“He can write a song on a roller-coaster. And I hate him for it. I absolutely hate him for it!” says local musician Kelly Bell of poet, songwriter, and musician Rahsaan Eldridge, whose stage name is Wordslave (he is known by everyone around him as Word). Author of four published books, compilations of his poetry, Word played with the Kelly Bell Band for many years and currently performs with the Annapolis-based band Honest Lee Soul, which he cofounded with Cullen DeChant.
From an early age, music has been a constant in Word’s life. “It’s always been there,” he says. “I’ve been singing, the church thing, just like a lot of people did. But my father’s also a musician. He’s a percussionist and a flautist. Some of my earliest memories are of his gear being around the house. He didn’t do it professionally, but he definitely played, so I soaked up a lot of that.”
Word played the trumpet in band in elementary school and moved onto choir in middle school. “I knew that was what I wanted to do at that point,” he recalls. When he would ride in the car with his parents, the radio station was tuned to the driver’s choice. His mother liked mainstream pop and R&B. Word wanted to hear Da Butt or anything by Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, or Snoop Dogg. His father grooved to jazz on WPFW (a Washington, DC-based jazz station). “So, when I would get in the car, I’d probably roll my eyes, or at least to myself, but I would always ask him if we could change the station,” says Word. “He normally would let me change it, but he’d say, ‘All right, but lemme, just one more song.’ So, he still made me kind of listen and get that stuff [classic jazz], but I never really gravitated toward that until sophomore year in college.”
He credits his teachers for making him do the hard work to find his voice—including Reverend Doctor Emory Andrews at Oxon Hill High School, Charlie Toomer at Florida A&M University, and Gary Richardson and Nikki Lee at Towson University, from which he graduated with a degree in music performance. “For me, all of my teachers, for whatever reason, I just lucked out,” he says. “Each one of them pushed me and made me stretch different things I might not have liked, all of them made me do things I did not like, but all of that went to where I am right now.”
Before attending Towson, Word was trained in a certain vocal style that required him to enunciate all of the words. One day, at a vocal class with Lee, he was singing “Ain’t Misbehaving”—“I don’t stay out late. And she stops me,” he recalls. “She says, ‘Why are you singing like that?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Why are you singing like that?’ I said, ‘That’s how you’re supposed to sing. What do you mean?’ She’s like, ‘You sound white.’ But the reason that’s so funny is Nikki is white. ‘What are you doing?’ The reason that moment was so important is I didn’t know what my voice sounded like.”
He was around 20 years old at the time. Much of his previous training was in choirs or musical groups, not as a soloist. He went out on his own to spoken-word open mics and to find his own voice. “My voice is still changing,” he says.
While Word worked a day job as a resource specialist for special needs students in Baltimore area schools, he was in a hip-hop band called Axiom with Black Root (now of Black Root Underground). Then Bell engaged Word and Black Root to write a rap treatment for the SpongeBob SquarePants song. “I wanted to expand the audience,” says Bell. Word and Black Root’s SpongeBob rap was a resounding success, for children, parents, and Bell.
Word joined the Kelly Bell Band and performed with them for 13 years. “I like to think that the Kelly Bell Band took him into a whole different direction because he was strictly poetry, strictly slam poetry, strictly hip-hop when I met him,” says Bell. With that band, Word traveled around the world several times, performing for the armed forces. During that travel time, Bell noticed Word doing a lot of writing. “He’s writing on his phone, he’s writing on little slips of paper, he’s writing in notebooks, he’s on a plane, all that craziness . . .” says Bell. “He’s a genius. I truly think he’s a genius . . . In addition to being an amazing poet, which a lot of people don’t know. He’s getting ready to release his fifth book of poetry.”
His parents encouraged him to publish. His first book, The Word According to the Son of Annette and Ron (2019), is a compilation of many years of writing, with details of everyday life, family, romance, adultery, and civil rights, poems that seem to get more intimate as the pages go by. His second book, Whisky and Blues (2020), is rather lyrical, dealing with heavy thoughts of life. The 28 Mixtape was written in February 2021, with 29 poems, one for each day of that leap year. The poems are about different facets of life: romance, food, politics, plus a Dr. Seuss-like rhyme, all in honor of Black History Month. Word’s most recent book, All the Good and Beautiful Things (2022), is dedicated to his great-grandmother, who graces the book’s cover. “They called her the Queen,” says Word. “She was 103 when she passed, last year.” The book consciously focuses on positivity.
The poems are personal. They expose the depths of his inner psyche. His work is naked; it hides nothing. And when the confessional may seem to be a bit too heavy, he feeds you something to chew on, such as “fish and grits.” He writes a lot about sex and food. This is poetry that could be put to music.
The social scene at an Honest Lee Soul outdoor concert leaves no doubt that this band lives up to its name. The throng of people grooving to the music are tapping their toes and bobbing their heads. Word’s voice and DeChant’s guitar complement each other with an alchemy that creates a sound bigger than the two of them. Since debuting as a duo in 2017, Honest Lee Soul has appeared as a duo, trio, or full band.
Word’s words work, both on the page and from the stage. They are threads that connect his life with the world around him. █