There are just five rules that artists must follow:
These rules, set by Soul Sessions founder Bryan Hancock, allow everyone present to engage in what he calls “family time.” “Family is not just the people that you share blood with,” he says. “They’re the people who want to help you thrive and be the best you. They’re people who continue to help you elevate and foster great experiences; who support you and believe in you.”
Hancock says Soul Sessions artists do exactly that, by staying true to themselves, connecting through poetry and being brave enough to voice where they are in their lives; potentially helping one another through shared experiences and truths. “In a world where there is so much emphasis placed on political correctness,” Hancock says, “we provide a space where people can fully engage in having real dialogue through poetry about who they are and what’s going on their lives. I like to set the tone to say this is a safe space for you to creatively evolve and express yourself as an artist.”
Soul Sessions is and always has been an inclusive environment, with crowds on any given night representing all walks of Roanoke. The artists are all ages, and encompass a beautiful blend of ethnic, racial, religious and gender identities. “All are welcome as long as they have an open mind,” Hancock continues. “Just leave your hang-ups at home. The only people not welcome at Soul Sessions are those with a platform of hate.” Blended community is important and essential to Soul Sessions. Hancock says it’s the glue that holds Soul Sessions together.
“Soul Sessions is a platform for people from different backgrounds to build comradery and community with one another and to become more aware of and accountable for one another. We exist to show people that despite our differences, we are very much alike. Soul Sessions doesn’t work properly without people feeding each other and loving one another and being aware of lives other than their own,” he says. Further, “We live in such a society with so many different generalizations and stereotypes and stigmas built up that we don’t really get to tear away from that and have real experiences each other. It’s braver to meet somebody from different backgrounds without judgment. For myself personally, doing Soul Sessions has made me more empathetic and I feel like empathy is the bride to action.” Poetry performed at Soul Sessions can be heartbreaking, thought provoking or laugh-out-loud hilarious. You never know what you are going to get.
Soul Sessions began in February 2015 after Journey Clark, manager of Cork and Crust Restaurant, began looking for live entertainment to fill the space at 16 West. Clark did not personally know Hancock, however, she was familiar with him through various community projects that he was working on at the time including: the Roanoke County Arts and Entertainment Conference, Project Awesome, the Tuned Out television series and from his band where he performs under the name “Harvest Blaque.” Journey Clarke approached Hancock with the idea to facilitate a slam poetry night and things came together from there. During the first year, the show had an audience of six-12 people, but through diligent promotion efforts and word of mouth, Soul Sessions began to expand with anniversary shows now ranging from 100 people to standing room only. Hancock admits that he did not originally know what he was doing with the show, but as he watched it grow and watched the artists transform, it began to transform him as well. People who normally wouldn’t have crossed paths were building bridges and meeting up outside of the show. It gave him a sense of purpose.
Soul Sessions recently collaborated with The Spot on Kirk to create a “Soul Saturday” series that is a mixture of music, comedy and poetry to give people something different to do on Saturday nights. It also is driving more diversity to Downtown Roanoke. “Roanoke is one of the top 10 most segregated cities and we need to find more ways to bridge that gap,” says Hancock. “There’s such a rich culture in places like DC and Charlotte and there’s so much inclusiveness around us that Roanoke should be doing that as well. There has been a lack of sound downtown. There is bluegrass and country music, but that’s not enough variety and not enough representation. The artists who come to Soul Sessions and do these special nights are bringing diversity downtown.”
Soul Sessions also recently collaborated up with Virginia Tech University for its “Rebel Voices” series and with “The Listening,” (A Lynchburg based slam poetry group) for an event featuring National Slam Poet, Black Ice. Soul Sessions takes place every other Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. at Morning Brew Coffee, located in the Taubman Museum.