Cool menthol smoke swirled out of Will "Da Real One" Bell's mouth and nostrils as he stood for the last time near the tinted-glass entrance to his joint, the Literary Café & Poetry Lounge. Twenty minutes past midnight on May 29, the 47-year-old poet was near his black Dodge Charger in the parking lot of the shopping center where his spoken-word sanctuary was located. He had just left a message on local comedian Larry Dogg's cell phone, asking if he could send some freestyle rappers, who had stopped by Will's café to perform, to the event his jokester buddy was hosting.
The mood at the café wasn't to the rappers' liking, and Will's patrons didn't particularly embrace the song that one of the lyricists performed. Will didn't want anyone to feel unwelcome the last night he opened his doors. So he sought to resolve any animosity through a diplomatic gesture.
For the past five years, Will had bounced from location to location, spreading his gospel through a silky baritone voice that dropped rapid-fire verses about the grim realities facing African-American men growing up in Miami. He was a dark-skinned pied piper with a handsome smile that belied his imposing, broad-shouldered, six-foot-five frame. He wasn't the kind of man who would broadcast any of the troubles that undoubtedly weighed on his mind that evening.
Two years ago, he had settled into a quaint North Miami storefront at 931-933 NE 125th St., tucked between an accountant's office and the popular bakery Grateful Bread. The venue sated Will's hunger for poetry while supplying a steady diet of his words for other poets and poetry lovers from across the region.
But Memorial Day weekend was it. The time had come to shut down the Literary Café. He had survived more evictions than he could count on his large, smooth hands by cobbling together enough money through donations and borrowed cash to pay the rent late. Only his closest friends knew he had made plans to bounce out of there in April, when he told them he was through. But he couldn't bring himself to lock the doors for good. The reason was the tight-knit group of spoken-word artists that spit poems past midnight at least four times a week at the café.
As he puffed on his last Newport cigarette, he battled with the angst and anticipation of down-sizing. His plan was to continue hosting his popular Saturday-night poetry readings at Mocha Lounge on 738 NE 125th St. He would dedicate more time to touring the country like he did in the old days, when he was riding high from appearances on Russell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam on HBO.
But the café was his baby. He breathed life into it. He kept it going for almost half a decade even though he struggled to pay overhead costs. He certainly wasn't turning a profit. Walking away now should have been a tremendous relief.
Still, the inevitable reality of closing gnawed at Will"Da Real One" Bell on what would be the last night of his life.
I run till I find myself standing in the middle of an intersection in Las Vegas and it's September 7, 1996
The day Tupac was followed by an entourage of eyewitnesses but everybody claimed not to see shit
So I run alongside the passenger side and pull Tupac out so Suge Knight is the only motherfucka to get hit
Then I hear that scream again:
You better run, nigga.
So I run
I run till I find myself in L.A. Just in time to push Biggie out of the way of the last gun blast
And I'm lying there with this hot lead in my ass,
And I'm thinking, oh God,
At last, I ain't gotta run no more
I ain't got to be nobody's nigga no more.
The audience at Manhattan's Supper Club grew quiet as Will took the stage for his performance on Def Poetry Jam. It was a wintry February night in 2004. He sported black boots, black jeans, and a black T-shirt with bold white letters spelling out "Black on Black Rhyme," one of his favorite poetry groups, based in Tallahassee. He also wore a black glove on his right hand.
Scowling and gesticulating, Will unloaded a steady staccato of words that form the verses to his poem "So I Run," a boiling-with-rage ballad documenting his dreams of saving his African-American heroes Harriet Tubman, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and two of hip-hop's most important rappers: Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
His voice climbed decibels as he ripped through the poem. Reading the last stanza, Will raised his gloved fist and bowed his head in homage to 1968 Olympic medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-power salute. The audience rose to its feet and roared as Da Real One coolly walked offstage.
That moment catapulted Will's budding career as a poet. It made him a popular commodity. He toured coast to coast doing national slam competitions. He traveled to Seattle, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and other U.S. cities. He also landed gigs from Toronto to Kingston. He released his first spoken-word CD, Verbal Vision, and began working with local rappers such as Luther Campbell, Trick Daddy, and Trina. For inspiration he read the works of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, and, most recently, the Last Poets, of the '60s civil rights movement.
Poets from across the nation, including former Cosby Show star Malcolm Jamal-Warner, came to Miami to hear Will speak. And like so many others who met Will, Jamal-Warner became a fan and friend. "I must have listened to his CD a good 13 times," Jamal-Warner recalls. "I never got to tell Will that no other poet made me question my own creativity like he did."
With the success came perks. Will would go to his favorite stores and return home with bags of free clothes, says his girlfriend of 13 years, Tosca Carroll. "With all his accomplishments, boutiques would give him stuff to wear onstage because it was free advertising for their business," Tosca recalls. "He had so many size 13 sneakers in our closet that I told him we needed a bigger closet if he was going to bring anymore home."
But for all the acclaim he garnered, Will often lamented that making poetry didn't necessarily translate to making enough money to pay the bills. Friend and fellow poet Rebecca "Butterfly" Vaughns remembers talking to Will about his frustrations. He once told her: "Butterfly, I don't know how you do this full time. This poetry thing needs to pick up or I am going to have to move on to something else."
She constantly reminded him that poetry is more about passion than profession. "It's all about patience," Butterfly told him. "Give it time. Nothing happens overnight."
Will shrugged and smiled. "OK, I'll stick with it. But, man, it's hard."
I run till I get to the night of February 21, 1965
And I find myself standing backstage at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom
Trying to explain to Malcolm that the enemy has sent four of his goons
And I explain that, yes, Malcolm, we know change is going to come
But it don't have to be this soon
So I take a few of Malcolm's security people and we just clear the whole motherfucking room
All of a sudden the CIA shows up screaming:
You better run, nigga.
So I run
I run till I get to April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee
And I'm standing in front of the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King
And shots begin to ring
And I just don't want to lift every voice and sing
So I scoot back
And I cover Dr. King with my own body
As we hit the floor
Because today it's the only damn Jesus that I'm willing to die for.
Forty minutes past midnight on May 29, while other poets were lost in conversation near the entrance of the Literary Café, Will put out his cigarette and walked to his Charger. No one paid close attention to a car that pulled into the parking lot, almost blocking Will's ride. A young black man emerged from the passenger side. He approached Will as if he knew him. Muzzle flashes and three loud pops shattered the calm, muggy night. The poets scattered, some rushing back into the café. Da Real One wasn't with them. He was still outside, slumped on the ground next to his Charger.
Will died instantly from his gunshot wounds, according to witnesses.
Nearly two months later, North Miami Police homicide detectives have no leads. The suspects were not trying to rob Will — they didn't take his jewelry or cash. The killers didn't leave behind any fingerprints or DNA evidence, either. And in the aftermath of the shooting, witnesses gave police differing descriptions of the getaway car's color. Some said it was light, others dark. Some said it had a rear spoiler.
Relatives and friends claim they don't know anyone who had a beef with Will, but they believe the killers definitely knew him. Butterfly, the poet who counseled Will about loving his craft, says their only hope is that one of the suspects turns himself in. "I know whoever did this is not getting the satisfaction they were seeking," she says. "I don't think his killers expected the outpouring of love over Will."
His death has devastated her and her fellow poets, Butterfly adds. "Will went through hell and back. He should have been dead in his 20s. But he turned his life around. That's what hurts the most."
I can't write about shit like having my own room as a child
I can't write about how my mother was so proud of my report cards
Due to my depressed state because of her psychological profile
I can't write about how I grew up to be a soldier for this great nation
Without getting into how I was denied and denied time and time again
Through the rejection of my college applications
In order for me to deal with this world, once upon a time I had to snort not one, not two, but at least three lines.
I can't write about the countless drug deals in my mother's home and stop to think it was my mother's life I was risking.
Childhood for Will Da Real One was an all-too-familiar tale of African-American boys growing up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Miami. His dad, Will Sr., split from his mom, Ruby, when Will was 10 years old. The single mother and her three children (Will, then-8-year-old Calvin, and then-2-year-old Cynthia) lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Edison Court Projects, a stretch of government-subsidized bungalows at NW 62nd Street and Third Avenue, where Will once owned his own corner to sell cocaine.
Ruby made ends meet working as a housekeeper in Miami Beach, says Cynthia, who for the past year had allowed Will to live with her and her husband. Their pops was a carpenter who would see his children on the weekends, usually to take them on outings to visit relatives. The Bell children also spent time with their older half-siblings: two sisters and a brother from Ruby's first marriage. "Mom nicknamed Will 'Spucky,'" Cynthia recalls. "Everyone in the family called him Spucky, but he never liked being called that in public."
Calvin remembers his older brother would always look after him. When Calvin was 12, Will saved him from drowning in the Edison Park Elementary pool. Three years later, Will handed him his first alcoholic beverage: a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. "I was on our front porch crying like a baby," says Calvin, now 42. "I think he intended to give me something I didn't like so I wouldn't drink."
According to his siblings, Will's poetry describes the pain, anger, and resentment he felt throughout his boyhood and teen years because his parents were not together. Calvin's 15-year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking inspired one of Will's poems about the cruelties of the criminal justice system. But when he was a kid, Will never manifested his angst on paper.
Instead, he channeled his rage through sports. He played varsity basketball and football when he attended Miami Edison Senior High. Walter Ramsey, who played defensive tackle, remembers the first time Will took the field as a linebacker for a game. "He hit this boy so hard that the kid's helmet turned sideways," Ramsey gushes. "The guy gets up screaming that he is blind, while me and Bell were just cracking up on the sideline."
Sports kept Will in school, Cynthia says. "He had to maintain good grades if he wanted to stay on the team. He thought he wanted to play sports professionally, but he didn't want to go to college."
So he enlisted in the Army. "I think he only finished school and went to the service to make Mom proud," Cynthia adds. "It's not like he always talked about joining the Army. It was just a sudden decision."
After a two-and-a-half-year military stint, Will returned home. Soon he was hustling on the streets, peddling coke, and carrying a gun for protection. The arrests began piling up. On August 18, 1988, Will was arrested for aggravated assault with a weapon. Two months later, he was nabbed for cocaine possession. He was caught holding eight grams. In November, he was busted for making a false report.
In 1990, he was arrested for aggravated battery in February, carrying a concealed firearm in June, and cocaine possession in October. He was sentenced to ten months in county jail on the aggravated battery and cocaine possession charges, but served only eight. "I think Will turned to hustling because he was confused about his life's direction," Cynthia says. "He didn't know any better."
While he was behind bars, Will tapped into his hidden talent. He penned a love note to an imaginary woman waiting for him, promising to be faithful and to change his delinquent ways. A fellow inmate who read the letter, Lyndell Davis, was instantly moved. "Yo, man, you're writing poetry," Lyndell told Will.
So the pair began writing love letters for other prisoners in exchange for commissary items such as cigarettes and candy bars. The business flourished until Will was released in 1991.
Once he was a free man, the poetry stopped flowing.
For your love
For your love
Like Moses, I'll part the sea
Create new levels of intimacy
Climb the highest mountain
And bring you back the peak
Stop traffic in its tracks while you cross the street
Shit, girl, I'll even put a soup line in Ethiopia so the whole country can eat.
Tosca Carroll, a thin 53-year-old real estate broker with a dimpled smile, clicks through an album of photographs on her laptop computer. In one image, she sits on Will's lap. The backdrop is the Hilton Hawaii Village in Waikiki, where they stayed during a two-week vacation in 2005. Another photo shows Will with his arm around Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo in the hotel lobby during the same trip. The next pic catches Da Real One peeking up the skirt of a bronze statue in the middle of a fountain. Tosca also has pictures of her and Will on a Jamaican getaway, where she persuaded her boyfriend to go parasailing. "I can still see him turning green," she says. "He had never been out on a boat."
During a two-hour conversation one week after Will's funeral, Tosca reminisces about her deceased lover's romantic side, like the time he had 11 strangers bring her a single rose each while she was having lunch with a group of friends on Valentine's Day. "Then he walks into the restaurant holding the 12th rose," she says with a beaming grin. "He wrote me love poems too. We were soul mates."
Tosca met Will 13 years ago, before he became a professional poet. At the time, he was employed by the state health department as a homeless outreach worker. He had been married and divorced thrice by the time he encountered Tosca. He spent his workday driving a van, passing out condoms to people on the streets, and driving them to shelters. At night, he gave speeches to victims of domestic violence. Tosca attended one of his talks. "I was pleasantly surprised," she says. "He was empowering the women, and he moved me when he told them that he wanted to apologize for all the wrong things men had done to them."
From there, she accompanied Will and one of his friends to a pool hall. "I flirted with him all night," she says. "I just developed this crush on him." The relationship blossomed along with his poetry. She traveled with him on tour. "We drove everywhere," she says. "Bell loved driving." The relationship was very independent, she says. "We were never on top of each other about where we were at or who we were with."
Tosca knew everything about Will, even the times when he ran afoul of the law — carrying firearms, driving with a suspended license, writing fraudulent checks. "He was no saint," she says.
Will had difficulty letting go of his delinquent tendencies. "He came from a world where walking around without protection is a joke," Tosca explains. "He finally stopped carrying a gun after we had a conversation that if he got caught again, he was going back to prison. It took him awhile to have the faith that he didn't need to live that life anymore."
Tosca doesn't know who would want to kill her boyfriend, but she has begun collecting donations from Will's friends and fans to augment a $1,000 reward put up by Crime Stoppers of Miami-Dade.
She says Will could have been killed over something as innocuous as inadvertently belittling his murderer. "Somewhere along the way, he may have made someone feel so small that this person decided to become a hit man," Tosca says. "Yeah, but not much of a hit man since he took out a poet."
See, I want to hear words put together to create new thoughts
Fuck always talking about underground railroads and wars that were fought
I want to hear about the artist
And the shit inside them that made them start this
You know, like how they went from being singers
To having callouses on their index fingers
From writing all night
And producing to sleep until words fall right
I am hungry for poetry.
In 2007, three years after his breakout performance on Def Poetry Jam, Will created the Literary Café & Poetry Lounge. His dream was to create his version of the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. He turned his joint into one of the most popular poetry venues in South Florida, according to Tosca. "He kept the place open no matter what," she says. "Bell gave everybody a stage. No one went in there and was told they were a bad poet."
Will's casual attitude made it easy for him to take on protégés such as Anomaly and Youngsta, a couple of poets now in their 20s who owe a great deal of their success to Da Real One's guidance. He took on Anomaly as his little sister. Whenever Will went out of town, he left her in charge of the café's poetry nights.
In 2004, Youngsta was a 17-year-old North Miami Senior High student when he met Will at a poetry reading in the school's library. "From there, we began our friendship in earnest," the young poet says. "He was the positive male figure in my life."
Two years later, Will caught on to Anomaly, who was making her first appearance at the Bohemia Room, a Wednesday-night gathering of poets that at the time was held at Power Studios in the Design District. "He pulled me to the side and coached me," she says. "He taught me how to watch the crowd and bring my poems to life."
With Will's guidance, she learned the ropes — from how to get booked for shows to getting paid what she was worth, Anomaly says. She credits him with helping her land a spot on BET's Lyric Café. "He molded me as a performance poet," she attests. "And he had the confidence to make me his cohost. I'm now hosting events, taking up the torch. It has been helping me cope with his absence."
The entire spoken-word community converged at the Literary Café, where Will didn't have to pay for a staff because fellow poets, and even some fans, volunteered to wait tables, serve drinks, and play DJ. But Will still had to pay for rent, electricity, and Internet.
He didn't serve food or offer a full bar because he didn't have a liquor license, so Will's main income was the $10 cover he charged. With no steady revenue, he was evicted from the first two café locations in North Miami for not paying rent. "He let a lot of people come in for free," Tosca says. "He kept it open so the people would keep coming back. He loved that café so much."
What made the venture more difficult, she says, was that Will couldn't travel for national performances and tend to the café at the same time. "He grinded harder than any of the poets," she says. "But there came a point when he couldn't go on the road."
The café became a source of constant friction between Will and Tosca. It was one reason she asked him to move out in 2008 when she was facing her own financial troubles. "My house was in a constant state of foreclosure," she says. "We never ended our relationship, but I needed some space." After a year of living on his own, Will moved in with his sister Cynthia.
In 2009, he moved the café to 931-933 NE 125th St., where the landlord, a company called 955 Partners, sued Will in Miami-Dade Circuit Court eight separate times, seeking to evict him. According to court records, the lawsuits were settled and the café was allowed to remain.
"He always paid the rent, albeit late," Tosca admits. "Obviously he paid it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been there so long." She says he paid the lease with donations and loans from friends and supporters.
Ronnie Espinao, 955 Partner's manager, acknowledges he allowed Will to stay even though his tenant was always tardy with the rent. "At the end of the day, he came up with the money," Espinao says. "We never had to call the police on him. He never gave us any grief."
At the time of his murder, Will was again a couple of months behind. "I was supposed to see him to collect some money from him," Espinao says. "But that was the day after he was shot."
Will made up his mind to close the café so he could focus on touring again, she says. He would continue his popular Saturday-night poetry reading, but at Mocha Lounge, located just a couple of blocks away. "I sensed excitement and pensiveness in his voice," Tosca recalls. "He welcomed the change. At the same time, it bugged him that he was closing the café. He really wanted to make it succeed."
Starving for self-expression, spoken word keeps my tongue erected
But check it, like a panther I creep
Just waiting for a chance to speak
And I am kind of frustrated cuz
Vibes like this only happen once a week
I'm just trying to hook up to hear another poet's flow
Exchange numbers in the club, but watch 'em lose it
The minute they walk out that door
No return phone calls, so now I don't even want to exchange numbers no more
But I am hungry.
Cynthia Bell-Lewis, Will's sister, sits next to her husband, Marlon, at the dining room table where her brother would begin and end his daily routine. For about a year, Will lived in the couple's two-bedroom North Miami apartment, just a ten-minute drive from the Literary Café & Poetry Lounge.
It had been a rough year for Will. On March 15, 2010, their 71-year-old mother, Ruby, died of heart failure. That afternoon, Will had picked her up from the hospital, where she had been recovering from a stroke. "Will was with her when she stopped breathing," Cynthia says. "After her funeral, he would sit on Mom's porch for hours. He blamed himself for her death."
Cynthia says Will began attending Sunday church service more frequently. He had even gone to a Christian revival a month before his murder. "He did more churchgoing in the past year than he did his entire life," Cynthia says. "His poetry started showing more references to God and spirituality."
A week before his death, Will was having trouble sleeping, his sister says. "He looked sad and worried. The best day he had was the night [May 22] the Miami Heat beat the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals."
Her brother was a total homer. He rooted for all the sports teams representing the 305. "After that, he went back into this funk," Cynthia says.
Will didn't tell her what was bothering him, but she figured he was upset about closing down his spot. "My brother and I had the type of relationship that he could talk to me about whatever," Cynthia says. "I know he was trying to keep the café going, but it wasn't paying the bills. He even talked about getting another job."The café was Will's life, Marlon adds. "Even on Mondays and Tuesdays when he was closed, he was there coaching up-and-coming poets," he says. "He was such a tremendous guy, which is why we don't understand who would want to kill him."
Marlon doesn't believe the poet would have remained quiet if he was aware someone was coming for him. "If he knew he was facing a life-threatening situation, he wouldn't have been closed-mouth about it," he says. "He would have expressed it to somebody."
Cynthia points out Will stopped carrying a gun a decade ago. "The way they shot him was so personal," she says. "This was a senseless killing."
Who shall defend my honor, huh?
Who will stand with me with sword in hand to slay the oncoming ridicule due to the envy and jealousy?
Who will scream out in the hidden courtrooms filled with my haters that I'm innocent, huh?
Instead watching them nail my feet and hands to wood while my followers can only find the courage to weep, or agree.
Who will speak out for me?
The afternoon of June 4, the casket holding Will's body sat in front of the altar inside the Upper Room Ministries church at 3800 NW 199th St. in Miami Gardens. A folded American flag lay near his head. He was dressed in a tan suit with a blue plaid tie and matching handkerchief in the breast pocket. Even in death, Will looked sharp.
Will Sr., Cynthia, Calvin, and their half-siblings led a line of relatives and friends snaking out to the church's parking lot to pay their last respects to the fallen poet. Church volunteers placed folding chairs in the lobby for folks who couldn't find a seat inside the main worship room. And it remained standing-room-only during Will's sendoff.
His high school football teammate Walter Ramsey was one of the first to eulogize Da Real One. Ramsey reminisced about one of their games and read a poem he wrote that he never got to share with Will. "Me and Bell will always be brothers," he said.
Then a video of Malcolm Jamal-Warner played on a large TV screen. Fighting back tears, Jamal-Warner recalled meeting Will and hearing his CD for the first time. "He made me dig down deep," he said. "He made me redefine my work as a poet. My life has been impacted by Will Da Real One."
Six poets, including Youngsta and Anomaly, read Will's works. Anomaly closed the service by reciting a dark poem Will wrote about the painful thoughts Jesus must have experienced when he was nailed to the cross. As she sobbed through the lines, the church grew quiet. Some people gasped at the chilling prose. When she was finished, Anomaly looked up.
"Will was the only brother I ever had," she said. "He adopted me from the moment he first saw me onstage. My mom never met him, but whenever I told her I was going to a spot where Will was at, she knew she didn't have to worry about me." Anomaly also had a message for the folks wanting to know if the Literary Café would continue: "The answer is yes."
At the cemetery, after most of the mourners had departed, four poets remained. Miami wordsmith Marc Marcel, Alabama native Huggy Bear, Tallahassee Black-On-Black-Rhyme troupe member Keith Rogers, and Butterfly took turns shoveling dirt onto Will's casket. When the grave was filled, Butterfly dropped to her knees and wrote a message in the soil:
"Here lies a great poet. Will 'Da Real One' Bell."