Community Against Hate founder Maurice "Soulfighter" Taylor is a mountain of a man. He's impossible to ignore, and impossible not to engage in conversation, exuding nothing but positivity and enthusiasm for whatever project—or, most likely, projects—he's concocting.
The Springfield resident is one of the hardest working poets and activists in Western Massachusetts—he regularly produces Poetic Recovery events, designed to combat societal ills like bullying, drugs, and sexism, and what he sees as popular hip-hop's corrosive nature. He promotes concerts, forums and open mics to raise funds and awareness, and to bolster "conscious artists," community organizations and social consciousness.
His story of tireless altruism becomes even more astounding when you consider the absolute horror of a childhood he had to endure just to join the front lines of a battle to break a negative cycle of abuse, homelessness, drugs and domestic violence—and to effect positive change through the arts.
"We live in a society where the rich people can do anything they want, and the poor people can just do the best they can."
Taylor was born in Chicago, Ill. in the spring of 1973. When he was a young child, Taylor explains, his mother took him to the Department of Social Services in Cincinnati to escape a nightmarish household.
He says DSS promptly took him back to his father's, where he was severely abused by his father and his other children.
"My mom was trying to keep us safe," Taylor says. "DSS took us back to the madness. Anyways, my mom took us back. [Then] I ended up in orphanages in Cincinnati and foster care, where I used to watch this girl being tied up and beat, in my first foster home."
Taylor was eventually adopted by a family in Western Mass.—a situation that proved to be no better for him.Taylor says he left that home after being locked in rooms without food and enduring beatings where he was told to pray or he would go to hell.
"I was molested again, and had to fight other children in this home almost on a daily basis," he says. "I had to run away seven times to get out of adoption and be heard and I went through foster home after foster home."
DSS ultimately turned him out onto the streets at 19, where his battles continued.
"Putting these issues to music and poetry is not easy, but we need to do more."
Taylor sees a lot going wrong in our society, but that only inspires him to work harder. He's fighting a flood of drugs, homelessness, a "biased" Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, and domestic and gang-related violence.
"Look at Springfield," he says. "Look at the murders that are going on. If you're not a great sports person in the community, or if your family is not connected, no one cares. You're not going to get any attention. What about the families [where] the parents are on drugs and the kids are getting abused—where is their support coming from? Who is going to help them out?"
Taylor describes a cycle that perpetuates oppression. He asks us to look at young "small-time drug dealers" who are without heat or are homeless. They get busted with marijuana, leave prison with a CORI, and are unable to get jobs or go to school.
"And when you start to separate young people from their families and their people, then breakdowns really happen. The CORI rules are biased: if a 36-year-old man cannot work, he has no self-respect, or goes back to selling drugs. His spouse wants to leave or have no part of him because they want child support;their kids look down on them because daddy's not working and because of what society says about them.
"It's about this process happening to our community. It's cultural genocide—these politicians don't care about it. These communities don't care about it. We need to let people know."
"Real hip-hop is about exposing the issues in our community, not about exploiting women, marginalizing people, egging people into violence, consuming without thinking."
Taylor takes great issue with modern hip-hop: rappers glorifying drug dealing, "thug life," and material wealth while demeaning women.
"When I listen to polka or Chinese music, I know they're not exploiting their women and their communities like our record labels are exploiting our women and our people," he says. "If putting women on stage for sale is wrong, then how is parading them around in a video any different?"
He wants to turn up the positivity, and to give people a place and opportunity to express and heal themselves and their communities. His main vehicle for his efforts these days is Poetic Recovery. Its mission is to provide and promote "conscious hip-hop" and local artists dedicated to expressing themselves through original music and poetry. He also works to raise funds for health and dental care campaigns to promote Springfield Youth Against Violence.
Taylor and company go to great lengths to produce events all over the Valley, and to bring in top talent from the Northeast and beyond. Events are traditionally free, but the group is always looking for donations for advertising, CD and DVD projects, and chances to promote their positive-leaning artists.
"My aim is to also bring focus to healing through performance," he says. "Being molested as a child and abused, I found poetry and rhyming to be a therapeutic outlet. Through Poetic Recovery, I also want to get people a chance to heal and develop as a poet and connect around community issues and solutions."
"Culture has been a social medicine and been good for us over the years, and it can be again."
Taylor served as President of the African-American Cultural Society while at Springfield Technical Community College, which led him to found the Community Against Hate, a collection of "conscious" artists bonding together to make a difference in their communities. He's performed at many local colleges, as well as at the United Nations. He's served as a delegate for the Economic Human Rights Campaign and at the Hip-Hop Congress National Convention.
He's chosen the name Soulfighter as a stage name and statement of intent.
"It's kind of dyslexic: I fight the ills of society with soul," Taylor says of his handle. "I really love it. It says much about me.
"People think of physical violence when they think of a fighter, but I am a cultural, philosophical type of fighter. I know that in order to better my life I have to work to better the life of the community."
To this end, he's recently started doing Community Cultural Forums and "Meet 'n' Greets" featuring positive hip-hop pioneers like Rodney C to combat corrosive stereotypes and to teach our communities that "cultural exploitation equals cultural genocide."
"All in all, I want to create a way artists can be heard consciously and be supported while they are discussing community issues," says Taylor. "We need to hold people accountable while encouraging communities to better themselves by working together."
Poetic Recovery events occur in Springfield every first and third Sunday at Boriquen Y QuisQueya on St. James Ave., 1:30-3 p.m.; at the Daily Grind in Southwick Wednesday nights, 6-8 p.m.; and at the Thirsty Mind in South Hadley Thursday nights from 6:30-8 p.m. Poetic Recovery holds "Meet 'n' Greets" for artists the last Saturday of every month at the Martin Luther King Family Life Center at 365 Bay St., Springfield. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit www.poeticrecovery.net.