The young London poet speaks about the rising currency of spoken word artistry ahead of her performance at this week’s Africa Utopia
“Poetry is looking more cool than it was,” says very cool London-based poet, Theresa Lola. “Poetry is evolving into such a beautiful space now. Young people see contemporary poets who are also photographers, or do theatre or rap, poets who dress well. They’re starting to see poets in the way they see artists and musicians.”
Lola is among the rising wave of young spoken-word artists in the UK. Having performed nation-wide for a few years now, she is part of the multi disciplinary creative collective SXWKS and the Octavia poetry collective of women of colour, headed up by Rachel Long. She is the joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and winner of the 2017 Hammer and Tongue National Slam. She was also shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize and 2016 London Magazine Poetry Prize.
“I am an African writer, but I don’t want that to limit me. I just want to let the poem decide what it wants to be”
In addition to these rich achievements, Lola is also a co-producer of Inua Ellams’ R.A.P Party, the event that kicks off this year’s Africa Utopia Festival at the Southbank Centre. Ellams founded the hip hop and afrobeats-infused rhythm and poetry party 10 years ago, which has grown to become a regular affair. On the Africa Utopia bill this week are Victoria Adukwei Bulley, JJ Bola, Salma El-Wardany, Kayo Chingonyi, Sumia Jaama, Joshua Idehen, Wana Udobang, Alim Kamara and DJ Sid Mercutio. “The poem I’ll be performing is about my first introduction to hip hop at school in Nigeria and everyone is rapping to Nelly,” Lola says. “Hip hop is very reflective of the African-American experience, and it is so welcome in Africa and Nigeria. It’s music about social change, but it also has that aspect of fun and dancing.”
The British-Nigerian’s work dissects the complexity of human relationships and explores the experience of being a young woman in the city. “I want my poetry to ask questions that I can’t ask in everyday life. My poems are the place I can be loud about what’s bothering me and expose my inner thoughts, because I’m actually really shy,” she confesses. “I tried to write funny poems. It doesn’t work. I have my poetry as a space for when I am not laughing. I want to take the reader on a learning journey with me.” In the same spirit, she avoids turning her poems into polemics. “When I first started, I was saying ‘I am a black woman in England’. Now I think that race is too complex to write about. I don’t have that hat on. I am an African writer, but I don’t want that to limit me. I just want to let the poem decide what it wants to be.”
Lola’s poems are quicker to find in video format than they are in written text. She and many of her contemporaries are able to be more visible in digital mediums. Not only does this reflect the way young people now connect with each other through social media, but is also a direct response to the barriers-to-entry for print publishing poetry. “For someone who is trying to build an audience, spoken-word poetry and videos is the easiest way in,” she says. “We live in a world where the person behind the art exists in a way they didn’t before. I used to read older poets, but it wasn’t reflective of my life or my experiences. Now I can watch a performance on YouTube by someone in America and I feel so close to that person because of their poetry. I love the community aspect.”
Lola also works as an events programmer and workshop facilitator in schools and universities. Last year, she returned to Nigeria to participate in the Lagos International Poetry Festival, where she was given funding by the British Council to run workshops for young African women. “I had my first introduction to poetry 10 years ago at that poetry festival. So to go back was just truly amazing,” she reflects. “You feel like you’ve accomplished something greater than you and you’re carrying on that fire in Africa.”
R.A.P Party is at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room on Thursday 19 July. It kicks off Africa Utopia 2018 festival, which runs until 22 July
Read the poem, Black Marilyn, by Theresa Lola:
Today I woke up surprised I was still alive,
last thing I remember was my body swinging
from a ceiling of inadequacies.
In my head I have died in so many ways
I must be a god the way I keep resurrecting
into prettier caskets.
In Lagos, a photograph of Marilyn Monroe watches me
in my hotel room as I scrub my body
like it’s a house preparing for an estate agent’s visit.
I think Marilyn wants to say something to me,
the way her mouth is always open
like a cheating husband’s zipper.
My mind carries more weapons
than all war-torn countries combined.
Every day I survive is worth a medal or two.
I celebrate by buying more clothes than I can afford.
I must be rich, my void is always building
a bigger room to accommodate new things.
Marilyn’s photographer, Lawrence Schiller, said
Marilyn was afraid that she was nothing
more than her beauty.
You can call me arrogant, call me black Marilyn,
come celebrate with me,
I am so beautiful death can’t take its eyes off me.