Spoken-word artist Micah Bournes only released his third solo album Alive & Ill on June 25th because of a disease.
Bournes, a student at Moody Bible Institute, had mapped out his future in pen. After graduation, he would fight for international justice as a Peace Corps volunteer. But his health intruded.
“Whatever,” Bournes thought as he looked down at blood in the toilet. “I must have eaten something funny.”
What he perceived as one poorly prepared meal turned into a week’s worth. Using the toilet became synonymous with pain, but he remained confident that he could shake off whatever bug had bitten him. Besides, he had always been athletic.
Only after a month of suffering did the Los Angeles native fly home for a colonoscopy.
Doctors diagnosed him with ulcerative colitis—an incurable immune disease that, if untreated, causes internal bleeding in the large intestine. Bournes’ condition required advanced treatment and multiple surgeries, dashing his dreams and sending him back to the drawing board.
He rushed to pen a new game plan, graduate school. Oxford, NYU, Northwestern and more rejected his application, closing yet another door.
Ulcerative colitis limited Bournes’ future, but it forced him to live in the present. He stopped mapping out what he would do and just did what he could do.
“I realized that God is not going to be impressed with what I had on my life’s to-do list,” he said.
With nothing to lose, he finally gave spoken-word poetry a chance to be more than a hobby. After growing up immersed in hip-hop culture, Bournes had fallen in love with spoken word the summer before his junior year. The following semester, he religiously attended Chicago open mic nights. He became fascinated with the freedom secular venues offered in this setting to speak truth to an attentive audience.
“You stand outside passing out tracts and trying to tell people the gospel, nobody wants to hear it. They’ll take it and throw it in the trash,” said Bournes. “But you walk inside, write your name next to 30 other people and you don’t even have to fight for their attention. You just stand up in a room full of strangers and get to share whatever the heck you want for three minutes.”
He eventually began to impress listeners. Invites to other open mic events piled up.
When event planners searching for performers started to ask, “How much do you charge?” Bournes realized a spoken-word career could be a reality. Not only did he possess talent, but—no matter how ill he became—he could still sit at his home computer and write.
The summer before his senior year at Moody, Bournes had completed an internship at Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. He returned after graduation, and the church helped him record his first solo project, Falling in Love.
In 2010, Antioch Lead Pastor Ken Wytsma founded The Justice Conference, which Bournes naturally took interest in. He performed his piece “What Can I Do?” at the inaugural conference and, according to Wytsma, made more than a few fans.
“That particular year, [Bournes] was just completely unexpected by most people there and was so dynamic that everybody walked away and started giving him phone calls to perform at conferences, chapels, universities, church, etc.,” Wytsma told Rapzilla.
Following a performance at Antioch soon after, Bournes met World Relief President Stephen Bauman, who offered to partner with him. Bournes’ “sheer talent” not only wowed Bauman, but also his “insatiable thirst for justice, and extravagant passion for God.”
“We believe in spoken word not only as an art form, but as a voice for the vulnerable,” said Bauman. “Micah embodies that voice in so many ways.”
Bournes discovered this voice at his Antioch internship. He grew up in conservative Christianity which emphasized grace over works, so he perceived justice issues as “extra credit.” Wytsma’s teaching opened his eyes to the fact that it’s more than extra credit—it’s at the heart of God.
Bournes quoted Amos 2, where it reads one of God’s judgments of Israel is that it “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.” And James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
“Micah is passionate about theology and truth,” said Wytsma. “Micah’s also a minority who has lived a life where he’s witnessed and experienced certain types of injustices ... What you get from that is a really robust theology of justice, and a really profound ability to articulate what’s at the heart of justice, injustice, equality and love.”
The same passion for justice that originally sparked his interest in the Peace Corps is behind Bournes’ art. And behind his art, is ulcerative colitis.
“This thing that was such a burden and so frustrating led to me pursuing poetry,” said Bournes. “Had I not been sick, I would’ve never chased this passion.”
Ulcerative colitis’ influence on Bournes’ life, for better and for worse, inspired the concept of “Alive & Ill.” It also influenced one of his most popular poems, “I Am Not the Future.” The poem tells the story of his reaction to when an elderly gentleman called him “the future.” The following is an excerpt of the piece.
“I am not the future/I am not history/I exist in perpetual nowness/Rebuking the ghosts of old sins and future fears/I am nothing but here and now/And if I don’t like that me I must change here and now/And if I can’t change that me I must pray here and now…”
“’I Am Not the Future’ literally took my breath away,” said fellow Long Beach, Calif. spoken-word poet Propaganda of Humble Beast Records. “So eloquent and true.”
Propaganda cohosted the Poetry Slam at Justice Conference 2014 with Bournes.
“Micah is an incredible poet,” said Propaganda. “I would say he's a pure poet. Even more so than me.”
Not in the future, but today, Bournes plans on using spoken-word to advocate for international justice. His latest effort is Alive & Ill. He shared the concept of the project with Rapzilla.
“Life is not a series of ups and downs,” said Bournes. “I’ve found life to be perpetually both amazing and awful all at once. There’s always something to rejoice about and there’s always something to mourn … The album is about dealing with that tension: how do you exist and remain sane with so much evil and still so much beauty in the world?”
Over the past couple of years, Bournes has visited in India, Ghana, Rwanda, Jamaica and France. And everywhere, he’s seen this disparity.
While the coast of Jamaica is littered with beautiful, upscale resorts, the interior is impoverished. Bournes served at a tiny, rundown orphanage that housed 50 kids. The bathroom didn’t even work.
“You’ve got all these millions of dollars coming to this country every year,” said Bournes, “but none of it’s getting back to the people.”
Comparable contrasts aren’t unique to overseas. Bournes witnessed the same disparity in Chicago.
“Go to downtown Chicago and it’s gorgeous,” said Bournes, “but Southside is murder capital of U.S. It’s like a completely different world. I got jumped on a Sunday morning standing in front of a church … People in nicer parts of the city, they know you don’t go past a certain stop on the red line. You don’t go past White Sox Stadium if you’re taking a train. They call it Chiraq for a reason. [People] are dying left and right.”
Bournes will return to Chicago this July to perform at Legacy Conference. Whether it be there or elsewhere, Wytsma expects Bournes’ reach to continue to grow.
“[Bournes] is so good he never really misfires,” said Wytsma. “Everywhere he goes, it only grows his level of influence and exposure.”
Influence and exposure which would’ve never existed if Bournes wasn’t ill, as well as alive.
Alive & Ill can be purchased on iTunes.
David Daniels writes for Rapzilla.com and is also BleacherReport.com columnist. He graduated from Geneva College and lives in Pittsburgh. Follow David Daniels on Twitter