaukee”