Did you know that May 25th is celebrated as Africa Day throughout the African continent and in parts of the global Black diaspora? Its purpose is to commemorate the founding of the Organization of African States (now known as the African Union) by freedom fighters like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It was originally called African Freedom Day, and then my personal favorite, African Liberation Day.
Before you click away, this is not a history lesson. Not that kind, anyway. It’s just that Africa Day is a great occasion to introduce you to a kickass African freedom fighter of our time who is also the 2018 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, Mwende Katwiwa aka FreeQuency.
I caught up with Mwende in April, just after she landed in Washington, DC, near the end of her whirlwind book tour to promote Becoming Black, her first poetry collection.
Becoming Black consists of 15 poems that capture her experience as a Kenyan immigrant – her family moved to Pennsylvania when she was a child – specifically, how experiences in America shaped her racial consciousness. (The display quotes throughout this interview are excerpts from her book, which is available on her website, www.freequencyspeaks.com.)
Many African-Americans walk around spreading the belief that Africans from the continent “don’t like us” and don’t consider us as extended or distant family. While some people like that definitely exist, there are also people like Mwende, who have experienced America’s racial hierarchy first-hand, from both whites and blacks.
when my white co-worker
my Black supervisor
did he say it
with an ‘a’ or ‘er’?
Mwende the Organizer
This multilayered consciousness informs Mwende’s work from the page to the stage to the front lines of social justice. She is fully engrossed in both worlds. I first met her in this intersection: at a 2014 Arts and Democracy workshop on cultural organizing for social change. She was there with several of her colleagues in Women With a Vision, a grassroots organization in New Orleans that supports women in many areas including health education, gender-based violence prevention, and advocacy for reproductive rights, sex worker advocacy, and the LGBTQ community.
For the next year or so, I encountered her in numerous organizing spaces before realizing that she was also FreeQuency, a bomb-ass poet and a member of the legendary “Team SNO” (Slam New Orleans). Mwende was one of the charter members of the Black Youth Project 100, New Orleans chapter. They organized protests around the Mike Brown “non-decision” and the early advocacy to rename Robert E. Lee Circle.
when the little white girl
called me and Mo
I felt her bark
that would go on
the rest of my life
She was also a co-founder of Noirlinians – a fashion blog that morphed into a tool for organizing first-generation Africans living in the greater New Orleans area. She was instrumental in bringing filmmaker and fellow Kenyan Peres Owino to New Orleans to screen and discuss her groundbreaking film Bound: Africans vs. African-Americans.
Evolution of a Poet
Then, of course, there’s FreeQuency – a stage name she took on while in high school after someone told her they liked the frequency of her voice. As a child, she loved storytelling, but hated poetry: “Poetry was something very apolitical, white, didn’t even really seem like art a lot of time, felt more just like craft, form than creative expression.”
Then her mom took her to see a show called Project 2050. Based in Massachusetts, the short-lived but powerful project got its name from the prediction that by the year 2050, so-called minorities would make up the majority of American society. Black and brown youth and their allies learned from professional artists to create socially conscious art in many forms including poetry, theatre, dance, music, and visual art.
“I was like that’s what I wanna do,” Mwende recalls. “It was the first time I’d seen storytelling and poetry be not just describing the trees and my house and whatever the white poets that I was reading in middle school were writing about.”
She ended up enrolling in Project 2050’s summer intensive. This experience with creating in community with other artist helped her “furious flower” to bloom powerfully. Years later, as she was finishing her studies at Tulane University, her search for creative community led her into slam poetry.
“I really didn’t know what slam was. I didn’t really care. I was just looking for a writing community because that’s what i came out of,” she says. She joined the award-winning Team SNO and performed with them for two years, ending her stint in 2017.
FreeQuency’s poetry career seems to be guided by these “divine accidents”, including winning her first title at this year’s WOWPS. “I got into WOWPS on a random draw,” she explains. “I wasn’t the official representative for New Orleans. It wasn’t like, ‘Yo, this is the year I am going to be on top of the slam scene!’ I was like, nah, ‘This is the year I’m exiting the slam scene, actually.’
“For me, poetry was never about the accolades or winning. There’s actual work to be done… poetry was just a platform to get my work out there. I was very fortunate when I entered slam to have that platform work out in my favor.”
Out of the Slam, Into the Intersections
The opportunity to use poetry for a social message is what gave Mwende the courage to become a full-time poet in the first place. In that sense, her work has come full circle, from being inspired by youth-driven creative community to fostering similar communities for the current generation of youth, both in the USA and back home in Kenya.
Mwende is a founding committee member of the New Orleans Youth Open Mic (NOYOM) and festival coordinator of the New Orleans Youth Poetry Festival. She was also instrumental in creating Paza Sauti: Women of the Word, a poetry initiative focused on bringing more women and youth voices into the often male-dominated poetry scene in Kenya and Tanzania.
Overall, Mwende says her home folks have had a favorable response to her poetry career: “Kenyans are very nationalistic sort of people. So when I won WOWPS, it was like, ‘Look! A Kenyan has won!’ Some of my more challenging pieces about my African identity will challenge people a little more.”
when you realize
you are powerless
to stop your metamorphosis
from the African girl
to the American girl
every time you break free
from Western cocoon
and fly back
to your roots
resist the urge to remain pupa
Mwende is also driven to organize African poets in order to help African writers gain greater control over how their work is presented in Africa and to the wider world. She explains, “A lot of what is being determined in defining African poetry right now isn’t even being decided or determined by African folks. A lot of it is Western folks in Western places and Western publishing houses reaching out and putting out calls for poetry, and that automatically always gets you a certain population. You have to have access to these things. You have to be writing in English, for instance.”
As a result, a significant number of African poets all over the continent are not heard outside of Africa. “That’s not to discredit the efforts made to highlight African voices,” she says, but she points out that African poetry published by and for Western audiences is rarely available to audiences living in Africa.
Nevertheless, both in East Africa and in South Africa, she has witnessed “a vibrant scene. A lot of it links arts and activism, not using poetry only for aesthetic means.”
Mwende’s brand of creative activism and cultural organizing has gained lots of positive attention – she has been featured in numerous publications including HuffPost, Upworthy, Bust, NOLA.com, The Drum, and The East African; she also performed at more than 30 colleges this spring in over a dozen states.
It hasn’t all been roses and trophies, though. She ran into some problems last year when TEDWomen invited her to perform but asked her to focus only on reproductive justice without mentioning Black Lives Matter.
Her spiritual compass would not let her remain silent about injustice when given such a broad platform. “It keeps me pushing back and fighting, even when it doesn’t work in my favor,” Mwende says. “It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve been punished for standing in my truth.”
In spite of the missed opportunities her stance at TEDWomen has cost her, new opportunities continue to open up. She’s currently in South Africa performing and connecting with other activists, and she will spend the summer continuing her organizing efforts in Kenya. Meanwhile, she is working on two new books.
As the child of teacher-activists, the grandchild of Mau Mau fighters, a migrant, a woman, and yes, one who has become Black, she has many truths to tell. Unapologetically.
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