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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. The University of California at Berkeley’s Distinguished Emeritus of the Year Awardee for 2020, for over thirty years he taught creative writing courses in Berkeley's English Department, retiring as of January, 2005. Now a Distinguished Professor at California College of the Arts, where he teaches creative writing, he also taught a Spring 2019 poetry writing class at UC Berkeley. During the 2005 Spring semester, he was a Visiting Artist/Scholar at San Jose State University, holding the Lurie Chair in Creative Writing. In addition, he has taught at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of the Antilles in Martinique, among other appointments.

Author of more than thirty published books to date, Ishmael Reed is a novelist, poet, playwright, lyricist and essayist. Reed’s most recent novel, The Terrible Fours, was published in June, 2021 by Baraka Books of Montreal. His new poetry collection, Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues, Poems 2007-2019, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in November 2020; it includes his poem, “Just Rollin’ Along,” about the 1934 encounter between Bonnie and Clyde and Oakland Blues artist L.C. Good Rockin’ Robinson, which is included in The Best American Poetry, 2019. His most recent book of essays, Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico, was published in Fall, 2019 by Baraka Books of Montreal, who published his non-fiction work The Complete Muhammad Ali in 2015. In 2020, Audible Books of Amazon released his first work written expressly for audio format, titled Malcolm and Me. Reed also is the text's narrator. Audible released his second audio work, a short story titled The Fool Who Thought Too Much, in November 2020.

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. Reed’s most recent honors include the 2018 Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History Award and the 2017 AUDELCO Pioneer Award for the Theater.  LitQuake, the yearly San Francisco Literary Festival, honored Ishmael Reed with their 2011 Barbary Coast AwardFrom 2012-2016, Reed served as the first poet laureate of SF JAZZ, the leading nonprofit jazz organization on the West Coast. His poem, “When I Die I Will Go to Jazz,” is installed on the Linden Street north gate of their SF Jazz Center, which celebrated its official opening in January 2013. His online literary magazine, Konch, featuring poetry, essays and fiction, can be found at

Reed is also a publisher, editor of fifteen anthologies and numerous magazines, television producer, public media commentator, teacher and lecturer. A new anthology, Bigotry on Broadway, edited with Carla Blank, will be published by Baraka Books in 2021. The most recently published anthology he edited is Black Hollywood Unchained (Third World Press, 2015). Both anthologies include introductions by Reed. His eleventh novel, Conjugating Hindi, and tenth novel, Juice!, both published by Dalkey Archive Press, includes his cartoons as cover art and within the text. 

Reed's tenth essay collection, Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown was published in 2012 by Baraka Books, 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 six of his 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. He is currently developing his new play, "The Slave Who Loved Caviar," for an Off-Broadway production to premiere at Theater for the New City on December 23, 2021.

Archway Editions published Reed’s ninth play, "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda," in 2020, which premiered at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in 2019. In June 2018, he premiered his eighth play, "Life Among the Aryans," at the Nuyorican. His seventh play, “The Final Version,” also premiered at the Nuyorican, in 2013. Both plays will be published by Archway Editions, powerHouse Cultural Entertainment, Inc., in 2021 and 2022, respectively. 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.  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. His video projects include a meta-soap opera, “Personal Problems,” directed by Bill Gunn, which was recently restored and digitalized by Kino Lorber; "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.

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 premiered of 3 new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed. David Murray’s 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."  Blues for Memo (Double Moon Records, 2016) includes Reed's poem "Red Summer," set to music by David Murray and sung by Pervis Evans. Reed’s piano playing was cited by Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue as he accompanied a 2019 fashion show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, featuring the work of designer Grace Wales Bonner.

Simultaneously to Reed receiving the first Alberto Dubito International award in 2016, essays by Italian scholars and translations of Reed's poetry were published in il grande incantatore per Ishmael Reed, edited by Giorgio Rimondi (Agenzia X, 2016) who also co-edited the event's papers, with Nicola Paladin in una bussola per l'infosfera, con Ishmael Reed tra musica e letteratura (Agenzia X, 2017). Reed’s novels, poetry and essays have also been translated into French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Hungarian, Dutch, and Czech. His poems, articles, interviews 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, Haaretz, The Village Voice, Artbyte, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Time, Haaretz, El Pais, 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 were 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 short fiction by Japan based writer Yuri Kageyama; in 2013, Paper Gods and Rebels, a collection of poetry by San Francisco based writer Genny Lim; and in 2015, Courtesans of Flounder Hill, the first published collection of poetry by Alaska-based Tlingit/Iñupiaq poet Ishmael Hope, followed by his second poetry collection, Rock Piles Along the Eddy, in 2017. The press’s most recent release, in 2018, is a formerly unpublished novel, King Comus, by the late William Demby.

Ishmael Reed is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which celebrated their 44th anniversary with virtual presentations of the 2020 American Book Awards in October, hosted by the San Francisco Public Library. Sponsored by the foundation since 1980, its American Book Awards have 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 board of 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.