Spoken-Word Artists Bassey Ikpi and Giles Li Tell It Like It Is

by Katie Leo
Online Exclusive: April 2009
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Bassey Ikpi and Giles Li have harnessed the power of spoken word to connect with people across physical and social divides. Ikpi, a veteran of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam , and Li, founder of the Boston Progress Arts Collective , a groundbreaking community of New England-based Asian American artists, recently wowed the audience at the Equilibrium Spoken Word Series at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I sat down with them to talk about poetry, self-expression, and how it feels to be an established artist in an ever-changing medium.         

Born in Nigeria, Ikpi’s family moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma when she was four years-old. This jarring experience proved "quite a shock" for her, and she found in poetry both a refuge and a way to process her feelings.

“The reason I started writing was to be heard, to understand a very unique place that I was in,” she explains, “you know, this Nigerian girl transported to this southern town and all these things that made no sense to me and trying to figure out a way to make sense of it.”

Soon she was writing her own poetry, as well as reading voraciously.

"My father gave me Nikki Giovanni’s 'Ego Tripping' when I was about eight years old," she says. "It gave me a lot of confidence, and I really liked—I hate this word, but it applies—I really liked the swagger of the poem.”

While Ikpi started writing by turning inward, Li focused outward.  Li grew up outside Boston in a town he describes as "fairly diverse for a white area.” Unlike Ikpi’s, Li's poetry was born not from isolation but rather from a need to articulate his burgeoning political and social views as an Asian American man.

"When I was younger and newer to it, I was very bullheaded about my points of view," he explains, "and I thought that I needed to be up there and be the coolest, loudest guy in a way, so that people would pay attention. I had all these opinions I was developing that I wasn’t hearing anywhere, and I had to get it out there."

Now Li writes to express his views in the most authentic way possible, including all their complexity: "For me [the goal is] to accurately represent what’s inside of me. Everybody, what’s inside of them, it’s all kind of mixed up, and nobody really knows anything, and now [my goal is] nothing more than trying to accurately represent ‘I feel this way about it, I might have misgivings about it for this reason, or I might be fully behind it at this time.'"

The complexity of these views is evident in his piece “The Morning After”, which he performed at Equilibrium. In this poem Li articulates his ambivalence on the morning after President Obama’s election and why, given the throng of emails and positive media that greeted him, he could not join in the celebration.

“Still I find myself unmoved by his audacity,” the poem goes. “As I walk into the community center where I work/I look for clues/am I just getting old, soft, apathetic?” He sees the young people he serves, troubled by inadequate health care, lack of access to decent food and social services, and a system too mired in bureaucracy to be effective. “Don’t fool yourself into believing/the change we can believe in/comes from a guy we never met.”

This message illustrates the multifaceted nature of his views, grounded in his particular experience as both a community activist and poet.

“I can only write from what’s inside,” he explains. “All I can really do is just be honest and hope that the authentic feeling of what I’m saying will speak to people. I don’t even have electronic copies of a lot of my poems.”

Ikpi echoes this need to use one’s individual story as a central point of departure for her writing.

“I have a lot of respect for people like [poet] Patricia Smith,” she says, “who does this amazing thing with persona, where she just inhabits characters that are so extremely foreign to who she is. I have so much respect and admiration for that, but I absolutely cannot do that.” (laughs)

Even though her impulse to write begins in her own experience, she craves connection with others, as well. “I tell people that I write for the ‘me, too,’” she explains, “because once you describe or explain or transcribe your unique experience, you don’t want to just own this thing, you want someone else to say, ‘Oh my God, me, too!’ So that’s my motivation for continuing, because there’s always another experience that I need to make sense of, and I want to feel rooted in a community that feels the same way.”

Both Ikpi and Li have achieved an enviable level of national recognition, but the driving force for writing and performing spoken word has always been to express their views and develop community. They hope that young people today will gravitate toward spoken word for similar reasons, in spite of the allure of potential commercial success.

“I feel like it’s a little more difficult now than when I was a teenager,” Li says. “Everything is so corporatized and everything is so official. People think that the only end to [spoken word] is getting to TV or commercials. That’s not why any of us started.”

“There was no that when we started,” Ikpi adds. “I think that Brave New Voices and Young Chicago Authors, places like that, they really encourage the craft and the art and finding ways to make the open mics, which people love, and say ‘That’s a huge part of it, but let’s take it back a couple of steps to the writing, and we can use the writing to move the performance forward.’”

For more information on Bassey Ikpi, visit www.basseyworld.com, or look up her many videos on Youtube from Def Poetry Jam. For more information on Giles Li, visit www.gilesli.com, which includes his very funny blog, where he writes about everything from his love for Prince to what annoys him.


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