Johnny B.A.N.G. Reilly, Being Free

by Olivia Zhu

When I first get to meet Johnny B.A.N.G. Reilly, he looks tired. Really tired, leaning back away from his computer screen with most of his head cocooned tight in a sweatshirt hood. The light is wan, his hood is grey, and his famous voice is at first raspy and subdued. As quiet as he is, though, Reilly speaks in punctuated, verse-like phrases. His responses to my questions seem to arrive as fully formed from his head as do the spoken word, “visual” poems he has become known for.

Chief among these is “Dear Brother,” a spec ad for Johnnie Walker created by two students, Daniel Titz and Dorian Lebherz. Since the video was uploaded half a year ago, it has amassed over four million views and plenty of praise—including some for the haunting poem and voiceover by Reilly.

“Dear Brother” was, in fact, how I learned about Reilly in the first place. He somehow has the ability to sound joyous and heartbroken in the same breath, with words timed so they roll out perfectly at the last possible second to still sound melodic. That perfect rhythm might be attributed to his time as a street dancer, or as a mixed martial artist. Yet “my rhythm comes from what’s actually beating in my chest,” says Reilly. After suffering a heart attack due to a former drug habit, he experienced irregular heartbeats that sped up and slowed down, informing the cadence of his poems. He rushes and pauses and sometimes drops single syllables, leaving them to float amidst longer phrases.

The timing, the gravel-in-the-sun voice—they make Reilly’s work distinct. However, the YouTube video makes it clear the filmmakers who created “Dear Brother” credit themselves, along with Reilly, for the creation of the poem. In the comments, they note that “It was written by voice actor John “Bang” Reilly in collaboration with us.” Reilly disagrees.

He says that the attention he’s received from “Dear Brother” is entirely due to another work he created almost a year before called “Nostalgia,” in collaboration with filmmaker Judith Veenendaal. On her Vimeo page, she calls it a “visual poem,” perhaps because of how she had mapped images to the meaning and pattern of Reilly’s words. According to Reilly, Titz and Lebherz “ripped it [“Nostalgia”] off completely. The music is the same. They used me. And at the end of it, they used the word ‘free.’” He seems more frustrated over the fact Veenendaal had not received any sort of credit for her work than Titz and Lebherz’s assertion that they helped in the writing of the poem. Reilly says to write it, he had to imagine carrying his own brother’s ashes—making the claim on his work all the more hurtful.

Nostalgia from Judith Veenendaal on Vimeo.

When comparing “Nostalgia” and “Dear Brother,” it seems clear that the former inspired the latter. “Nostalgia” opens with a set of lines read calmly, though they are replete with remembered pain (note that all the following emphasis mine):

“I have vivid memories from my youth
Horrible beatings for my truth
Hurts me and molds me
No one holds me my soul screams free. Free.”

In what seems like a clear parallel, “Dear Brother” begins as follows:

“Walking the roads of our youth
through the land of our childhood, our home and our truth
Be near me, guide me
always stay beside me so I can be free, free.

I’ve just bolded the repeated words, but take note, too, of the similar structure. Reilly is a frequent internal rhymer, a nod to his long-time experience with rap and street dance, and the reading of his lines alternate fast and slow. Moreover, the repetition of “free” in both pieces here is broken by a caesura, the long pause somehow conveying the poet’s questioning of what it might mean to be free.

Another point of similarity between the pieces has to do with the presence of two personas in each. In “Nostalgia,” there is an old poet and a young, childish poet, who tells his older self “I empty me to light you” and later, “I run away to run to me.” To Reilly, his younger self was preoccupied with seeming violent and becoming physically stronger. Now, he’s “concentrating on the other parts,” focusing on better expressing his soul, emptying his violent past to run toward his poetic work.

In “Dear Brother,” the personas are more obvious—perhaps due to the constraint of the film’s plot. The first half is spoken by the brother still alive, asking his sibling to stay near him and reminiscing on their adventures. In the latter half of the poem, though, the view shifts. Now the speaking brother comforts the other, saying

“if your heart’s full of sorrow, keep walking, don’t rest
and promise me from heart to chest
to never let your memories die, never.
I will always be alive and by your side
in your mind.”

All of this together would seem to indicate that, yes, Titz and Lebherz were heavily inspired by “Nostalgia”—possibly so much so they directed Reilly to repeat the motifs and structures of his previous work. Does that mean they collaborated with Reilly on the poem itself? Perhaps, depending on your definition of collaboration. Does it mean they wrote the poem? An affirmative answer there seems somewhat less likely. (Titz and Lebherz did not respond to a request for an interview).

Again, both poems end with the phrase “I’m free.” To Reilly, that means being “free from one-dimensional expression. I want to be three-dimensional, all aspects.” He means it in the sense that—as a former homeless man, ex-addict, and current heavily tattooed fighter—he looks “brutal,” but wants to move past that image, expressing “love and gentle emotions.” His collaborator over the past few years, Benjamin Hounam agrees: “now his whole thing is love, that’s what he’s on. He’s kind of evolved.”

Part of that evolution involves expressing in words what others cannot. Reilly seems to want to be a kind of medicine man, offering poems and voice recordings of them to people trying to make peace with their loved ones. He says his “ultimate dream” is to do voiceovers for other people, not just large corporations, especially since he feels he has always been able to write love, in any circumstance. Says Reilly, “No matter what situation I was in—whether I was homeless, whether I was addicted—when I was addicted to drugs, I still wrote love songs.”

Maybe that is why his partnership with Hounam has been so fruitful. Hounam, who has about half of Reilly’s 52 years, told me “words have never really been my thing.” Filmmaking, however, is. His collaboration with Reilly seems to have made them both prolific and—more than that—extremely proficient at the kind of “visual poems” that have made Reilly popular. In them, the poet fights. He dances. He stares, and he raps. And most of all, he recites. His process is a bit of an odd one: “I write a poem about a particular subject, and I may make a piece of film to that subject, but I never put that poem to that film. I just use it as a template. And then, in a month, I find another poem and put it on that film, and it just seems to work, like the subliminal is working with the unconscious.” However the works are made, they seem to achieve what Hounam says is their aim “to make everyday life epic.”

When critic Dana Gioia asked if poetry could matter, he wondered why poetry mixed so infrequently with other art forms. In fact, he implied that poetry’s “diminished stature” might be in part due to its self-isolation from other mediums. Reilly and Hounam could be reversing that trend. Reilly talks about other artists with enthusiasm, marveling at b-boys, fast rappers, inventive beat creators. He riffs on their work and seems hungry for new challenges, a philosophy taken from his time in the ring. When fighters are to be taught something new, Reilly says “your response is osu, ‘I’m going to do it.’ You dive in, and I love that. I think the way I’ve been living all my life is like osu.” That eagerness bears out in his collaboration with Hounam, also labeled OSU, which runs the gamut of moods and types of content.

The pairing of poetry and film might be what helps re-awaken popular interest in poetry. After all, Hounam found Reilly on the Internet, too, after following “random bits of poetry, or him fighting” posted online. After that, the younger man reached out, feeling compelled to partner with the poet. I think Reilly inspires that desire to connect in a lot more people, too. The success of “Dear Brother” seems a testament to his ability to reach others—and Reilly has already harnessed technology and his poetry to start talking about the topics he cares about: socioeconomic injustice, racism and prejudice, healthy living, and—above all—love.

By the end of our conversation, I realize he seems calm, not tired. Sometimes he’ll turn his head to talk to his daughter, showing off his facial tattoos—the ones that he says make him look more of a brute—in profile. When he smiles at his child, though, the curved tattoos seem to smile too. Reilly says that “now osu means to do something that I don’t do too often, which is to only express love.” From what I can tell, he’s doing it already.