“If Rakim and Nikki Giovanni did the nasty /they would have had me,” begins Keisha Plum, in her appearance on FLYGOD, the 2016 album from rapper Westside Gunn of the rap collective Griselda. Plum, a spoken-word artist with a penchant for recycled soul and grainy drum breaks, concisely traces her artistic lineage: a connection between ’90s New York hip-hop and the postwar poetry of Giovanni, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and Gil Scott-Heron.
Griselda – featuring rappers Gunn, his brother Conway, their cousin Benny The Butcher and producer Daringer – make gruff, grizzly street rap. Plum appears on a number of their projects, including the 2019 album WWCD, a belated breakthrough that’s won them co-signs from the likes of Drake, Tyler, the Creator and Virgil Abloh. Plum’s smooth delivery on the album feels like a palate-cleanser among the rapper’s testosterone-fuelled raps, even if, lyrically, she relishes Grisleda’s trademark grittiness. “The Butcher, Machine, Gunn, and Plum /Filthiness riddled all in your eardrum,” she proudly declares.
In 2020, as many of today’s rap stars deliver their radio-ready, AutoTune-smothered toplines over skittering trap rhythms, there’s an argument that hip-hop’s heritage in the African American poetic and oral tradition is becoming obscured. Old school legends like Chuck D and Kool G Rap would be quick to credit post-Black Arts Movement poets like Nuriddin and Scott-Heron for their influence on the development of rapping, and Plum was exposed to these original links from a young age. Growing up in Griselda’s hometown Buffalo, New York – a bitterly cold industrial town near the US-Canadian border – Plum took refuge in the city’s African American Cultural Center. “[the Center] was very instrumental in my upbringing,” she tells The Face over the phone from Atlanta, where she’s lived since 2008.
“It was a place where I could really escape. I learned a lot about theatre and writing there, and it was just a very beautiful experience for me. I learned a lot about my culture, about Black poets and Black authors that I would not have otherwise been exposed to.” Plum’s interest in poetry began with her mother, who introduced her to Langston Hughes and gave her lessons after school. “She always had me reading,” Plum says. “It was kind of a chore at first. But then I would just find myself writing small stuff, never with the intention of ‘Oh, I’m going to write a poem.’”
Nikki Giovanni, in particular, left a lasting impression on Plum. The esteemed poet, one of the best-known writers associated with The Black Arts movement, wrote poetry with attitude, grit, and a kind of streetwise authenticity. “She revolutionised poetry, in my opinion, as far as urban writers go,” Plum says. “She was writing from this point of view that was genuinely badass… she had this swag about her. She was talking shit, basically. I’ve kind of mirrored that.”
When Plum was in middle school, her interest in poetry deepened – she had found a comforting means of self-expression. “When I was about 12, [my brother] was away in the military,” she recalls. “He would write me a lot of poetry, and I would write him a lot of poetry – that was just our connection.” At the same time, she received her first exposure to hip-hop: an early fondness for Salt N’ Pepa’s 1993 album Very Necessary led to countless evenings spent dubbing songs from the radio onto cassettes, and eventually, when she was in middle school, to Nas’s benchmark album Illmatic.
His style, as much as his cadences, wordplay and subject matter, has strongly influenced Plum’s poetry. “I liked his voice, I liked the way he looked, [my siblings and I] would watch the videos, and it was like, ‘Aw, man, this is so dope’,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I started to really listen and study music more that I realised, ‘Oh, he’s spitting some shit.’ Music always helped to influence my writing.”
Growing up in Buffalo, Plum and Westside Gunn first ran together as schoolmates. Though Plum can recall Gunn’s outsized personality, and penchant for flashing big gold chains, rare sneakers and designer clothes even at that age, she says their relationship truly solidified when they reconnected in Atlanta years later. After a few tumultuous years in and out of college, Plum moved to the ATL in search of a restart. She worked a few small jobs, eventually settling on a retail gig, selling shoes at a department store. She had seen Gunn around the city, until a brush with the law had saddled him with a two-year prison sentence. One day, the newly-free Gunn wandered into her store.
At the time, Gunn was trying to help Conway get signed. But in March 2012, their plans shattered, when Conway became the victim of a near-fatal shooting. A bullet struck the back of his head, lodging itself in his shoulder. After weeks in the hospital, Conway was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy – half of his face had been permanently paralysed. Gunn and Conway knew they had to leave behind their present life and focus on music if they were to keep safe. Though Gunn had been rapping with his brother since they were kids, it was that summer that he would finally focus his efforts on creating a debut project, the first of his seven-volume Hitler Wears Hermes series.
Plum had been developing her spoken-word style, recording poems over beats with various rapper friends. She showed Gunn some of her early work and he wanted her on his record. But there was a catch – he would write her poem for her. With the balance between Gunn’s snarling cadences and Plum’s cool, clear-eyed delivery, the pair had struck gold. Plum has since contributed (self-written) poetry to all six subsequent Hitler Wears Hermes instalments, as well as both Westside Gunn albums – 2016’s Flygod and 2018’s Supreme Blientele – and the WWCD album.
Plum’s just finished writing and recording her first solo album, made in collaboration with the Griselda camp. “The process has been amazing,” she says. Each member of the collective has contributed to maintain that raw Griselda feel. The group’s classic street rap formula has attracted the kind of hip-hop purists who position them as a kind of anti-mumble rap act, prodigal sons of hip hop’s last great era. But Keisha Plum rejects the notion that Griselda is some kind of answer to any specific shortcoming in the current hip-hop scene. “Griselda is an experience, first of all,” she says. “It can’t be categorised into anything. I love trap music. Being here [in Atlanta], it’s influential. You go to the clubs, you’re gonna hear it… You want to have a diverse ear in music – it’s like having a diverse palate when you go try different foods. Trap is part of the culture, but Griselda is [a] part of the culture that’s been missing. It’s like, we’ve had our chicken, our steak, our salmon and red snapper, now we’re getting to the lobster,” she laughs.
Having cemented her position within the collective for years, Plum hopes to solidify her own stature as both a writer and a musical artist. She’s currently finishing her first poetry book, a currently untitled work that will contain 30 original poems, along with art and photography selected by her and Griselda manager D. Jack. She’ll also be involved in this year’s instalment of Westside Gunn Day, an annual charity event Gunn throws every year in Buffalo.
Though she can’t yet confirm the details, Plum wants to return to the African American Cultural Center to teach a workshop, and perhaps help kids there find the deep inspiration she found learning about African American literature there when she was young. “It was just really important to me to see writers from my culture, and be like, ‘Wow, these people have really beautiful minds.’ That is how I want to be seen one day, 10 – 15 years from now – as a beautiful writer.”