I knew that working with students on Saturdays on the cusp of summer was not going to be an easy job. Trying to teach the arts in an education system that doesn’t get the opportunity or funding to prioritize arts nor explore its benefits is always going to be a difficult job. Yet, as a poet, activist, and believer in the benefits of speaking your world into triumph, here I was on a sunny Brooklyn Saturday, waiting for the students to arrive, waiting to prove what I have already experienced as an artist myself: poetry performance = freedom in motion. Each student, each community, each opportunity I have to teach poetry or facilitate a workshop is different and each time I learn something different about myself as an artist and a human. Teaching is as much a mental experience as a spiritual one. I have found that on the days I want to give up the most, I am given the energy to continue through my students. If they can show up for me, I can show up for them.
When I sat down with one student on the first Saturday, I was not sure what I was to learn or if the workshops would continue with numbers like these. But there is an inspiring moment in one grain of sand if you consider the millions of things it is made of and how far it has come. One student became two then two became five and all were already full vessels of creativity, dreams, and ideas… not all devoted to poetry. I had my work cut out for me. However, the moment that took my breath away did not happen when the students were offering their own writing prompts; not when they were taking to line breaks with the same urgency as the Dunkin Donuts I brought for them; not when they inspired me to write a love poem to Dunkin Donuts confessing how much I can’t stand their hot chocolate; not even when they decided they wanted to perform the group piece I helped them create at the eighth-grade graduation on their own. It was during our morning practices that I was reminded of one of the many benefits to performing your story in real time.
“We need to practice more.”
“I think she’s going too fast, she should slow down”
“Yeah she’s going too fast. You need to slow down! You're getting too distracted. Can we go again? More energy!”
“Can we add Danny to the piece? He missed one day but he’s been to every class. He should be a part of it too.”
“I don’t need paper. Let’s all have it memorized!”
It was as if I wasn’t even there! My mouth hung open as they bickered and workshopped their own group piece. My presence was nothing more than, “Do you all feel that you’re ready?” and then they would be off again performing and talking it through. Poetry performance offers a rare opportunity for young people not only to see themselves on the written page but also to claim their voices in the open air. What’s more is that when poetry is being performed, rarely is it in a vacuum, alone. When poetry meets community–be it at the Nuyorican Poets Café on a Friday night or a lively group of five students on a Saturday morning–your words are in the care of an audience. Individuals feel supported to take risks, to trust, and to speak their mind. These five students were not all fans of poetry nor performance. Some of these students could barely be heard when they first introduced their name, but when it came to performing at the graduation, I was looking at young people who wanted the stage, who wanted to do their best, who wanted to work together, and who after having a successful performance, wanted to do it again.
This. This is why I want to do this for the rest of my life. To see those students take off and claim their work and their identity in an art form they had no prior experience in. To see them owning their words, taught me just how much I have gained myself, as a poet. From the moment that I was put in a spoken word class until now, my story has always had a home on the page and a separate vacation home within the hearts of artists and audiences who are open to hearing me. These five students now had an example, a tangible experience, that couldn’t be taken away from them: an entire auditorium open and ready to hear and accept their voices. It was amazing to see them after they got off stage, invigorated ready to “go on tour”. The arts, it’s contagious. Performance means power and poetry means freedom. When you let them loose in a room, anything can happen.
When I first decided in 2014 that I wanted to create the #ImNotYourEnemy shirt to jumpstart a conversation on sisterhood, I imagined the shirt orders I would make, the people that would call, the conversations that would be started all over the country. I was ready to be a part of the solution in contributing to sisterhood amongst women of color as a mainstream topic, a lifestyle, a pledge, a form of activism. What I did not realize is that my definition of sisterhood has evolved heavily since that summer in 2014. But I was not aware just how much my experience of sisterhood has grown until that Sunday at the #StillNotYourEnemy Brunch Experiment. Here are the top 5 things I was reminded of when it came to sisterhood:
1. Sisterhood is a Community Organization
The #StillNotYourEnemy Brunch could not have happened without the dedication of Black women that surrounded around the idea of openly and fearlessly speaking on sisterhood, as it exits in our lives today. This was not a one woman show, as I thought the #ImNotYourEnemy movement would be (as usual, the Black woman feels the need to carry the burden of the world on her shoulders). Sisterhood in action is a lot more kind than that. Without the women who have supported me since the beginning, I wouldn't have had the inspiration and courage to expand and open my vision beyond me.
2. Sisterhood is fluid
Sisterhood should have the ability to move between, in and out of all different types of spaces. I was reminded that day that to speak on sisterhood is to speak to the diversity in existing as a Black woman. That means LGBTQIA voices; that means multi-generational voices; that means Black voices from all identifications; the Black diaspora. As I grow in my Black womanhood, sisterhood becomes less of a definition and more like a moving, breathing, force that pushes all of us forward in unique ways.
3. Sisterhood is unity AND individuality
Unifying women in the name of sisterhood is not a hard idea to celebrate and stand behind. But I have to accept that we are all individuals first. We do not need to sit at the same table all the time. Sometimes Black women are not going to be the best of friends. That is a fact. We strive for unity but not at the expense of our individuality as human beings. We can be true to ourselves without ostracizing our fellow sisters.
4. Healing is mandatory
Sisterhood is community work and like community work it requires all facets of our being, spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental. During the panel discussion, it was suggested that thought we do all we can to support each other, self-care should still be our top priority. Sometimes that means investing in ourselves more than carrying the weight of another's burden, problems, and drama, especially if it is toxic in nature.
5. More safe spaces, more safe spaces!
The most important message I got from the #StillNotYourEnemy Brunch is that we need more safe spaces. We as Black woman need places that we can go where we do not need to explain our existence, our struggle, and our experiences. We need a space to recharge and reboot. That is why I want to continue what LuxyLoaded has inspired, a physical manifestation of the #ImNotYourEnemy movement. I want to provide safe spaces and conversations for women of color to come to celebrate, to cry, to heal, to laugh and to be, unapologetically.
Stay tuned for it!
When I first saw the DAMN. album cover, ironically my first reaction was damn! Ol’ boy wasn’t lookin too good! Disheveled beard, eyes vacant and dim, lookin nowhere, I was concerned for him! Then I heard the criticisms of his single “HUMBLE.”: misogynist, sexist, an attempt to police women’s bodies. What I saw in “HUMBLE.” was a man on the thin line between humility and cockiness not sure where he should stand as a Black man. I saw a man battling with many images, light and darkness, heaven and hell, white and black, poor and rich. I saw a man battling himself. HUMBLE. was Kendrick versus Kendrick. What stood out to me more was the fact that Kendrick’s preference for stretch marks and natural hair was more a controversy than lyrics that demanded our asses be fat, our weaves long, and our name bitch. Even so, my opinion was still met with confusion and distaste for this new Kendrick that burst on the scene. People were asking: What happened to him? He used to be so conscious, now he’s just like every other rapper. What happened to “To Pimp a Butterfly” Kendrick? Who is this Kendrick Lamar? After listening to DAMN. I have never seen Kendrick Lamar as more Kendrick Lamar. He is an artist. And his latest album DAMN. is a tribute to what we artists use our art for: a way to process and understand our world beyond the unspeakable.
DAMN. was a portal into the world of a Black man, his certainty, uncertainty, fear, reflections, and determination. His album brings a humanity to the celebrity. In a country that praises and worships the lives, the wallets, and the scandal of celebrities and stars, I forget that these people are people. Their art is a result of their humanity. These influencers do not exist solely for their audience. That is why Beyoncé’s Lemonade struck me to my core. She ceased to be a brand, a face, a single—she was a complete process. DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar’s human process. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is a labor of love for Kendrick Lamar. After listening to tracks like “FEEL.” and “GOD.” it sounded like he wrote these songs/poems because he needed to; and like many artists, the act of sharing is just as healing as creating it.
The shock value of my success put bolts in me
All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me?
Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job?
Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?
As a 24-year-old who wants to start her own business, write a book, and step into my own calling of using poetry and performance as an empowerment tool for voiceless communities, the song “FEAR.” moved me. I can’t be the only one who is afraid of success, and just as afraid of failure. Kendrick Lamar reminded me that no matter the checks, followers, or rewards we all have or will be at that crossroads. I have asked myself similar questions on my own journey. Any milestone that pushes me closer to reach my potential is met with resistance; a timid voice whispers and questions: Is this possible? Or is it all just another universal test only to start from the beginning again in a few years? The higher I go, the farther I have to fall. How Kendrick must feel! From his first mixtape in 2004, Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year) to being called the greatest rapper of all time. I could almost taste the anxiety, the questions, the fatigue in DAMN. I could only imagine, the money is coming in, the workload is increasing, advice is flooding in from everywhere, and the world is looking to him, fans leaning on him to continue to climb, to create! I too would go to my pen and paper like I always do, purging the secret questions, revelations, resentments, declaration, writing desperately toward that inner silence.
Lamar created a human experience in DAMN. He reminded me as a poet and activist that the foggy moments, the silences in between our revelations, success, and failures are just as beautiful, just as valid and telling and universal. After listening to the whole album, I wanted to give Kendrick a huge hug and say thank you, from one Los Angeles native to another. The job of an artist is to dig and dig deep within; to find the piece that pushes us even deeper and to share that work in order to connect to the depth in someone else. And we need that right about now. When I watched the news of the Manchester bombing, picture after picture being released of deceased young people, when I read about the impending threat to my healthcare rights as a woman, when I get a notification about another toxic tweet or another tragedy so far away I can barely fathom; when I consider the rise in violence against Black bodies, Muslim bodies, Trans Bodies, Our Bodies; when I walk down the street and have to maneuver my body so that I am not touched or followed or worst, I can’t help but think damn. It is a state of being, that damn. It’s that sigh when you’re a woman and you get home safe after a fun night, it’s that tension in the muscles when the police keep cruising past you. Kendrick’s DAMN. is not only a confirmation of what that damn can do to the spirit, it is a powerful reminder that we are not alone in feeling it and that is possible to use that damn and repurpose it, as much of the country and the world has done throughout history at the beginning of every revolution.
Tayllor Johnson currently resides in New York City where she has begun her journey into Poet. Passion. Period. In between those learning moments, she sometimes has just enough time to jot a few lines...