Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” still makes Blake Melvin cringe. It’s the song he chose for his 2005 audition at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. “My voice was hoarse because the room was pitch black and three people were in front of me, their eyes piercing through
my soul,” he recalls.
Unlike other eighth graders vying for admittance to CAPA, Melvin didn’t have experience performing. He mostly bombed “September.” Then he flubbed the lines to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Annabel Lee.” Instead of beginning again, he tried something else. “I started telling a story freestyle, got the flow down and went with it,” he says.
Since then, Melvin has performed at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Secret Loft in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and various venues in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre. In late June, he drops a four-track EP, his first recording. Its title, Blue Horses, refers to Melvin’s struggles with art, life and love. “It’s horses running through the blue period, galloping through depression to reach greener pastures,” he says.
Melvin isn’t rolling in green just yet. He pays the bills by working two jobs, commuting to the Main Line from his home in West Philadelphia. He works in customer support at Ardmore’s Trace gift shop. He’s also been a barista at Green Engine Coffee Co. in Haverford since it opened in 2015. He performs regularly at both spots. “Blake’s poetry is important, impactful and beautiful,” says Kelsey Bush, who runs Green Engine with Zach Morris. “It’s his right and his duty to talk about whatever he wants to talk about—and his audience responds.”
Some of the themes in Melvin’s work come from his transient childhood. Looked after by a single mother, grandparents and family friends, Melvin moved around a lot, living in assorted Philadelphia neighborhoods. “It was a community effort to raise me,” he says.
Still, his mom has remained a presence in his life. “[CAPA] was my mother’s doing,” he says. “She saw my talent.”
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Melvin spent more than an hour each day commuting from his Mount Airy home to CAPA’s Center City campus. “I took a bus to the train to catch the train to take one more bus,” he says. “But it was worth it. CAPA helped me become the person I am.”
The school also helped him become a poet, though his natural ability with language was evident at a young age. Melvin laughs at the memory of his first writing efforts. “They were A-B-C, Cat in the Hat-style poems,” he says. “‘Grandmothers are mothers who are grand’ —really bad, really cheesy.”
At CAPA, Melvin learned about cadence and rhythm while he boosted his vocabulary. He started by picking seven letters out of the alphabet and crafting words from those to write a poem. To challenge himself further, he’d ask other people to supply the words. “Using those words, I’d write a poem,” he says. “That process made me think—and create—outside the box.”
These days, Melvin uses a recording app on his phone to capture his thoughts whenever inspiration hits. He writes and records every day “to stay in shape, like an athlete,” he says.
Before Melvin puts a poem into his regular spoken-word rotation, he reads it in front of a mirror, evaluating and perfecting his facial expressions and mouth movements. “A lot of my words are about emotions, so if the emotion isn’t in the mirror, I have to change the words,” he says. “The emotion has to feel genuine.”
Melvin is also supplying lyrics to other artists. He’s collaborated with the artist known as Little Dream and the Washington, D.C., band Marlee in the Mixx. “Now I can step outside myself and write for other people,” he says.
He also produces events that feature the region’s up-and-coming spoken-word artists. Before the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled his scheduled performances, he headlined his own standing-room-only show at Green Engine Coffee. Once restrictions are lifted, expect to see Melvin performing tracks from his new EP, which is available on Spotify, iTunes and all streaming platforms.