Christopher D. Sims, aka UniverSouLove, is a poet, spoken word artist, performer, and human rights activist. I followed him for a day in the city where he was born and raised: Rockford, Illinois. I picked him up on a Sunday morning in December at his home in the Jackson Oaks neighborhood. When he got into my car, he had C. L. Smooth playing on his phone.
He said, "He has a very fluid, poetic delivery. I grew up on his music in the late 80's and early 90's. He's very proximate to my musical knowledge, my understanding of rap, and how it's supposed to be done."
With the music underscoring our conversation, Christopher talked about Jackson Oaks where he has lived for nearly a decade.
"I've seen the neighborhood deteriorate over the years, but it's still home. It's still who I am. It's still where I like to walk, breathe in fresh air, see squirrels, the beautiful oak trees, and all that good stuff."
Christopher said he does not want to live anywhere else in Rockford.
"I like it here. It's the most diverse neighborhood in the city. I like the character. I like the spirituality of the neighborhood, and I like the people, especially the children. There are a lot of children in the neighborhood and I like seeing that."
He admitted there are some thing he doesn't like seeing.
"There are a lot of abandoned homes and locked down properties here, too. It's unfortunate to see the big X's on the houses in the neighborhood. Some of the businesses are abandoned, too."
A few minutes later, we arrived at Mary's Market, which is one of Christopher's favorite local restaurants. The vibe there is friendly and healthy. He ordered a vegan quiche, some hashbrowns, and a cup of coffee with almond milk.
Christopher is a pescatarian, which means his diet includes fish, but no other meat. He says his commitment to eating healthy goes back about twenty years when he and his friends Antar Baker and Phillip Reid became aware of what was in certain meats.
Christopher said Antar gave him a pamphlet about pork. "It wowed me. It educated me about what was in pork that I didn't want inside me."
Christopher said he and his two friends continue to enjoy "at least a pescatarian diet, let alone vegetarian or veganism."
Christopher credits his diet with helping him stay alert. He said, "I've been at my best when I'm thinking clearly, and that's because I have lived a pretty healthy or clean or organic lifestyle."
After breakfast, we drove to the west side of the Rock River. We visited his old stomping ground, including his childhood home. The house is for sale now and some of its windows are boarded up but Christopher said, "It feels amazing to be back." He showed me the spot where he experienced his artistic awakening when he was nine years old.
"I was standing right about here. I was at the end of the driveway and I heard my brothers playing some old school rap and hip-hop music, and I'm standing right here and a light clicked and it said, 'Christopher, that's what you were born to do. You were born to be a poet.'" He continued, "And I took it from there."
And we took it from there. Christopher smiled as he gave me a tour...until we reached the lot behind the old Pacemaker grocery store. There is a hill there where Christopher used to ride his bike. Now the area is filled with old mattresses, garbage, broken toys, empty liquor bottles, broken furniture, and dirty clothes. There is no room to play.
He was disappointed. "This used to be a very clean area. Now it looks like a dump of some sort and I don't understand that." I asked him if he had a poem in him about this and he said, "I can freestyle."
And he did:
Trash on the west side
It’s like the west side has died
And there are no lives here
People used to live here
Even shop over here
My heart breaks
This is a mistake
And this breaks my heart
When I see trash on the ground
Where people supported me
Never aborted me
Afforded me their love and kindness
But this is not bliss
This is the opposite of where Chris
It’s like a grey sky with no sun
This space right here is done
But Christopher is not done. He's progressive, has a plethora of poems memorized, and can freestyle at a moment's notice.
Our next stop was Haskell Elementary School. Christopher said his education helped him become professional and serious.
"This is definitely the place where I started to identify myself as an arist -- as a poet and as a writer." He said the school was filled with poets who were building on their own skills and talents. "I just hopped and joined right in, and really started to hone my skills here."
He continued, "This is ground zero when you talk about Christopher D. Sims, the artist or the poet or the writer. Lots of great memories of writing, collaborating, beatboxing, having people beat box under my rapping. It was just an incredible environment to be in."
While we were outside, Christopher played the tongue drum and recited his poem, "Sacred Woman." It is a stirring poem about the power and vulnerability of women. Hearing it outside with his original music was a soul-satisfying experience.
After his grade school, we visited Auburn High School.
"This is where I was a proud Auburn Knight. I had a good social life here and now I sometimes come back and teach creative writing classes."
Christopher said he enjoys teaching young people and has advice for them. He said, "Read as much poetry as you can. Read the greats. Some of the greats are Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka. Those are definitely some of the greats in regards to the writers of poetry."
He also emphasized the importance of listening.
He said, "But also listen to the greats. Those folk are Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, KRS-One. Those are definitely legendary greats. Roxanne Shante, she's legendary. Bahamadia, she's legendary. So if you also listen to the greats and you'll also become a great or good poet."
Now Christopher is wrapping up his education at the University of Memphis. He said he aims to have a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership and business administration in 2020.
And after graduation?
Christopher said, "I plan on either going straight into a Master's degree in African American literature or opening up a community center for African American boys focusing on health, the arts, spirituality, and technology."
To learn more about Christopher D. Sims, you can follow him on Twitter @UniverSouLove or visit his SoundCloud page.