April 21, 2006. Back when the Whitney Museum of American Art was still located on Madison Avenue, "poetic vocalist," Karen Gibson Roc, a trimester away from motherhood luminously took to the stage at the newly launched Whitney Live performance series during the museum's famed biennial. As her band, Fluid released rivulets of sound at once earthy and astral, she emerged, intoning the words, "The glowing moon," full and enrobed in white linen; her glorious afro a lunar halo.
Growing another human, she was, as she performed her poem, “Sweet Life,” "Contemplating that oh so sweet, life. You see I'm walking in, I'm walking in new shoes; I'm walking in new shoes that I choose. I refuse to diiiiie unfinished, so I'm walking in new shoes; new shoes that I; that I, that I choose." Nearly three months to the day after that hour-long performance – recorded as Live at the Whitney – Karen and her husband, Phil, welcomed Jolie Lulu into their lives.
February 19, 2019. On a street lined with deciduous trees and the occasional palm, the Rocs, with their mirroring broad smiles welcome me into their breezy, light-filled home in a mid-century enclave of Culver City. Upon entering, the first thing that catches the eye is a nod to Phil's Haitian heritage: a dazzling drapo Vodou sequined with the vèvè of Erzulie Freda, goddess of love and beauty. Apropos as these partners in life, love, parenting, and art are nice with the optics individually, but together, divine. I haven't seen them in the flesh since they decamped, daughter in tow, from Brooklyn for Los Angeles eight years ago. They seem at once untouched and enhanced by time. It is only when their twelve-year-old arrives home from school, her Adidas kicks made fly by her own design, that the advancing years become evident. "As soon as Jolie popped out, the hands started moving around the clock," Karen says, making a whirring sound. "She's great; she's a wonderful child."
A child, who as she leaves tweendom, seeks teenage autonomy. The parent-child paradigm is shifting as Karen, though availing herself for guidance and support, is learning to "let go a bit." Make no mistake, though, respect is required in the Roc home. "She cannot mouth off to me, no." She is to listen to her parents first. "But then you can have your voice: Yes, Mom; yes, Dad; I hear you guys, but here's what I have to say." It's a more relaxed approach than would have ever flown in the Gibson household, where Lauriston and Marcia Gibson raised their three daughters, Debbie, Karen, and Laurieann with a loving, but stern hand. The Gibsons emigrated from Jamaica to suburban Toronto when Karen was just two years old.
School held little interest for her; she played hooky frequently, opting to "chill at home watching soap operas," she says. What kept her from full-on truancy was her excellence in sports. A time-worn photo album littered with participation patches and first place ribbons attests to her athleticism. When her family moved again to Florida, Karen continued running track on a "kick-ass" team with a "bomb" coach at a private Catholic school. "We beat everybody," she remembers.
After graduating, retail jobs, then a stint as a retirement savings representative at a bank back in Canada put her on the path to building a career in banking. But she was miserable. "I was losing my marbles; I sat on my sister's couch for weeks. I was 21, and I knew I couldn't do it anymore. I had a crash and burn, a breakdown; I call it a breakthrough."
Her sister, Laurieann, who would go on to acclaim as a celebrity choreographer had moved to New York the year before to study at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Karen "broke out" and joined her little sister in the Big Apple, uncertain of what she would do. She hustled to stay afloat; waiting tables and bartending, then she "fell into personal training," she says. "I was in great shape. I studied, got my certification, and worked with an amazing one-on-one trainer who got me into fitness modeling. I did a huge campaign for Lady Foot Locker that was plastered all over the city."
"I started the poetry on the side," she says, though its genesis goes further back to those days of introspection in Canada until the "breakthrough" days sent a poem. A poem she would one day read at her father's 2012 funeral. "Though I went off on the personal training trajectory, I had this poetry thing stuck in me." Not yet performing, but "writing, writing writing." She was one of a trio of young Torontonian women — a poet, her dancer/choreographer sister, and a singer, Lisa Shaw, sharing a house next to a methadone clinic and dreams of making their way as artists in the golden age of blickity black Fort Greene, Brooklyn. "We were in the thick of it. Spike [Lee] was up the street, and we'd go to all the parties. It is where I became an artist."
Her singing roommate took her to a narrow space above that bastion of pre-millennium New York nightlife, Nell's: "There was a platform in the back with a DJ, and a woman was doing poetry over a house track." Spoken word called to her in moments she describes as "the clickity-click-clack." She vividly recalls as she steps up and demonstrates being turned out by a Saul Williams performance at CBGB Gallery: "I was standing on the chair like THAT'S what I have to do! I was like a crazy woman staring at him on stage thinking I'm the girl version of that!" So she started memorizing her poems. "And I mean all the poems," she says before launching into one: "'Time has stopped playing with my mind. There's no more minutes to pass through hourglasses that contain grains of complacency; you see my house is built on a hill; there's no more shifting sands to sweep my mentality with greedy gains stacked with papers and tongues tied into knots.' I was just exploding," she exclaims.
May 4, 1997. Marcia Gibson, living for a short time with Karen and Laurieann in New Jersey, wanted to introduce her middle daughter to people at the Jamaican Consulate: "Karen, come meet. Make sure you tidy up; don't come looking like a little boy. Make yourself look nice." A concession to her request, Karen tossed on the only dress she owned (by Betsey Johnson), borrowed her sister's jacket and boots, and met up with their mother for the consular debut before meeting a friend for a party. The friend bailed, and Karen headed solo to the soiree in the Mom-approved outfit. Otherwise, she'd have gone with the androgynous chic of her personal style. "Don't get me wrong,” she says. “When I get my face done and put my heels on and do the do, I love to do that, it's just not an everyday thing for me.”
After mingling a bit at the party, she settled into a corner with a glass of wine, taking in the scene and "In walks, Mr. Roc,” she says, gesturing. "I swear it was like a Spike Lee movie." Time slows; the signature dolly shot. When she sees Philippe Roc talking to a mutual friend, Richard Maitland, she beelines it over, and Richard introduces her. Phil is pleasant, but he leaves; "not giving me any energy," she laughs dryly. But he had a strategy.
"Normally I would have been like okay he's not interested, but I went in, wouldn't let up, and sat next to him. We talk for a long time, and then we leave together. He drives me all the way home, which at that time, was New Jersey! He said, 'You think you were being slick? I sat on that couch because I knew your coat and purse were there, and you'd have to come over.' " Less than a year later, they were living together. "That's it; never looked back. It's an otherworldly thing. Here come a bunch of cliches, but he's my best friend. I don't have to be a different person. He's always loved me for being the spunky Karen tomboy that I am."
Phil encouraged her at every step. A vintage typewriter atop an old kitchen table by her window became her writer's desk. "I would type all my poems. I was determined to have a book," she says. Not only did Phil support her efforts, but also his older brother, the master percussionist, Ronnie Roc, who became her kindred spirit, collaborator and "bro."
Offered an opportunity to create an East Village-esque poetry night at Tribeca's Beach Street Cafe in 1998, Karen said, "Oh, yeah, I can do that!" She'd never done it before, but Phil and Ronnie were on board to help. There would be art on the walls, and knots in her stomach. "I turned green three days before, just spinning, spinning, spinning. And it was the best night of my life. No one knew it was my first time reading my poetry." She was hooked.
"I was raised on metaphysics; my mom took me to Unity Church back in the day, but none of it sunk in until I started reading Florence Scovel Shinn." She delved into "a slew" of New Thought writings such as As a Man Thinketh. "The idea that stuck with me most was thought, word, action equals manifestation."
Karen quit her day job at the gym, coaxing bodies into fitness, so she could cultivate her art. To keep the cash flow going, she'd return to tending bar, but she was committing to her poetry. A week later came an affirmation of her work in the form of the $300 pot awarded to the hottest poets in weekly Harlem readings.
She made the pilgrimage to Nuyorican Poets Cafe for her first slam at the spoken word mecca in 1999. "I went up against Liza Jessie Peterson and of course, she kicked my ass, she's amazing," she remembers, "but I knew, standing on the stage beside her, I was in great company, and there was no looking back. I was on my way; it was on and poppin' from there, but I knew I wasn't a slam poet."
Arriving a bit late to the party when she embarked on the spoken word scene as it moved toward the early aughts, she felt on the periphery. Not rejected: "people showed mad love," but outside of the established cypher. Her vibe bore none of the hallmarks of the decidedly Afrocentric moment. "No long skirts, headwraps, and ankhs. I go up there in my jeans and t-shirt rocking an afro and baseball cap. I was a tomboy, always. I mean, I was raised on rock; my first vinyl album was Meatloaf!" She may have wrapped her head once or twice, but ultimately found her groove in expression that was natural to her.
October 12, 2001. Still reeling from the terror at the World Trade Center the month before and facing immigration issues, Ms. Gibson added Mr. Roc's initial to her monogram. Phil's mom had asked, "Do you love her?" The answer was yes, so they were wed just across the East River from the devastation at Ground Zero in a DUMBO photo loft. The date of their meeting four years earlier, however, is the anniversary they celebrate with greater reverence than that of their nuptials. "We joke that we got married for papers." Nonchalance about the institution of marriage aside, "I enjoyed our wedding," she muses fondly. "We had the best time. It was the last time all of us were together: my dad, my mom, Phil's parents. My mom is the only one left."
Still fired up by the energy of Saul Williams, she thought: He's live, rocked out, and I have that too! "An open mic venue? I'm there." She began to encounter many other poets and spoken word artists. "One of your gifts is that your poems are in you, Karen, they're in you,." Poet/actor Craig "muMs" Grant once said. "He was right, and I knew I had to do something with them. I got on the mic once or twice a week, dragging Ronnie with me. I said to him, 'We're gonna do a band.' He was like, 'A band? What are you going to do? You don't sing.' 'I'm gonna do spoken word, like Gil Scott-Heron; like Saul." She thought If I talk about it; I create it.
July 4, 2002. On that day of flame-broiled burgers and fireworks, Fluid performed as a band for the first time on artist/gallerist Danny Simmons' Clinton Hill rooftop. Karen had mentioned to Danny that she was putting a group together, and he invited them to perform at his annual Fourth of July cookout at his home/gallery. She accepted. "I walked away. I had no band," she laughs, "but I didn't tell Danny that. I saw a kid, standing with a guitar. I said, 'oh, you play?' He became my guitar player. Ronnie, of course, played percussion." Fluid, so called because Karen "wanted to tap into living life moving freely as the river; Fluid, the perfect band name for an artist known for her flow.
From Black Tea concerts and the Bowery Poetry Club to SOB's and Sputnik, Karen and crew were on the scene. “We played Joe's Pub, Lyricist Lounge at Central Park Summerstage and Madiba; It was a great ride," she says. The following chronicle hints at their ascent:
October 19, 2002. In a full circle moment, Karen Gibson Roc & Fluid played Brian Tate's Black Tea at CBGB Gallery, where Saul Williams had ignited the performative aspect of Karen's art years before. "Brian used to bring us all together, which was fantastic; we did two shows a month." KGR & Fluid would eventually perform on the CBGB mainstage as well.
December 19, 2003. KGR & Fluid dropped their first recording 5&2 Fish, "an exploration of the space where funky poetics, jazz, blues, soul, and rock collide," after sharing a bill with Gina Breedlove and Jeremy James at Cafe 111 in downtown Brooklyn the night before.
March 2004. Beneath the twinkling lights of the intimate BAMcafé Live – a launching pad into the performing arts constellation – KGR & Fluid rock it out. The set is a prelude of things to come: performing at BAM Opera House less than a year later.
October 17, 2004. Karen lent her voice and band to Kozmic Sistaz: Free Sudan/Stop the Genocide, a concert presented by CMJ Marathon at Brooklyn's Southpaw.
January 28, 2005. At Rhythm + BAM: “Def Poetry Plugged In,” a concert fusing spoken word and music at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she shared a bill with goddesses of the old and new schools: Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker (who inspires her as a poet and mother) and others like Vernon Reid. "It was spectacular," she says. A warm up to her "zenith" headlining experience the following year at the Whitney Biennial.
March 9, 2005. With a grant received from Canada Council for the Arts for dub rap poetry, KGR & Fluid did a live taping at BRIC Studios. Directed by Phil Roc, the performance was released the following year on CD/DVD as "Traveling with Light."
June 15, 2007. KGR & Fluid jammed at one of the last performances of that groovy Williamsburg warehouse performance venue, Galapagos Art Space before it moved across Brooklyn to waterfront property in DUMBO (and subsequently to Detroit after being priced out).
April 23, 2010. In response to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, Karen and Fluid performed in a benefit concert for the devastated country at the Knitting Factory headlined by her friend, Coolie Ranx and his raggacore band, Pilfers. It would be her last live New York performance before moving West.
After Jolie's 2006 birth, Karen "went on a different journey." One that altered course, perhaps, prioritizing motherhood, but she never entirely abandoned her work. In fact, she signed with Lemongrass, an independent record label in Germany that released her first studio album as a solo artist, Touching the Soul in November 2008 which spawned an EP of remixes of the popular single "Painted Room" in 2009 and was tapped for re-release on r2lounge in Japan in 2010. She celebrated the dawning of the Obama presidency by performing at the inaugural ball held at Gowanus, Brooklyn nightspot, The Bell House and published her first book, a side order of truth (a poetic journey), a print-on-demand, poetry meets memoir offering made available on Lulu in February 2009.
After finally getting her "foot in the door as a Brooklyn artist," Karen was reluctant to leave New York, but the reality of "hauling Jolie around on the trains in the cold with the stroller and the snowsuits," was untenable. Temperate Los Angeles would offer a different quality of life and new opportunities for filmmaker, Phil. So in 2011, the Rocs moved to sunny LA and though there were moments of hardship, acclimated to Cali life quite nicely.
Spring 2012 had Karen returning to the island of her birth to perform at Kingston Pon di River, Jamaica's premier literary, arts and music festival. That September Lemongrass released Cool of the Day, Karen's second album via the German distributor. Phil directed Karen in a video for the song "My Life" that is released in February 2013.
February 14, 2013. While walking to pick Jolie up from her neighborhood elementary school, Karen is struck by a car as she crossed a major thoroughfare. "When I didn't show up, they called Phil because everyone had heard at the school that a woman got hit by a car. And they have Jolie in the office, and she doesn't know that it's her Mommy," she says, voice cracking. She suffered multiple fractures and a broken pelvic bone. "When I got home, I had to sleep in a recliner in the living room." Unable to share a bed with her partner of sixteen years, she felt "alienated" and would quietly cry herself to sleep; never letting Phil or Jolie see her tears. She gets choked up, remembering the time. Phil says, “Really there are no words to explain what it means to have Karen alive and thriving. It’s a feeling – of Oneness. I got my partner back, and we're doing this life together plus one - Jolie.” February 14 has become so much more than a Hallmark spendfest. "So now we don't raise our glass to Valentine's Day; we raise our glass to living, and I raise my glass in gratitude that I am still here for my girl..." She barely gets the words out: "If I could just explain how much that child means to me. (breaks down)
Jolie is her raison d'être. A sweet Mommy and daughter day at the beach is documented for posterity in the video for “You Gotta Be Free” from the Lemongrass album, The 5th Dimension. "Motherhood is my most prized possession. I was brought here to be a mother," she says. And yet, her brush with death crystalized her certainty of purpose as an artist. "I refuse to die unfinished."
Though experiencing bouts of vertigo since the accident, Karen, in a June trip to the east coast, reunited with her brother-in-law, Ronnie for a Cool of the Day listening party and a barefoot, live performance with his group Afrazz at jazz legend, Gerry Eastman's Williamsburg Music Center.
The same month, "Breathe," a deep house track from Ibiza Producer/DJ Ben Hoo featuring Karen's lyrics and vocals released both digitally and on vinyl on Ovum Recordings. The sensual, Phil Roc-helmed video starring Karen premiered on Thump. Like many collaborations she's done over the past decade for compilations and remixes, "Breathe" expanded her audience internationally. She has become a go-to vocalist for DJs, producers, and labels worldwide, the lyricist for lounge. Her sultry vocals accompany dozens of tracks in the genre.
Emboldened to create new downtempo work on her own imprint, Karen proudly released Crossroads, produced by Brooklyn artist/producer, Suede Jenkins in March 2017. “I had some tracks sitting around, I learned how to release stuff on my own,” she says. “I've made three tracks like that.” Her latest single, “The Singing of the Gods,” is now available to download or stream.
December 9, 2015. Karen exceeded her crowdfunding goal on Kickstarter to self-publish she&i, "a series of poems exploring the relationship between self & soul." She conceived of the clean, minimalist design on her Mac – no pecking it out on an old typewriter this time – and readied the book for print release May 2016 and on iBooks the following month.
From bigging up her sister's line of Boom Kack merchandise to heralding the work of other artists who inspire her, Karen has always freely given props to those in the creative sphere, particularly those of African descent. It is then, a natural evolution that she would create a forum designed specifically for that purpose. After a heady post-election conversation with ten-year-old Jolie in 2016, Karen flipped through a magazine. She recalls seeing the words "Won't back down," in black and white. It seemed as if the words were moving on the page; the letter "L" inserted into the word "back." New meaning. "Won't BLACK down." But "won't" seemed confrontational. "Never," she thought was a better choice. "Yeah, Never Black Down!" She laughs, "Phil was like okay, Canada, not with the never. Doesn't sound so cool. Come on with the nevah." So she checked the domain availability and "grabbed the URLs for both Never and Nevah Black Down" and registered the Twitter handle. She and Phil designed the bold, type-driven logo topped by a crown. "Two years ago, I was scared to put it out. I'm not an activist; I barely have politically oriented poems," she says. (One, performed for Def Poetry on HBO, was left out of the final edit before airing, which stung.) But she remembered her empowering mantra, "Thought. Word. Action." She took the leap and launched in March 2017. NevahBlackDown.com, the online magazine espouses a belief that "We can collaborate and bring light to the fact that we as black people are infinitely gifted. We can look to our heroes for strength, speak our truth, and walk our walk like the warriors that we are." With savvy branding, she's created products like the “Wear Your Crown Year Round” T-shirt, in addition to the NBD logo merchandise.
For the past couple of years, she's been making tracks as a commercial actor as well. With her wide-set eyes and broad, beautiful smile, a friend in the business said to her, "Karen, you're just wasting that commercial face over there." She laughs, "And you know, I gotta get some checks; Jolie's big now; we've got to start making steps as a family. So I get my headshots done and get an agent. I said, 'Okay, Universe, I'm going all in with the acting.'" She started booking gigs immediately. "I would have had to work six months to one year to make the same money I made in three months. So I knew I made the right decision. When Phil and I decided we're going to be artists and we're having this kid, we made the pact that we're gonna raise her as parents who are doing what they want to do." Have they worked side gigs? Indeed, "but not in the capacity of a job that turns into a career," she says. "I would go teach spoken word in a heartbeat if somebody asked me to; it's still in the vein of what I do."
February 19, 2019. In the spirit of speaking her future into existence, Karen shares that there's a one-woman show, Dismantling Illusion destined to come through her. "It's not character-driven, not at all. It's only spoken word; 20 years of poetry. I want cello and feeling music. I want percussion; not a full band. Atmospheric, theatrically driven, in-the-moment and improv. Phil will do the visual; he'll want to project things. As people are being seated, all the music I've done will be playing; so it's a whole experience for those who want to join me on that journey," she says. "I've come so far, and I'm out here with just these little paddles, but I know I'm closer to that shore ahead than the one behind me."
1. The apartment I live in with my two fave people - Phil and Jolie Roc. And a sweet doggie called Boo Boo.
2. My self-published poetry book, she&i.
3. My vintage Levi’s fitted jean jacket. "I cherish it because it was a gift from my older sister, Debbie.”
4. My handmade copper ring with inlaid coin. “It’s my most prized gift. My husband had it made.” Phil took two vintage Haitian gourde coins to a jewelry vendor in New York to have them set in handmade rings for he and Karen. The face of the coin – the first of a woman on a Haitian coin – depicts the French wife of the then-Prime Minister. “She was down for the people,” Karen says.
5. My Corso fold-up bike. A non-driver, she rides “all over LA, especially down by the marina. We’ll do the Karen and Phil ride where we videotape while we carry on.”
6. Fedoras. She has many; from the classic, felted wide brim to variations on the theme like a jazzy porkpie and a jaunty trilby.
7. My vintage tortoise shell Paul Smith glasses. “I’ve had them for so long, they’re a big part of my style – my go-to look!”
8. My NEVAHBLACKDOWN crewneck T-shirt. When a friend first saw the bold graphic logo, he exclaimed, “You gonna eat offa that, girl!”
9. A hand-carved solid wood coffee table. It’s her “single girl legacy,” the only piece of furniture that remains from her pre-marriage and motherhood days. She remembers buying it from “a little shop on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.” and with the help of the shopkeeper, carrying the heavy load to her apartment. Now it’s merged with the stuff of family.
10. Living in LA. “Ninety percent of why I like it out here is the weather. It’s a molecular thing.” Their home is ten minutes away from the beach. Culver City’s amazing we haven’t lived anywhere else; we just lived on the other side of this avenue. I love it here; this block, the people I’ve met; the friends we’ve made; there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.” And having Jolie grow up with Auntie Laurie in the same city is a gift.