Daniel Gray-Kontar has journeyed a long way since Run-D.M.C. released a cassette loaded with “It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.’s” in 1983 – and blew his mind.
Today, Gray-Kontar is an award-winning poet, rapper, educator, journalist and mentor who recently launched Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator in North Collinwood.
But back in 1983, he was a young man whose mind was just opened by the use of rhythm and rhyme to create – and convey – cultural meaning. As a writer in training, Gray-Kontar suddenly saw a way to connect his passion for hip-hop in a new way – a way that fused the performance of break dancing with harmony, with song, with cultural expression, with the very creation of reality. All thanks to Run-D.M.C.
That revelation led Gray-Kontar on an award-winning path of performance poetry. His craft was honed by his experience as a young rapper and MC. He rose meteorically along with Ray McNiece, Tia Hodges and Kwanza Brewer to win the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, North Carolina in 1994.
Poetry remained at the core of his being, but Gray-Kontar ventured further into the world of writing professionally. Before he knew it, he ended up a journalist writing for publications like Cleveland Life and Catalyst Cleveland before landing a position at the Cleveland Free Times in 1997.
As then-editor of the Free Times, North Collinwood’s own Cindy Barber gave him his first shot.
Gray-Kontar credits that moment with the start of his career as a journalist – a career that spanned well into the mid-2000s with pieces published in national print outlets from coast to coast.
Around that time, he decided to cut his ties with professional journalism. As a journalist, he found himself composing investigative, gut wrenching tales of injustice across the country. Yet too often, these stories would come out and lead to absolutely no dialogue.
He felt the adults reading his pieces would realize how horrible the state of world – or even local – affairs were, then go right back to their lives.
But youth reacted differently. They immediately started thinking about how to create change. They thought about how to make life more just and equitable. Gray-Kontar suddenly realized his calling all along: not solely as an artist, but as a teacher.
In 2008 he headed from his homeland of Cleveland toward the allure of the West Coast and graduate study in teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. He believes that to be the most prolific time in his life as both an artist and a student; for years he focused solely on learning and creating music every day.
When his fellowship at the university ended, it was time to return home.
For a decade now – the last several years back home working at Cleveland School of the Arts – Gray-Kontar has taught the new generations around him. He brings his passions to the classroom and teaches that which he loves: literary arts and creative writing.
At his new creative headquarters in North Collinwood – known as Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator (321 E. 156th Street, directly next to Northeast Shores Development Corporation) – Gray-Kontar will have a space for all artists to come together and learn regardless of age. Members of Twelve will have access to the space to develop ideas intimately with small groups of peers, as well as physical performance space for the final pieces. Community members will have access to these events at very low cost, and even membership at Twelve will be intentionally affordable.
For Daniel Gray-Kontar, it’s most important that a community has space to come together and create meaning through art. He intends to do just that in North Collinwood.
Visit Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator on Facebook for more information about membership and upcoming events.