Energised. That’s the way I am still feeling now, having returned from a spoken word poetry night at SOAS University, London. Hosted by poet, writer and teacher, JJ Bola, the evening (on April 30) was the final event in series that has grown far beyond what its organisers at the Decolonising Our Minds Society expected.
They’ve held events about “deconstructing social norms that are remnants of colonial thought” for last couple months, including a discussion with British-Jamaican filmmaker, Cecile Emeke, which had to be moved to a bigger venue because of sheer demand. The cosy chillout zone-cum-lecture space in SOAS’s main building was similarly packed for yesterday night’s parade of vibrant performances.
If I could show the sights, bring you the sounds and allow you to feel the exchange of energies at play that night, at Hype your writers like your rappers, with more than these simple words, I would. Videos were taken, but they’re never around when you need them and nor do they convey the full flavour in their 16:9 window frame. But, even without a poet roster or schedule sheet for this open mic night, I will try, right now, to give you a sense of what occurred.
“At first, I struggled to call myself a poet” Bola said midway through the night, summing up charmingly the image of the medium. If you’re scribbling poetry down in your diary, it’s not something you just go tell your homeboys about, he said, describing how one day one of his muscle-bound brethren plucked his diary out of his hands and started reading his poems. “All the mandems reading my poems? I thought, ‘oh, no! I’m going have to move out the ends, my name’s Matthew now…’” he joked, which was met by ticklish laughter. The point to his anecdote however was that his muscle-bound brother was understanding, approving even, because he felt something from it. And that’s the way this night was from beginning to end.
Marathon stanzas kicked off the procession of eager wordsmiths. The next, more direct, keen to get a trio of poems off his chest, though only his tale of a broken phone, fake Facebook friends and the “bitch” that left him all alone remain (we’ll return to that last part later).
David Lee Morgan
Berlin-born, US-raised, and now London-based poet, David Lee Morgan, was the first special guest of the night. Dressed modestly in a faded, well-worn brown jacket and loose black trousers, his greying bread trimmed short, some may well have mistook this poet for some kind of beatnik. But leaping straight into the moment, as if grabbing the audiences’ ears with invisible hands, he had them with a wild rhythm, a manic energy and vibrated, juicy, juxtaposing lines about Ferguson and the state of race relations that prompted an explosion of applause. The news can’t contain this guy. Check him out.
One poet later, the patient and watchful Victoriána Bulley took the stage. Her poem, ‘Girls in arpeggio’, was primarily one for black women, but can, and frankly should, be appreciated by all. Because if you believe in gender and racial equality, but you’re not familiar with words such as ‘intersectionality’, then it is poets like Bulley who will open your mind to what it means to be young, black and female. With a softly spoken tone she conjured images of pin-up girls, housewives and rebellious music video dancers with her four-act poem. Clicking during a spoken word performance is a sign of approval, similar to putting up your lighter or clapping at a concert. And the clicks were popping off during her fourth act, Realpolitik, as Bulley plucked out examples of brown things society adores (brown bread, brown biscuits, the brown that covers uncut diamonds)… and brown girls? Mmm, I’ll leave you to give her poem a read and ponder that.
Then there’s Shareefa Panchbhaya, or to use her street name, Shareefa Energy. And does this lady have energy. Small in stature, but humongous in heart, her cadence was clear, her flow effortless, as she “embraced the life, holding onto his fingers… she began to recognise her own greatness”. She has an EP coming, which she describes as “like a healing for women… I’m going through my own journey, and I’m hoping it will support other people on their journey”. One to watch.
Nathaniel Nye, aka Nat Nye, lit a fire in the SOAS common room. Rapping loud and clear, he bit into his words, demanding to be heard. He spoke of Obama’s lack of change, the meagre postgrad wage and how the nine-to-five shackles have replaced the harvesting of sugarcane. His second poem mused on money and the Information Age, and questioned whether any of it is really making us better people. A powerful poet, from south London, best sampled for yourself.
The majestic Theresa Lola may one day need no introduction, that is if the whoops of adoration and the Lauryn Hill-backed introduction by Bola (“when I first met this artist I thought, ‘she’s like the [creative] little sister you always wanted’. I could point at a crowd and say, ‘go!’”) are anything to go by. I was fortunate enough to see Lola perform earlier this month at GNC’s Undisclosed. She performed two poems, the first about black oppression (‘We Are Not Trees’), the second about the condemnation of black women (‘Black Woman Keeps Praying’), and ushered in complete silence from the assembled crowd with her surefooted intonation. I cannot claim to know the who’s who of the UK spoken word circuit, but Lola is an incredible talent for her age. Articulate, eloquent and greatly affecting, she had the audience spellbound.
Spoken word artist Rhael Cape, aka LionHeart, wound himself up, and then let rip – right from memory, no notes whatsoever. This fella gave one of most physical performances of the night, and kept the audience in his grasp with moments of humour even after he conjured haunting images of the ghosts of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor. His words were vivid (“See, I never knew why girls used to go after bad boys in school / but I guess these girls saw kings who couldn’t be ruled.”) and impactful, coloured by wittily-written meanings between the lines. There’s plenty of that in ‘All of Me’, a poem about a guy stuck in the friend zone, but who still wants to see his “modern day Mona Lisa” to be happy.
And the rest: love, flow and the motherland
Elsewhere, there were poems about the motherland – that’s Africa, not Russia. Poems about love, affection and intimacy (“she never did find out about your tattoo”). Poems about activism and the ongoing atrocities in Congo. Unapologetic, profanity-filled poems from a self-professed “angry, black and woman”. Poems lambasting the laziness of others in their desire to avoid saying Somali phrases (“Apparently, African names are hard to chew and I wouldn’t want you hurting your baby teeth”). Poems about autobiographies that change lives. Poems about “little black girls from Queens”. Poems about rising up and fighting the power, because “we’re all one community and what we need right now is unity”. Poems from a sister who could have been riffing on Barbara Acklin or Candi Staton, as she pondered “where have all the good men gone?”.
JJ Bola and the coming of Word
Tonight was also intended as a pre-launch for JJ Bola’s upcoming poetry book, Word. When the smoke had settled from our 18 other poets, he took the stage to recite a few of his own. His genial character had gradually been revealing itself as a the night had progressed, from encouraging the crowd to show love for his fellow poets to comparing George Orwell’s Ninety Eighty-Four to a rapper’s debut album (“everything before that was like his mixtape”). He left the audience with plenty of food for thought from his poems, which touched on what is, or should be, to be a man (dedicating it to the fella who was keen to spit the b-word earlier in the night; “Listen bro, the fact is we were lied to…”), the hypocrisy of hip hop (“I found hip hop in a comatose state…”) and “a message of hope” (‘Please Do Not Run: Fly’).
A long, endlessly fruitful and inspiring evening. Like Bola says, “hype your writers like you do your rapper”. What can say, except it was a night of black excellence.
If you’re a writer, poet or just interested in learning more about the decolonisation series, contact SOAS’s Decolonising Our Minds Society. They are keen to hear from other creatives for future events.
Images: Mohamed ‘Mo Rhymes’ Mohamed (main); JJ Bola (body)