You have to evolve with purpose.

– Bryan Hancock aka Harvest Blaque

I ran into Bryan Hancock over the weekend at the farmers market. A couple of his friends were playing an acoustic set while folks milled around picking up pints of adorable tiny tomatoes, snacking on freshly-made crepes. Bryan, a hip-hop artist whose stage name is Harvest Blaque, joined in for a number or two.

Afterwards, we chatted for a bit only Bryan and I have never really chatted, not in the superficial way the word suggests. As soon as we were introduced to one another by Sharon, co-proprietor of one of our favorite hang-outs, Little Green Hive, we seemed to dive right in, bypassing the polite getting-to-know-you conversations that are the understandable meat-and-potatoes of building most friendships.

And Bryan has a lot to say. Like that quote at the top – he said that almost as soon as we sat down together one Sunday morning, back at Little Green Hive. I had asked to interview him; I was hoping to walk away with a greater understanding of how he has created a fortnightly gathering of poets and performers that is the most diverse and welcoming space that I have ever experienced, Soul Sessions.

Truthfully, I didn’t walk away from that long and deep conversation with any more understanding of how he’s been able to gather people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, religious/atheistic inclinations, sexual and gender identities, writing styles… No matter how many times I asked him for a peek into his methodology, he said something along the lines of, “That’s bigger than me.”

He’s not being coy when he says that; he’s not trying to hide the secret recipe. His response is completely earnest. He’s completely earnest.

That quote above? It’s not philosophy; it’s his daily life.

Back in the spring, Bryan sent me an old photograph of himself. He’s looking straight at the camera and his eyes are cold, lifeless. That was before – before the light bulb went on, as he describes it. Before his brothers took his own life in 2011, starting Bryan on a painful and cathartic path of getting really real with himself – about how he was living, about who he was, about who he wanted to be.

“I was egotistical; I was about being celebrated more than appreciating life. I was about fast life, excess. I learned from my brother’s death that you just don’t know because we all have an appointment,” he said, referring to the inevitability of death. “Between now and the time we’re called out of here, it should be our mission to take care of people and try to understand each other.”

And therein lies the magic of Soul Sessions, a place where people are invited to speak their truths, to share their pain, and to celebrate one another’s healing.

“At the very beginning [of Soul Sessions], I didn’t know what I was doing but over the years it’s become clear through the people who have entered my life,” Bryan said. “It’s not about me – at the beginning it was – but it’s not about me. What I’ve been learning from the people that I’ve been blessed to encounter is they start so fragile and then we evolve.”

Looking back at that old photo today, I’m baffled by what I see. It’s so different than the man I know whose eyes are filled with light and emotion. It’s so different from the man I know who shares with such raw, real vulnerability – who shares stories of the sting of others’ words and behaviors before turning around to say: “People have to strengthen and harness their voices and stop looking at everybody as the enemy, when the only enemy is the condition of the heart.”

Own yourself, he’s saying. And love the hell out of everyone along the way.

Bryan’s birthday is next Saturday, friends, and he’s celebrating with his Soul Sessions community on Wednesday the 15th at its home, 16 West Marketplace in Roanoke. Soul Sessions is always free, the mic is always open for original work, and the reading starts at 8pm. Well, pretty close to 8…

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