By Wana Udobang
The year was 2007 and I was a final year student inEnglandliving in a predominantly white town called Farnham when I discovered Bassey Ikpi . It occurred during one of my long night stretches of illegally downloading movies off the internet and watching hours of Russel Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam footage on You Tube. Then she came on to the screen, hair locked and dressed in a pair of Jeans and a red blouse, revealing snippets of a flat toned stomach which would later be swollen with her son Boogie in a subsequent performance.
She rendered an emotional and slightly teary eyed performance of her poem “Homeward”.
Eloquently delving into the world of divided cultures, addressing the fears attached to forgetting ones roots whilst annunciating her Ikom words, making the heavy tongue and slight clicks a pleasurable listen, Ikpi for me at that juncture of my life had hit home.
Since then, Ikpi has become a five time poet at the Tony Award winning Def Poetry Jam and I remain a committed devotee.
Though a lot of Bassey Ikpi’s fame has been attributed to her work as a performance poet, her writings have garnered an even bigger following for her courage on speaking out on mental health issues. In a guttural blog post published on the Huffington post website, she describes her own fight with Bipolar II disorder and society’s ostracizing attitudes towards mental health.
Ikpi’s acerbic and witty pieces never withholds a single punch. Her posts critiquing film maker and playwright Tyler Perry recently landed her in hot soup with hard core Perry fans. With such spunky titles like For Coloured Girls Who Need Motivation when The Oprah Endorsement Wasn’t Enough, and Somebody, Anybody But Tyler Perry Sing A Black Girls Song, you are never really left wondering how she became acclaimed Performance Poet, Writer, Mental health activist, and public enemy number one to the Tyler Perry fan club.
Bassey Ikpi is working on her book, “Too Cute To Be Crazy”.
In this interview, we talk art,mental health and everything else in-between
Tell us about how you started writing poetry and consequently performing poetry.
I started writing when I was 8 because I couldn’t draw. I needed a way to express myself and some of the things that were going on around me and I realized that I was in love with words. I loved reading them and I wanted to try and see if I could build words that better illustrated some of the feelings I had at the time. I never read it out loud. I didn’t know that people did that. It was very private and very quiet. I did it for myself. It wasn’t until freshman year of college that I stumbled upon a poetry reading and realized that there were other people my age writing and sharing their work. And I mustered up enough courage to read at the next event and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Do you ever have jitters before you perform, and do you ever forget your lines? If you do, how do you handle it during a performance?
I’m always nervous. Standing in front of people and performing your own words will never not be nerve-wracking. I feel so exposed up there. And often, the poems hit me in the middle of reading them, almost like the first time I wrote them and I have to get my bearings and my emotions under control. I try to talk between poems to give myself some light to come down and step away from the gravitas. Also, to give the audience a chance to take a breath.
I forget poems all the time. I used to get so upset at myself for it. Poems I’ve done for years suddenly will just leave my brain. I tell people in the beginning of each show, “I don’t forget poems. I just decide that they’re over. It’s just a way to give myself an out. There’s no shame in having to read from paper or now my ipad. The audience appreciates honesty. Now I’m more interested in standing still and getting the weight of the poem to you.
A lot of traditional poets raise an eyebrow to performance poetry, what’s your take on their snobbery towards it and their critique that it isn’t real poetry?
Definitely some performance poetry doesn’t hold up on page but I write for both. If I can’t read it smoothly, then I edit but I don’t write just to perform either. I think that they all have their places. I have some critique of poems that lack any poetic device. I’m not sure how to call it a poem if it doesn’t do the simple things poems are meant to do but that’s not my decision to make. I know what moves me and why, and I can’t fault someone else for being moved by something else. At the end of the day, we all just want to create good art and be understood as artists. As I get older, I realize that it’s not my place to do anything but create the work I want to see.
How did your appearance on Def Poetry Jam come about and has it been positive for your career?
I wouldn’t have a career but not for Def Poetry Jam. How I got involved is a pretty long story so I’ll try and shorten it as best as I can. I dropped out of college randomly and moved toNew York. I wanted to be around other artists and the city was so alive to me. I loved every inch of it and how it changed my work. I never wanted or thought I could be a professional writer or poet. I just wanted to write. I wanted the space and opportunity to do it. I took a job at an entertainment company, and I went to different poetry clubs and read my work at open mics. I happened upon a contest with a friend of mine and I won. The people were producing Def Poetry Jam and they asked me to appear on the second season. Then they asked me to travel toLos Angelesto perform for Venus And Serena Williams. From there, I was asked to join the Broadway Cast in Edinburgh, Scotland and then I did the national tour back in the States. It was a bit of a whirlwind. I was just at the right places at the right time. I’m very lucky and very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given.
You gave an eerie and gripping account in one of your written pieces about your journey with mental illness. Consequently, you are also a Mental Health activist. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey and why it has become imperative that you open up the discourse on mental health issues?
I decided to become a mental health advocate because at the time when I was struggling to get help and to get treatment, I didn’t see or hear a lot of voices that sounded like mine speaking out. I understand that there’s a stigma and people are afraid of being judged or labeled harshly, but what I seek to do is normalize. I have a great life. I have amazing friends and family. I’m surrounded by good things, and I also have a mental illness. It’s not who I am, it’s what I have and I have to remember that. I want others to remember it so that they don’t feel trapped and stricken by it. You can live a full life. It might be a bit more difficult than others but at the end of the day, that difficulty is a point of pride. You end up in a better place. I needed to know that in the beginning and there were few people discussing it. Especially as a black woman, as a Nigerian, we aren’t super human beings. We have our hurts and our pains and our struggles and our strife but nobody wants to give us permission to feel so we tend to hide and dismiss these very real hurts as though hiding is a point of pride and strength. It’s not. The strength comes in getting help and taking care of yourself and being able to live a full and textured life.
When it comes to mental health issues, in places here like Nigeria, these issues tend to be spiritualised, partly because of the lack in awareness, failed infrastructure and at times the priority scale given to other socio-economic and political matters.
What do you think are the dangers posed if things carry on this way?
The danger is that people die. Thousands of people commit suicide or turn to drugs and alcohol or sex addictions because they’re self medicating a mental illness. Prayer and God will help you if you help yourself. If you believe in God, believe that God sent people in your life to give you medicine and to give you treatment and to encourage you to get mentally well. Mental health is not something that we can afford to let suffer in silence. So much of who we are as people and our growth comes from supporting the minds, spirits and bodies of our people. We can’t neglect any one of them. If we do, we’re lost. I know we like to think of the mentally ill as “useless” but imagine if you gave them support and offered treatment and medication and a safe space for them to exist. The homeless problem, the domestic violence, drug abuse, alcohol abuse a lot of it will be diminished. It’s just as important as anything else
As you grow older as an artist, and also as a mother, do you feel a certain responsibility towards the kinds of material you perform?
I’ve always felt a responsibility towards my family and my Nigerian culture to be responsible. I tell my truth but I’ve always avoided heavy language and graphic or lewd sexual references. It’s not who I am. It’s never been. I don’t need to cause shock in that way. It’s not what my work is about. There are many artists who are comfortable being very sexual and open and I support and applaud them for that. However, it’s not what my work is about. My work is more introspective and more about bringing the inside out in order to dissect and understand and hold a mirror up to see what exactly is messing up in my life. I hope that others are able to get something from it and experience that moment of “me too”. I think art should create communities and the communities I want to live in and be a part of aren’t about shock value for the sake of shocking. It’s just never been my style so it didn’t really have to change when I became a parent.
I have read a few of your blog posts about your son Boogie, which I must admit is completely hilarious. How has dealing with bipolar disorder influenced or perhaps affected motherhood and your work as an artist?
As far as my bipolar II diagnosis, he doesn’t know anything about it. He’s still very young and I make it a point to shield him. Many children of parents with mental illness have told me that they grew up feeling like their parent’s moods/illness was their responsibility. They felt a lot of pressure to do well and “be good” and that’s way too much weight for a child. I’m not my son’s responsibility. He’s mine. He doesn’t see anything. I have my quirks and he knows I’m not the same kind of mom that his friends might have but that’s because I’m an artist and he definitely understands that. If I’m getting dressed up to go anywhere, he asks me if I have a show. He’s been to shows and sat in the front row and he claps and screams, “that’s my mommy!” when he sees me on stage or on TV. It’s normal for him. I’m definitely very more attuned to his emotional needs. I want to make sure that if he ever feels depressed or some how ‘off’ in any way growing up, that he feels safe and supported enough to talk to me about it and we can figure out how to help him if he needs it. As far as how it affects my work, it’s been rough. Sometimes, the writing just won’t come when I need it to but I’ve learned that when, like now, I’m having a writer’s block and can’t seem to put sentences together that are useful, I just read more or concentrate on another aspect of my career and I wait for it to return. I’m in treatment now and I feel so much better than I ever have so I’m not having any symptoms other than restlessness and constant boredom but that’s just because I can’t ever sit still.
What are your thoughts now on the film ‘For Coloured Girls” after viewing it?
I thought it was terrible. Awful. Read the book; ignore the movie.
Did you get any death threats in your mail box?
LOL! No thankfully. But I did get a lot of “You need to support the black man!” critiques. I brush those off and polish my Barack Obama pin.
You have successfully been able to use your art as a means of social and cultural commentary, how are you able to consistently deliver a message without beating your audience with a bat over the head and still stay fresh and creative simultaneously?
I only give what I’m willing to get. I don’t think I’m beating people over the head, if I am, then I apologize but I won’t stop. My message is important to me. I try to talk about other things and slip it in every now and again. I try to keep it fresh and full of humor and honesty. It’s not just about pathos and misery. I live a very full life and I laugh a lot. So I try to reflect that side of things. People want to know that they have permission to laugh and that they will feel joy again and I think I live a life that reflects that. And in that way, I present things with light and honesty and folks respond to that and hopefully are able to tell their own stories because of it.
Who are your artistic influences?
I love visual art and film and dance and photography. I’m a huge Jean-Michel Basquiat fan. I love what Fela did with his stage shows and the presentation and all the huge productions.
What poem did you wish you wrote?
Angles Get No Maps by Suheir Hammad
Any final words for budding spoken word artists and writers out there?
Read and realize that art is everywhere.Writing is not just one thing, it’s everything. The sooner you realize that and live your life, the better your writing will be.
Originally published in 234Next Newspaper
I met a guy in tatters and heavy dirty dreds once. I dropped him some alms as a ‘crazy’ guy, but the way he said, “Thanks man!” made me stop seeing them as off. Since then it’s been ‘help as you can.’ May God help us because we’ve many of us had our share.