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CD by deaf poet, friends is multicultural marvel

By Steve Morse
The Boston Globe

Ayisha Knight is unstoppable, but nothing has come easy. By the time she was a teen, she had already faced a lifetime of adversity that might have paralyzed a lesser soul. She was born deaf. She was the confused daughter of a white Jewish mother and a half-black, half-Cherokee father who left them. She was raped by a family friend at age 13. And she experienced enough racism and alienation to keep her locked in a shell.

Through the arts -- poetry and photography -- she eventually found her way out. Now she reveals bold details of her journey in a CD she can't hear, one that is believed to be the first musical album structured around the verse of a deaf poet. Her friends in the Boston arts community recited her verse and added music -- mostly hip-hop beats and other contemporary textures -- to this powerful testimony. The disc was produced last year, but there was no official release, and only now are people beginning to take notice.

"Some people said I was crazy to [encourage] this, but I just trusted the people around me," Knight, 33, notes through her sign-language interpreter, Diane McKeon.

Knight is a short, vibrant woman whose eyes dart behind wire-rim glasses. She answers questions so expressively through her signing that you can see the charisma that rallies everyone around her.

"I just wake up full of ideas, and I can't wait to write them down," says Knight. "Being deaf, I see the world through a different pair of eyes."

Her stunning CD, Until, is also a multicultural marvel, for it features the spoken-word (and occasional singing) voices of a variety of poets of mixed descent, along with the music of Francis Phan, a Vietnamese-American who composed it. And the CD has been co-released by two new multicultural labels -- Phanai Records and Empowerment Records.

"It's a huge leap of faith for Ayisha to let us do this," says Phan, who is also a computer programmer and designer of Knight's Web site, . "But she would challenge me as I did it. Someone would tell her that the vocals could be more prominent here or there, and she would ask me about it. "

The original idea for the CD came in a brainstorming session with two poet friends of Knight, Toni Asante Lightfoot and Oz Okoawo, together with Phan.

The aim was not just to make music, but to spread the tale of Knight's survival. A Manhattan native who also lived in Berkeley, Calif. (where she was raped in a basement), Knight, with the help of a deaf therapist, was able to cope with her emotional wounds and attend Galludet University, the national university of the deaf in Washington, D.C. That's where Knight first began presenting her poems in sign-language performances at a coffeehouse 10 years ago.

Knight moved to Boston in 1998. She performed at area poetry readings, using sign language while another poet read her work and gave her visual cues.

Knight's CD is basically divided into three chronological sections, starting when she was a confused teen on Vocal Conundrums and Ebony. That leads to later poems in which she is able to open up and share her pain. The last section is all about empowerment.

Knight hopes to launch a national performing tour and envisions the album playing behind her as she performs a sign-language interpretation. An aide would cue her timing.

Knight also wants to make a videotape in different languages of the poems on the CD, as well as a dance production based on the music.



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