Black Performance Poets: The new wave.
I am a verbal bulimic
I binge on words
yours theirs anyones
stolen words are delicious
I feast I feast I gorge
Hardly daring to breathe
not remembering to chew
till I am so full of them
I can?t move speak think... Then, woaghhhh, out they come
to appease or cajole
to stroke to whisper
to stab or to shoot
(lines from ?Verbal bulimic?, by Akure Wall)
Among the new wave of Black performance poets, the collective ?Urban Poets Society? has recently garnered much praise. It has been described as ?constantly striving to challenge the boundaries of spoken expression through a unique barrage of beats, rhymes and cosmic basslines... Heavy on the breakbeats, easy on the spirit and following in the tradition of abstract African thought...? (?Artrage?, March 1995).
Last April, The U.P.S. were present at the ?The Third Black Writers Festival? (Festival of Brent ?95), together with major figures in performance poetry such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jean `Binta? Breeze. They were also present at the 1995 London Poetry Festival where they organised a workshop. In June, they performed at the Greenwich Festival and participated in ?Embody?, an evening of performance poetry, dance, music and installations organised at Goldsmiths? College. In August, they performed ?Poetry for da people? at Spot, in Covent Garden. The collective has definitely been busy.
Roger Robinson and Vanessa Richards, U.P.S. members, participated in the Apples & Snakes poetry jams twice last summer; and Akure Wall was invited by the London Black Arts Network to perform during their arts conference, ?Race Towards the Millennium? (18 July).
Last year the U.P.S. started publishing ?Apocalipps? - a collection of poetry and images. They opened their first issue with the words: ?we observe the artistic paradigm set by our peoples worldwide... and try to contribute to the artistic sphere of Black peoples globally?. They define poetry as one of the channels through which tales are swapped in oral tradition.
Akure Wall is one the latest members of U.P.S. She has been performing only for a few months, but her poetry is intense and engaging enough to draw the attention of those who have had the chance to witness this young Nigerian woman on stage. She says she has always written, only now she is interested in getting to the audience rather than just keep her words as ?a kind of bedroom thing?.
Q.: What do you think of this sudden interest in poetry in Britain? Suddenly there are all these festivals, you know, Africa ?95, and so on? Isn?t it so exciting that it is suspicious?
A.: America is five years ahead England. This wave of interest in poetry started in America. And it started with rap, then it was brought here. For me, anyway, from a Black perspective, I see rap as the source for the new wave. Some people see poets as the rock stars of the nineties. It is fashionable. And it is fine with me. I am a kind of real believer in the idea of ?the new?. And what is culturally moving is the idea of ?the new?. There is a whole new wave of people breaking down the barriers in poetry; this thing about ?are you qualified to be a writer?? and ?is rap art??. And there are people who will come through with new things. They will use words to do something that is amazing, or maybe healing. I feel like it could be really important.
Q.: Let?s talk about the U.P.S. How did they come together as a group?
A.: From what I know, Remi Abbas and Charlie Williams had always been very interested in writing and rap. And they went to New York three years ago. Back then it was the time of the poetry jams and they were fascinated. It was this kind of ?second wave? or ?next wave? poetry. So when they came back they decided to have their own poetry jams here. But nobody really cared, nobody was interested. So what they did was send flyers announcing a party with free chicken! And a lot of people went there, and they said, ?O.K., before you get the chicken and can party you will listen to some poetry?. So they read their poems and at the beginning the crowd?s reaction was ?Poetry, man! What are you saying??, but at the end they all agreed it was quite cool. That is how they got people into jams! They have really managed to get things to a ?people- level?, which is really important because people still have the picture of the old- school poetry; really the uptight, literary, English- establishment kind of thing. So I never say I?m a poet, I say I write stories, which is what I basically do. And I try to think about the audience, because, however interested in poetry they are, people have got a very short attention- span; so I keep my poems short, too.
Q.: Have you always written poetry?
A.: Yes, I was this kind of silent good child, you know, like most women. I don?t think I ever said ?no?. So writing kind of saved my life. And I feel really lucky it happened that way, because it has made me write about everything. And I have managed to get beyond personal identity poetry. Even if at the end of the day I am trying to write for me, to tell my story to myself because I haven?t seen it out. I?m trying to tell the story of a woman half in one culture, half in another culture.
Q.: How did you progress from the teenager writing to performance poetry?
A.: Well, I started giving my words a song structure, because I really like music. So my writing became making music for a while. But then, suddenly, I felt it was rather limiting to put myself in this kind of female pop framework or even a rap framework. I lived in America until last year and I was beginning to see how many people were doing the same thing to tell their stories. So when I came back to London, the idea was initially to get the spoken word together with music. But when I got the chance to perform I took it. And I saw people were interested. I joined the U.P.S. at the point when they were thinking about becoming a collective. I don?t know what is really happening in the end. They want this collective to be a group of Black people who do things following a tradition but here, in England, and not only performers, but also dancers ... I do not know if what I do can be called performance poetry. I am part of the generation that grew up with punk music. It was a serious reaction to what was going on, a kind of ?fuck you? to the system. Then I heard blues and I realised that is what we all live. I don?t really like that idea of performance. I?m really against ?showmanship?. The whole nature of show has been redefined by hip hop and hopefully by other people who can shift the idea of performing. Rap fused the audience with the performers and told stories. This is what I?m interested in. I don?t get touched by the concept of ?show?. And that is the danger that lies underneath performance poetry. I don?t want to become a showwoman. It is dangerous when you start getting paid for being angry, for behaving like a Black militant. At the moment I?m looking at people like Bob Marley, Hendrix, Ice Cube ... because they got paid to voice their rage. And I wonder whether that doesn?t destroy Black people ultimately, because you get either showbiz or you get destroyed. And I know I?m talking about men, but I feel I belong to a generation of women who have the power to be heard.
Q.: You told me you were experimenting with recording.
A.: I love music and I feel the combination is really interesting. Music is so subliminal. If I can combine words and sounds I think it could be beautiful and powerful. I have worked with people using computer sounds.
Q.: Are you aware in your work of the African oral tradition of story- telling?
A.: Yes, I am, definitely. And it is not something that I have looked for. It is the way I was brought up, the way my mother speaks. She would say nothing is linear, nothing is as simple as it seems. Her way of speaking is really imaginative. And that is how I grew up. And later, growing Black in a western culture, you don?t go back to that tradition because you?re not told at school about the beauty of that culture. But it gets out later, and then you have to read it, when the only thing you have read is the tidal wave, T.S. Eliott, Shakespeare and Alexander Pope and your own tradition is considered primitive and na?ve. And that is a big challenge.
Q.: And of course we are not only talking about being Black, but also a woman ...
A.: Yes, definitely. I see myself as a Black woman in England in 1995. I am still trying to find myself. I feel like being a born- again idealist. Everything comes through awakening and it never stops. I have been through my racial awakening, my half- breed half- status awakening, my class awakening; and maybe it never stops, but I am at a point now, that I feel I cannot stay in my bedroom anymore. That is what I always did, and it didn?t matter that I was not published. I am publishing myself at the moment, which is really exciting. But I?ve been through that and I feel that at this point I don?t want to have anything paralyse me. I feel completely universal. I feel completely equal. And maybe it is very idealistic, but I feel I can shift things even if it is for a minute second. I can do it if I can make someone get real for a second. But maybe I?m too idealistic. You know, I come from this Black circle, from my mother to U.P.S. everything is Black. And lately I am getting more white people in the audience, and I am curious about the way you know if you are crossing the line and becoming a kind of ?slave narrative?, or even a ?female narrative?, and then being dismissed as one- dimensional. I hope the audience does not see me as one- dimensional, because for me getting on the stage is hard, I have to convince myself every time that it is worth it; that it is the right thing to do.
Q.: Were you influenced by any women poets?
A.: Yes, definitely. I consider a poet somebody who uses her or his mouth to express something. In that kind of definition I could get people like Betty Davis - who was married to Miles Davis - , the Angela Davies of back in the day and Bell hooks. Her books changed my life, she made me realise that the only responsibility I had was to tell it like it was but I think her language is too academic for most people. And then Audre Lorde, of course. Anyway I don?t come from a literary background, but from a musical one. My mother ...
Q.: You say you have been performing in front of white audiences, what do you feel about this?
A.: It is really hard. So much of Black expression is marginalised. It is just seen as odd. You hear people commenting about a Black artist ?he must have just made it up?; dismissing his creative process as not valid according to western patterns. Roger Robinson has this notion of being a Black man as art, they see your accent, your image, but, are they listening?
Q.: How do you feel about race?
A.: Race is there, definitely. It is not an issue you can ignore, but it is also a challenge; because you don?t want to make your way through slogans that everybody has heard. There are a number of new wave writers, who are redefining what being Black means, which, today, is completely different from my parents, completely different from the Nubian scene ...
Q.: Do you feel at home in England? I know this kind of question puts you in the position of not belonging to the country, but I think that is the case for many Black people, who are always being asked about their origins, who are always seen as outsiders.
A.: I?ve never felt at home anywhere. I was born in Nigeria, I came to school here, then I spent eight years in the U.S. and then I came back here. In fact the place where I have spent the most time in is the States, even if I feel I was formed here. Anyway I think we should try to stop that being the issue - about who is the outsider and who is the original. It is something we all do, we all ask ?where are you from??, ?what?s your background??; how marginalised you are, basically. And it?s redundant. Some people seem to be claiming their territory and calling the rest of us outsiders.
Q.: This last question may just seem a bit in the same line, but I cannot help but wonder how come so many of these young and powerful Black poets come from Nigeria. You and Bernardine Evaristo, for instance, and, among the men, Olu Oguibe and ?Biyi Bandele- Thomas.
A.: It is not a coincidence. I do believe in the positive aspects that repression has for creative people. And Nigerians are really self- confident and extremely arrogant. That makes us move always forward, never going down. Remember that the first Black people in the seventies who had money here were Nigerians. And that many of us had access to education. You?re definitely right. You come across so many poets in their twenties here in London who are Nigerian. But I have to admit I do not know the reason why...