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Jha D. Amazi
ART EQUITY IN ACTION: OPEN MICS AND FLASH MOBS

Jha D. Amazi

Spoken Word Artist


YOU SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN SPACE. PHYSICAL SPACE THROUGH YOUR WORK AS AN ARCHITECT, BUT ALSO PROVIDING SPACE FOR ARTISTS WHO HAVE NOT HAD A SPACE WHERE THEY COULD SHARE THEIR WORK. HOW DID THAT EVOLVE? DID IT START WITH YOU NEEDING AND WANTING SPACE FOR YOUR OWN SPOKEN WORD ART?

Yes, it definitely grew out of—and evolved out of—me needing and wanting my own space. As I came into the world of poetry and open mics and being able to share my work, after a few performances in different places, it became obvious to me as a Black queer woman, the perspectives that I had to share weren’t necessarily landing as resoundingly as I would have liked them to. They were either two White to really understand my Black perspective. And in other spaces, even if I was being understood culturally—from a Black point of view—my queer topics weren’t necessarily being embraced by the “hetero/normal” culture of that particular venue. 

So, I realized that I can’t be the only person experiencing this intersectionality. And, if I’m not the only person, then somebody’s got to do something about this and make space so that other folks do not feel isolated in sharing their work in the ways that I had.

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT IT?

I wish I could say that I went about it in an organized way, but It was actually kind of haphazard. There was this promoter for an organization called Lesbians in Power and this woman named Jam was running all of the events. If there was an event for lesbians of color in the city of Boston, you knew that Jam was behind it. And so I was out partying with her and going to all of the events that she hosted, and she knew that I was a spoken word artist and that I was interested in starting to crash my own spaces—and she’s the person who actually said, “You know what? This Thursday, you come out with me, arrive at the club, and see what we can do.”

I walked in the door and she announced, “Here’s our host for the open mic!” I thought we were going to sit down and talk about it, but it was “let’s do it!” So, it really started there. And at the end, everyone said, “Okay, so we’ll do this again next week?” And the following week, they said, “We’ll do this again next week?” And you can imagine how that just snowballed into 12 years later—and we’re still doing it.

YOU EVEN WENT TO GRAD SCHOOL IN PHILADELPHIA, BUT YOU WOULD COME BACK JUST TO KEEP IT GOING, RIGHT?

By the time I was in grad school, the open mic had transitioned from its original venue to a second venue and finally landed to its former home at the Milky Way at the Bella Luna in JP, which is, of course, by now closed. So, by that point, it was once a month and I would bust home from Philly every month to host the open mic. When I was in London, I would get on the virtual platform that I had access to and host the mic from there, in close collaboration with my team. I couldn’t do this work on my own by any means. 

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT WHAT ARTISTS REALLY NEED IN BOSTON, I’M CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK ARTISTS OF COLOR AND QUEER ARTISTS REALLY NEED TO THRIVE IN BOSTON.

It is space, but if you zoom out from there, more generally, it is a sense of agency and autonomy and the resources, whatever they may be, to support our communities of artists to be able to do the work that they want to do and thrive in that arena.

I feel that, unfortunately, too often I encounter other artists of color and other queer artists who actually aren’t able to focus on whatever skill they have because they are trying to breathe. They are trying to live. They are trying to pay rent. There are other stresses that are occupying their minds and their beings and they aren’t actually free to do the work that they were born to do and called to do through their creative lens. So, what artists need are resources and the agency to blossom, to explore, to try new things. I often reflect on how blessed I am to be both an artist and trained in architecture and working full time—and often I’m able to use my paycheck to fund projects that I’m interested in pursuing and use my paycheck to pay other artists with the confidence that, if something fails, I’m just going to go home. I can start over; I can try again. That relieves a lot of stress and pressure and as people who are part of communities that are too often marginalized, other Black queer artists often don’t have that liberty or freedom. 

YES, SOMETIMES PEOPLE FORGET THAT ARTISTS ARE PEOPLE TOO AND THEY NEED HOUSING, THEY NEED FOOD… ALL OF THE BASICS ALL OF US NEED. AND THEN, ONCE THAT’S TAKEN CARE OF, BUT IT’S VERY HARD. IT'S INCREDIBLY CHALLENGING FOR MOST PEOPLE. DID YOU SAY THAT THERE MIGHT BE ANOTHER OPEN MIC COMING UP IN AUGUST?

So, we are reconvening as a team to think about our next move. As you can imagine, at the beginning of the pandemic last March, we had to pivot to a virtual open-mic space. And for months, we were doing an open mic every week. We adjusted from our once-a-month schedule to every single week because we pretty quickly realized and identified that our community needs space. Our community needs an opportunity to address what is happening in the world right now. And so, we were on a virtual weekly schedule for quite some time, and then, last fall, we pivoted to a bi-monthly schedule, because the team realized that we were all exhausted. Finally, in June of this year, we decided that things were safer and we could step outside. So, we tried that out in June and it was absolutely awesome. But it takes a lot of coordination and planning to do that again. We’ve talked about doing on in late August or early September. We might actually just go ahead and take the leap and decide that we want to do an in-person mic indoors. We have a few spaces lined up that are ready to receive us. And, as we see other organizations and entities doing indoor events, we’re considering that as well.

IN YOUR WORDS, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPOKEN WORD AND POETRY?

I’m glad you said, “in your own words,” because I’m not trying to speak on behalf of an entire artistic community when I share this. But, for me, I’ve always considered poetry as a written form of expression. And, while one can certainly perform poetry as a spoken word artist, in my experience, poetry has some rules to it that I never bothered to learn. Whereas, spoken word says, “Come as you are. Say what you need to say. Own your own truth. Own your own narrative. Let us learn more about you.” And so, for me, that’s been one of the main differences between too. But it all depends on how you learn poetry. If you learn poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, for example, you very quickly realize that maybe there aren’t so many rules. But very few of us actually learn poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. It was other writers who were predominately white men. And we know that there were a lot of rules in those teachings.

THE NAME OF THE OPEN MIC REFLECTS THAT.

Yes. If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It Open Mic Movement.

Jha D. Amazi
Jha Amazi

DO YOU THINK THAT THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED OVER THE LAST YEAR—BECAUSE OF COVID—THAT HAVE TAUGHT US ANYTHING? GIVEN US SOMETHING THAT WE CAN BUILD ON? ONE OF THE BIG QUESTIONS THAT OUR NEW PRESIDENT, LEE PELTON, IS ASKED A LOT IS, “IS THIS A MOMENT, OR IS IT A MOVEMENT?” HE DOESN’T HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT, EXCEPT TO SAY, “WE’LL SEE.” BUT IT HAS BEEN A MOMENT.

I think that, from a personal perspective, something that I’ve learned is to slow down. And I say that both in a privileged way, acknowledging that the type of work that I do is not frontline work. I was working safely from home in the quarantine, not having to go outside every day. Not having to do the daily transit to and from work. Events were canceled. I was allowed to sit home and reflect on what it means to be still; to be home. And I acknowledge that there are a number of my friends and family who do not have that privilege in terms of the work they were doing on the front lines and in other spaces.

The other thing that it taught me—and I hope it has taught other people—is just how vulnerable we are as a society. As Americans, we feel very invincible and we feel very protected by our technologies and by our capitalism and all of these structures that we’ve built up around ourselves. And, over the past year and a half, I’ve been reminded of our vulnerability. In a moment, everything can change. And it did. 

THROUGH LAB, WERE YOU ASKED TO CREATE A MOMENT OR A PROJECT WHEN YOU APPLIED FOR THE GRANT?

The process is quite open-ended. It just says that, as an artist, you create “new work” through the grant that you receive. And so, each applicant asks a series of questions that pertain to the work that they are going to produce. Some folks are doing events. Some folks are creating products, like artwork. Some are doing hybrids of that. And so, for me, the flash mob has been something I’ve been dreaming of for quite some time. Like five or six years. We did a very small version of the flash mob a few years ago, where I had a few local poets who were coming to the open mic, join me in Boston to perform a poem that I wrote called Spare Change. And we did it in the middle of the winter, in February, and the purpose was to raise awareness about displaced folks, especially in the colder months. And it was great. It was awesome. I don’t know how we achieved this, but we did it. People memorized the poem. We performed it and then we just disappeared and went back to our regularly scheduled lives. 

What I proposed to the Live Arts Boston team was that I want to do that more consistently and in a way that allows us, as a group of performers, to co-create, co-write, co-develop various spoken word pieces that relate to different issues and topics that are currently facing us as a group of artists—and then perform that across the city of Boston. Understanding several things. First, a lot of the folks that come to Boston are “transient,” in that they are students, they’re here for work, maybe they’re tourists… But, very rarely, when they come to Boston, do they fully understand the Black and Brown perspectives of this city. They are in the areas where the colleges are or they’re in downtown Boston or the Seaport District, but they’re not actively seeking an opportunity to go to Roxbury or Mattapan or Dorchester. 

So, the flash mob is an opportunity for us to bring ourselves to them and to say to this unsuspecting public realm, “We’re here. We exist. There are multiple sides to Boston. Come hear our story. Come be curious. Come learn.” As an artist, a lot of times when I travel and I tell people I’m from Boston, usually other Black folks look at me as ask, “They’ve got Black people in Boston? You were raised in Boston?” So, this is a chance to turn some of the best parts of Boston inside out and give folks an opportunity to step into our world.

WHAT ARTISTS WILL YOU TAP TO DO THIS WITH YOU? SOME OF THE SPOKEN WORD ARTISTS FROM YOUR OPEN MIC SESSIONS?

It’s essentially going to be an open call. So, I will post, through my own open media channels, through the open mic media channels, and invite anyone who wants to come into the flash mob team to do so, whether they have experience or not. So, you could be someone who writes every day and performs every week or you could be someone who’s always wanted to do something like spoken word poetry and just never have. This could be an opportunity to really support you in doing so. I’m going to open it up to anyone who wants to participate and there’s also, potentially, an opportunity for folks to engage with the flash mob in ways that aren’t specific to having to perform poetry. We’ll need volunteers who are passing out flyers and laying out the printed book of the poems we write together and helping us with interpretation and translation. 

DO YOU THINK THIS IS A MOMENT? OR IS IT A MOVEMENT? DO YOU THINK THERE IS POTENTIAL FOR REAL CHANGE?

In short, yes, I do think it’s a movement. I do think that there is an opportunity for real change in our country.  How one defines a movement really depends on their individual circumstance or their communities’ circumstances, and so I would argue that there are probably a lot of folks of color, a lot of women, a lot of folks under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, a lot of marginalized communities who still feel the movement regardless of the headlines. And because of that, I think we have an opportunity to continue to push things and challenge the status quo and demand a future that we actually want to live in. I feel like there’s an exhaustion that is palpable in our society right now. I hesitate to say that because I acknowledge that you can look at almost every decade and see a movement that resonates with anything that we would be marching and rallying for today. Because history insists on repeating itself. But I have to believe that, at some point, there is going to be a generation that says, “Enough is enough. We are going to prioritize each other’s humanity and not allow these differences to create such terror in our society. I have to believe that.”