Twin Poets give voice to social justice

The Twin Poets, Al Mills, left, and Nnamdi Chukwuocha will be the featured performers along with other spoken word and musical artists at the Citywide Black History Month Kickoff Program that will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Education and Humanities Theatre on the campus of Delaware State University. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Once one understands the vocations and livelihood passions of The Twin Poets, the sources of their spoken word creations are no mystery.

On stage, the identical twin duo of Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha use the power of poetry and spoken word to fixate their listening audience on the challenges facing urban America — and most particular in their Wilmington-area communities — the trials of incomplete single-parent families, and the importance of education and the failure of schools to deliver the substance of knowledge to all of their young pupils.

The Twin Poets will be the featured performers along with other spoken word and musical artists at the Citywide Black History Month Kickoff Program that will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Education and Humanities Theatre on the campus of Delaware State University.

The event is free and open to the public.

At the age of 48, the twin brothers have been performing as a spoken word duo since their youth. Over the years, they have become so renowned in the First State and beyond, that in 2015, then-Gov. Jack Markell named the Twin Poets the 17th poet laureate of the state of Delaware.

“You have got something to say that I think people need to hear,” Gov. Markell said at that time. “People from all walks of life, who may not have ever come together otherwise, are going to hear this message.”

Mr. Mills and Mr. Chukwuocha have never been in want for material in their lifelong creation of spoken word arts.

As both brothers each have their own stable families, they continue to live in a city that struggles with the issues with drugs, gun violence, poverty and underachievement in schools.

Family values

The twin siblings credit their family environment as the predominant factor in their development as artists as well as socially conscious and active men.

“My mother was a writer, our father wrote, we had an uncle who was a poet, so we grew up in a household with the arts,” said Mr. Mills.

The sons of Mary Jones and the late William “Hicks” Anderson raised in a home that put them on a more constructive path from many of their peers. Mr. Mills noted that the books they were exposed to in their home and their family’s encouragement of their art form were life game-changers.

The Twin Poets, seen here in 2017, when they performed at the Sankofa Cultural Arts Center in Dover, both served stints in the U.S. Army and enrolled at Delaware State University in the 1990s. (Submitted photo)

“(Many of our friends) didn’t have books in their homes. We had Langston Hughes in our home, we were reading Malcolm X and other books,” Mr. Mills said.

“That is what led us on a different path. That knowledge, that art was there, and once we started reading and doing poetry, that separated us from our friends.”

That influence carried over into their public schooling.

“We were competent students because of art,” Mr. Mills said. “When teachers us asked to write, we could write something with ease; when asked to read, we could read with confidence, whereas some other students were afraid and bashful and didn’t want to read out loud.”

Their late father “Hicks” Anderson was a legendary Wilmington grass-roots civil rights advocate for the poor, disadvantaged children and their families, housing and education from the late 1960s until his passing in 1990. He was a driving force, getting Title I education funding to Wilmington and was an instrumental leader in the establishment of a Title I national steering committee.

The apple — or in this case, twin apples — doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Community service

Both would strongly plant themselves as their father’s sons during their teen years. As early as age 12, they began working in summer camps and then landed a job as youth workers at the Walnut Street YMCA in Wilmington.

“We have been working with youths and families ever since,” Mr. Chukwuocha said.

After both serving stints in the U.S. Army, the twins enrolled at Delaware State University in the 1990s. While Mr. Mills left after one year and transferred to Savannah State University, Mr. Chukwuocha remained at DSU, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in Kiswahili; he then returned to his alma mater to earn a Master of Social Work degree.

Mr. Mills earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work in 1999 and 2005, respectively.

Along the way, the brothers began working at the Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington, where their father had once served as a director.

“We worked our way up the ranks, and I ended up being the associate director, and when I left.. Al was the director of the juvenile probation program there,” Mr. Chukwuocha said.

“Every summer (at Kingswood) from 1994 to 2012 we ran an African Summer Camp. We infused the arts, cultural values, brought in poets and dancers to perform and do workshops, and ended the camp with a big showcase.”

Both brothers eventually became school- and community-based social workers, usually contracted by nonprofit agencies.

“With my passion in connection with the juvenile justice system, I run a truancy prevention program,” Mr. Mills said.

“We work with kids as therapists who are involved with truancy court. We go over to the house to try and figure out what is the problem, and we try to get this kid back in school.”

Mr. Chukwuocha said their social work vocation exposes them to a lot of needs in the community.

“There is a lot of trauma. Many of our families are broken, and that brokenness manifests itself in many ways,” Mr. Chukwuocha said. “There’s been outright failures in a lot of ways by government to address our issues in education, health care, housing, employment and many others.”

Part of the solution

Not satisfied with simply identifying government as part of the problem, Mr. Chukwuocha decided to strive to become a part of the solution through elected public service. He was elected to the Wilmington City Council in 2012 and served until the end of 2018 when Wilmington’s District 1 elected him to the state House of Representatives.

“The highest level of social work is advocating for and creating policies that impact the clients we serve,” Nnamdi said. “That is what we do as legislators.”

Mr. Chukwuocha is sworn in to the state House of Representatives in Dover earlier this month. His mother Mary Jones, left, holds the Bible with the rest of his family standing around him. (Submitted photo)

When they talk about the issues in their community, their eloquence and passion make it clear that it is ground that they covered, probably often, in the spoken word art.

“Drugs have saturated our communities and guns saturate our community because there are no jobs and the school system is failing, (with the result that) young boys drop out in seventh or eighth grade,” Mr. Chukwuocha said. “And it is easy for a young man to hand them a gun and some drugs. And they think that it is the way it is supposed to be.”

He said that there an “almost natural pipeline” from the schools to the prison.

“It’s a deterioration that involves issues that have never been dealt with, where young men have never been given that guidance and nurturing support, where the young ladies don’t understand appropriate male and female relationships because their father is not there,” Mr. Chukwuocha said.

Mr. Mills believes many urban communities have become that dark alley of shame — a negative distinction that some children wear with pride. That leads some youths to opt to become a drug dealer rather than being assessed to determine what are their learning disabilities.

“Who wants to connect the dots for these little black kids,” Mr. Mills said. “That becomes the problem.”

The wealth of their life experiences serving and advocating for those communities — the good, the bad, the joys and the sorrows — are poured into the Twin Poets’ spoken word artistry. Many of the stories told in their work come from lives of people they work to advocate for and elevate.

While physically identical, they have distinct differences in their voices — while Mr. Mills’ is deeper and more forceful, Mr. Chukwuocha’s is somewhat higher and more tranquil.

Mr. Chukwuocha said that throughout the decades they have shared their thought-provoking spoken word, the purpose has remained constant.

“We want to use the transformative power of the arts to awaken the revolutionary spirit within individuals, especially those who are oppressed in the community,” Mr. Chukwuocha said.

“That is how we use our arts.”

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