Hobo for humanity
Performance artist and spoken-word poet the Hobo Sapien wears a simple costume—a charmingly ragged coat, a hat and a bundle on a stick. Influenced by the late comedian Red Skelton’s character, Freddie the Freeloader, this vagabond’s on a mission to raise awareness by hammering down the barriers of racism, homophobia and social class. He shares his words with any audience, sometimes punctuated by a slide whistle. Like a true drifter, always on the go, most of the Hobo’s material was written during his travels via Amtrak or Greyhound. He performs with bands like Musical Charis in bar settings or at open-mic nights throughout Sacramento.
How was the Hobo Sapien created?
Hobo Sapien came out of the fact that we’re all homo sapiens. We have that commonality. We’re all human beings and sapien is a Latin word for wise. We are wise homo erectus. So, I was like, I’m a hobo, but I’m smart. I don’t want to be like a dumb hobo, and “Let’s get a bottle of booze.” None of my material has to do with getting wasted. There’s no profanity, but that doesn’t dumb it down. It doesn’t make it cheesy. I wanted it to be on point, powerful. I don’t want to be excluded because I’m PG-13. I’m G-rated. I can have a bigger audience that way.
What influences your poetry and delivery style?
I’m a big hip-hop fan. I’ve always been writing verse and inspired by the music. Especially in what some people call “backpacker”—the conscious hip-hop, and a lot of the positive, uplifting stuff like the Bay Area’s Crown City Rockers, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common. … I’m a De La Soul fan, love A Tribe Called Quest, a lot of the old-school stuff because of their message. They’re not talking about the things that I don’t care about. I don’t drive a car, so I don’t care about rims. And whether or not they spin is even further beyond the point. I don’t care about bling, and I respect women. I really have no interest in any kind of degradation of women or objectification of women—or anybody for that matter.
How does an audience usually react to
you at first?
When I go into a venue, it’s always in character. At first I get a lot of weird looks because there’s a clown phobia or because it’s different. Nobody’s seen it. It’s obvious I’m not a dirty, stinky bum. I’m a hobo. I don’t want people to misconstrue that. People don’t know why I’m there. They don’t get it, but as soon as I go up there and perform—because I mix in comedy and interaction—they start listening. It’s a night-and-day reaction.
You perform with bands at bars and clubs sometimes. Is that a tough crowd to capture?
It’s an ongoing process. It’s something I’m learning to do. I’ve had some interesting discussions with Musical Charis in a bar setting. If I can get [the audience’s] attention, that says something. It’s really what’s in the word, what’s in the message and your delivery method in performance art. But if I can get their attention, if I can captivate them, it’s a challenge for me. We’ve performed at O’Mally’s [Irish Pub] together, and it was interesting because it was rowdy, it was in between bands. It was a really cool experience to be able to quiet a room of bar patrons. They quieted down and turned around. It was a cool experience to be able to get up there and play a little slide whistle.
When can people catch a performance?
Mondo Bizarro [Café] is my home. That’s where I introduce all new pieces. Anytime I’ve ever done a new piece for the first time, it’s been there. Every first and third Wednesday they have what they call Midtown Out Loud, and it’s open-mic poetry and acoustic music. That’s the first place I had ever performed as the Hobo. I was living in the neighborhood, walked up in character and found a loving family of poets and people of all different kinds; all welcoming and supportive. I’m part of that family now.
How do you avoid being another individual standing on a soapbox?
I don’t want to be preachy, but I also don’t want to be cowardly. The Hobo Sapien is about community, about spirituality—realizing that there’s more than just the physical. I believe in God. Personally, I’m a Christian man, and I know people conflict with that, and I’m always open to that conversation. I like to talk about it. I want to learn.
I try not to offend people, but my faith and my spirituality does come through in the work, and I’m OK with that. I don’t expect everybody to like that aspect of it. Hopefully, the merits of the wordplay and the merits of the delivery method will hold true. I’ve never had anybody tell me they don’t like it, that it’s a deterrent. But I know there will be those. I can’t expect everyone to like me.