About Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in working class neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. He attended Buffalo public schools, and from 1956 to 1959 was enrolled at the University of Buffalo, which awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1995. In 1998 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Johnson C. Smith University at Charlotte, North Carolina. For over thirty years, he taught creative writing courses in the English Department at the University of California, at Berkeley, retiring as of January, 2005. Currently Visiting Scholar at California College of the Arts, teaching poetry writing in their graduate program during the Spring semester, during the 2005 Spring semester, he was a Visiting Artist/Scholar at San Jose State University, holding the Lurie Chair in Creative Writing. He has also taught at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of the Antilles in Martinique, among other appointments.  In 1989 he received a University of California Humanities Fellowship to complete his novel, Japanese By Spring, and received two fellowships from the African Studies Center to continue his studies of the Yoruba language. In 1991, he received an American Cultures Fellowship from U.C., Berkeley to produce an original television drama.

Author of twenty-nine published books to date, Ishmael Reed is a novelist, poet, playwright, lyricist and essayist. He has been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, has been a Pulitzer finalist, and he has been nominated twice for the National Book Award. He is also a publisher, editor of thirteen anthologies and numerous magazines, television producer, public media commentator, teacher and lecturer. His tenth novel, Juice!, published by Dalkey Archive Press in April, 2011, includes over twenty of his cartoons. SF JAZZ, the leading nonprofit jazz organization on the West Coast, recently reappointed Ishmael Reed as the first SFJAZZ Poet Laureate, and his poem, “When I Die I Will Go to Jazz,” is  installed on the Linden Street north gate of their new SF Jazz Center, which celebrated its official opening in January 2013. LitQuake, the yearly San Francisco Literary Festival, honored Ishmael Reed with their 2011 Barbary Coast Award. His online literary magazine, Konch, featuring poetry, essays and fiction, can be found at www.ishmaelreedpub.com. His San Francisco Chronicle blog is located at www.sfgate.com.

Reed’s tenth essay collection, Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown was published in 2012 by Canada’s Baraka Press, which also published his ninth essay collection, Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, Or The Return of the “Nigger Breakers” in 2010. His 2009 publications include Ishmael Reed, the plays, a collection of his six plays (Dalkey Archive Press), and Powwow, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience: Short Fiction From Then to Now (Da Capo Press), an anthology edited by Reed with Carla Blank. The 2013 New American Library's latest Signet Classic edition of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn features an Afterword by Ishmael Reed. Forthcoming from Baraka Books in 2015 is The Complete Muhammad Ali. Reed is currently at work on The Terrible Fours, a continuation of his "Terrible" novel series.

In 2012, “A Sampler of the Theater of Ishmael Reed,” was performed at the San Francisco and Oakland campuses of California College of the Arts, directed by Carla Blank. These performances were inspired by the New York retrospective, in November 2010 at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, of excerpts from Ishmael Reed's plays, directed by Rome Neal. Backstage called Reed’s two act drama “Body Parts” “genius” when it premiered at the Nuyorican as a revised version of “Tough Love,” which premiered at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater. His video projects include a soap opera, “Personal Problems,” directed by Bill Gunn;” A Word In Edgewise,” a conversation with writer, Al Young; “The Only Language She Knows,” a collaboration with writer/actor Genny Lim; and “Savage Wilds,” a play by Reed originally mounted in an Oakland production at Ed Bullins’ BMT theater, directed by Vern Henderson and later produced by Miguel Algarin and directed by Rome Neal at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Four other Reed plays, including “Hubba City,” “The Preacher and the Rapper,” “C Above C Above High C,” and a musical version of “Mother Hubbard” have also received productions at the Nuyorican, under Rome Neal’s direction. A “gospera,” “Gethsemane Park,” with libretto by Reed and music composed by Carman Moore, was premiered April 1, 1998 at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater, and restaged in April, 1999 by San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, under the direction of the late Stanley Williams, and in July, 2000 at the Nuyorican Poets Café, with Rome Neal directing. Besides the new Dalkey Archive collection, 3 Reed plays appear in ACTION, Plays from the Nuyorican Theater Festival. In December 2013 Ishmael Reed premiered his seventh play, "The Final Version", at the Nuyorican Poets Café. 

Ishmael Reed’s texts and lyrics have been performed, composed or set to music by Albert Ayler, David Murray, Allan Touissant, Carman Moore, Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Ravi Coltrane, Leo Nocentelli, Eddie Harris, Billy Bang, Bobby Womack, Milton Cardonna, Omar Sosa, Jack Bruce, Little Jimmy Scott, Robert Jason, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Cassandra Wilson, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and others. In 2008, he was honored as Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Awards. He has been the central participant in the longest ongoing music/poetry collaboration, known as Conjure projects, produced by Kip Hanrahan on American Clavé: “Conjure I” (1984) and “Conjure II” (1988), which were reissued by Rounder Records in 1995; and “Conjure Bad Mouth” (2005), whose compositions were developed in live Conjure band performances, from 2003 to 2004, including engagements at Paris’ Banlieues Bleues, London’s Barbican, and the Blue Note Café in Tokyo. The Village Voice ranked the most recent Conjure CD one of four best spoken word albums released in 2006. During Esprits D’Afrique, a Paris festival presented by 3D Family and the Dapper Museum in April 2002, Reed debuted as a composer, when David Murray performed his composition,” 9/11.” “Sacred Ground,” a 2007 independent film with a score by David Murray, includes Reed’s lyrics for the title track and “Prophet of Doom,” with vocals by Cassandra Wilson, and was selected for Sundance Film Festival and PBS television station airings. Two of the film’s pieces were first performed by Ishmael Reed on his privately produced CD, For All We Know (2007), along with nine jazz standards and one other original collaboration with David Murray, who appears as guest artist in the Ishmael Reed Quintet, which includes Reed on piano, Roger Glenn on flute, Chris Planas on guitar, and Carla Blank on violin. A David Murray CD released in 2009, “The Devil Tried to Kill Me,” includes two songs with lyrics by Reed: “Afrika,” sung by Taj Mahal, and the title song performed by San Francisco based rapper, Sista Kee. On September 11, 2011 at a Jazz à la Villette concert at the Grande Halle in Paris, the Red Bull Music Academy World Tour featured Macy Gray, Tony Allen, members of the Roots, David Murray and his Big Band, Amp Fiddler and Fela! singer/dancers in premieres of 3 new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed. David Murray’s newest album, Be My Monster Love (2013), features Macy Gray and Gregory Porter on 3 additional new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed: “Army of the Faithful,”  “‘Hope is a Thing with Feathers,’” and the title track, “Be My Monster Love.” Yosvany Terry's latest CD New Throned Kings (SPassion 2014) includes lyrics by Ishmael Reed on "Mase Nadodo." 

Reed’s novels, poetry and essays have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Hungarian, Dutch, and Czech. His poems, articles and book reviews have appeared in The Yale Review, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Amsterdam News, the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Life, Spin, Connoisseur, Scholastic Magazine, Le Monde, The Japan Times Weekly, The Village Voice, Artbyte, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, Time, Playboy, Black Renaissance Noire, Amerikastudien (American Studies), and online at Salon, Slate, Truthdig and Counter Punch besides many other print and online news media and scholarly sources in the U.S. and abroad.

Since the early 1970s, Ishmael Reed has championed the work of other writers, founding and serving as editor and publisher of various small presses and journals. His current publishing imprint, Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, published two anthologies of Nigerian writing: 25 New Nigerian Poets (2000) edited by Toyin Adewale, and Short Stories by 16 Nigerian Women (2005) edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, which are to be published in Arabic in 2012, by The National Center for Translation in Egypt. Other titles include Black Girl from Tannery Flats (2003), the memoirs of his mother, Thelma V. Reed; New and Collected Poems by Kathryn Takara (2003); Un Poco Low Coup by Amiri Baraka (2004); poetry collections from four women poets based in northern California: Under Burning White Sky by Boadiba (2005), Swallowing Watermelons by Karla Brundage (2006), City Beautiful by Tennessee Reed (2006), and After Altamira by Neli Moody (2006); and Maggie 3, a novel by Alison Mills Newman (2007). In 2011 the press published New and Selected Yuri, a collection of poetry and fiction by Japan based writer Yuri Kageyama, and in 2013 published Paper Gods and Rebels, a new collection of poetry by San Francisco based writer Genny Lim. Forthcoming in 2014 are two anthologies of Kenyan poetry and fiction, and Courtesans of Flounder Hill, the first published collection of poetry by Alaska-based Tlingit/Iñupiaq poet Ishmael Hope.

Ishmael Reed is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation. The American Book Awards, sponsored by the foundation since 1980, has been called The American League to the National Book Awards’ National League. He also founded PEN Oakland which issues the Josephine Miles literary awards. PEN Oakland has been called “The Blue Collar Pen.” Currently he also serves on the boards of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Berkeley Black Repertory Group and was formerly on the board of the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where he conducted a master’s residency in writing during summer, 2002, and debuted as a jazz pianist on their INside/OUT performance, collaborating with Carla Blank on violin and choreographer/ dancer Doug Elkins. He is also a fellow of Harvard’s Signet Society and Yale’s Calhoun House.