Acclaimed actor and poet Craig "muMs" Grant, who starred in the classic slam documentary SlamNation, on HBO's Oz and frequently collaborated with Spike Lee, died on Wednesday (March 24) at the age of 52.
Grant was a breakout star of the extremely fertile New York City slam poetry scene of the 1990s, and his work in television and film helped to emphasize the connections between the worlds of Hip-Hop and slam poetry. His easygoing demeanor made him forever relatable for fans and peers; a laid-back everyman who also happened to be one of the best slam poets on the planet. Born and raised in the North Bronx neighborhood of Woodlawn, he was a product of Mount St. Michael's Academy and made his name as a creative student. A lover of Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley and Ann Rice, he began writing early.
"I remember writing a poem in grade school," Grant told the Writer's Guild last year. "I painted as well. I really took to drawing. But I really started to enjoy writing in high school from writing rhymes. I was a rapper."
In 1998 documentary SlamNation, muMs was profiled and became one of the breakout stars of the Nuyorican slam scene. The documentary followed the aspiring poets as they competed in the 1996 National Poetry Slam. For a generation of young people coming of age in the late 1990s, and for those who weren't fortunate enough to bear witness to New York's poetry scene firsthand, SlamNation was a revelation. And muMs was riveting, spitting powerful words about poverty and Blackness -- including his famed piece "Roach Motel."
"I wrote that a long time ago," he would recall in 2018. "Around the beginning of my poetry career and it has always been kind of a poem that resonates with a lot of people."
Known as muMs Da Schemer, the Bronx native was a standout in the acclaimed documentary. His voice, along with the talents of luminaries such as Reg E. Gaines and Maggie Estep, Saul Williams and Tracie Morris. Grant arrived on the scene and connected Williams to it, and by the late 1990s was one of its most noteworthy voices. As mainstream Hip-Hop had become more commercialized, the NYC poetry scene became an important launchpad for artists looking to distinguish themselves in other ways. Future stars like Mos Def and Erykah Badu became regulars, as poets like muMs became pillars.
In 2018, Grant explained how much Hip-Hop has always informed his art.
"I come from the very first generation of Hip-Hop ever. I am born and bred in the Bronx. I have such an appreciation for Hip-Hop and it is the core essence of my craft. I just like to find different places that I can go with that."
From 1997 to 2003, Grant played Arnold "Poet" Jackson, heroin addict and poetry-reciting prisoner on HBO's groundbreaking drama Oz. His performances gave the gritty series a sense of hopeless grandeur, a sort of elevated, Shakespearean pathos amongst all of the nihilism.
On Oz, muMs got his widest exposure. His art was jawdropping to those who'd missed SlamNation and Oz put him squarely in America's living rooms once a week on one of the most celebrated shows on television. In this new platform, he found a way to reconnect with the mainstream, at a time when he would later say the industry was beginning to shift the music he'd loved so much.
"Once industry got involved, the natural creative, the natural expression, the natural progression of where Hip-Hop was gonna go was altered," he would say in 2014. "Because people need money. So therefore I’m gonna write lines like this ‘cause I gotta get paid. And they’re successful, so let’s keep doing it like that. It’s like a plant that grows and then got digitized."
But for Grant, his poetry was Hip-Hop personified. It was unfiltered and uncompromised.
"I love words and putting them together so that they just sound good coming out of my mouth," he stated directly in 2010. "It is what I love about being a rapper. Words. Language. And everything I can create with them. To be able to move the crowd."
With the visibility from Oz came even more opportunities. muMs became a fixture on another HBO series, Def Poetry Jam.
From there, Grant's list of credits only grew. He would appear on Chappelle's Show, The Sopranos, Boston Legal, The Knick, Horace and Pete, and Luke Cage over the next several years; while also developing his craft in theater. He joined New York's LAByrinth Theater Company where he would work with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He produced the autobiographical one-man show A Sucker Emcee, which detailed his adolescence in the Bronx.
"I like to go to the theater and watch a play that pushes the envelope," he told Adam Szymkowicz in 2010. "[A play that] tackles the topics no one wants to discuss. I hate revivals. I am very much a futurist and want to see theater remake itself for the 21st century."
Grant would also work with Spike Lee, appearing in Lee's BlacKkKlansman and Bamboozled. He also played Cash Jackson in Lee's Netflix series She's Gotta Have It.
At the time of his death, Grant was shooting another project in Atlanta. His presence looms large over the past two decades of Black art and entertainment. Even if you didn't realize just how vast and wide his career arc has been, if you've been paying attention, then you know Craig "muMs" Grant. His death was a shocking reminder that we all have a finite amount of time to maximize our gifts. He made the most of his.
* HEADER CREDIT: Craig Grant (aka muMs) performs poetry at the Alicia Keys "Tears For Water" book release party at The Harlem Grill November 9, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)