Jem is also a spirited spoken-word artist, actress, and activist. Born in Grenada and raised in St. Catharine’s, Jemeni currently lives in Toronto where she has been a key player in the city's hip hop and spoken word scene since her arrival two decades ago. Jemeni established herself as one of Toronto's brightest performance poets and has graced stages around the world, working with artists such as Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Jemeni has also appeared as a musical guest on songs with Esthero, Kojack and the award-winning track "America Eats it's Young" with Nick Holder. Jemeni will be performing at When Sisters Speak on March 7 at the St. Lawrence Centre For the Arts. ByBlacks had a chance to catch up with Jem before the show.
You've worked in and around hip hop for about 20 years now, how has it influenced your poetry?
Hugely. I used to write out the lyrics to songs so I could understand them; that was my poetry. No one sat down and taught me how to write poetry. So my poetry has always had a rhythm and a cadence that's very hip hop influenced. Also my performance style, the words I use, it's always been a huge part of my process and my inspiration. I might even use a song as a reference or use a line or even a concept. So I'm always inspired by it and the biggest thing for a writer is inspiration because without that there's nothing.
What other things are you influenced by or inspire your work?
For me getting angry is the best inspiration. Heartbreak is very good but anger for me is very good. One of the first things I did musically was "America Eats It's Young" with Nick Holder. He'd heard my poetry on the radio and he wanted to have me on a song, and he said it was house music. At first I didn't know. What was I going to write about? I felt like with a house song it'd have to be about dancing or being in love. And he said "I want you to do whatever you want" and at the time there were a lot of police brutality cases and I thought this was what I wanted to write about, I said to him "I don't know if you want to hear this" and he was like "let's do it." So we put that out and it was just crazy. Who has a dance record about police brutality that goes up on the billboard charts? I'm also really inspired by deadlines; unfortunately. 9 times out of 10 you will see me at a show with lines and ideas and I'm backstage at the show, finishing. I'm one of those artists. And sometimes feeling like it's your responsibility to write something raw, to stand up. Your mouth is a weapon, your pen is a weapon. And not everyone is able to use it so it’s your responsibility to say it because you know how to say it.
The event is called When Sisters Speak. As a Black woman, what is it you want to speak about?
Hmm we'll see. It'll depend on the night and when I get to it. I don't have a "sista agenda" per se but I know that I want to do something that will touch the women. If I'm in the crowd and I see all the women laugh in the right space or gasp in the right space I know I'm doing the right thing. I'm definitely trying to speak to them and connect with them in their own language and relate to them as black women. But I'm not writing it for that reason. I want them to feel like they got a chance to speak like "I would have said that." That’s what I love about When Sisters Speak.
Do you have an idea of what pieces you're going to do?
I have to figure out what older one I'm going to do. I'm going to do a piece I haven't done at When Sister's Speak yet. There's this sister I respect so much, Trey Anthony. She and I got together and she has this awesome idea about how to celebrate Valentine's Day and talking about how black women don't always love themselves. And we talked about what we would do and what it would look like if we truly loved ourselves and it's called "if I were a black woman in love with myself." I'm definitely going to do that one because it's honest and it resonates and I think those are the best poems. The ones that are me speaking about me but are general so they can connect. I might do some pieces that are a little more PG. I have a few erotic poems I think I'll debut; that always works.
What is your process for putting a piece together?
Sometimes you're commissioned writing, so someone picks the topic and then I research it. But I don't do it often. When it's organic sometimes I'll wake up with a line in my head and it will just not get out of my head. Sometimes I'll write it down and then write other lines around it or a concept connecting through it but a lot of times I'll just say the line that I have. And I'll keep reading it in that voice because as a spoken word artist how I say the line and the melody helps to determine the next thing I'll say. So I keep saying the line and wait for the next thing.
For you how important is it to have a stage where you can perform and express yourself?
I think it’s a blessing and it's humbling to be allowed that. To me at this point, I've been blessed to have a platform. I think that to have a platform and be able to have a voice is hugely important. Like I know so many women who don't usually get that space but when they get that space it's amazing. And for me it is really important to have that space and share that space with a room full of women who look like me and sound like me and have had similar experiences. Knowing I can make that connection, that's really important for me, to have a room full of like-minded individuals who are open and waiting to hear what you have to deliver. It's important not only to me but it's important that those spaces are there.
How important do you think it is for people to have outlets?
To me that's life. For creative people and people in general. I would feel so stifled if I didn’t have on outlet, I mean it's gotta go somewhere. This energy, this writing, to me that's breath. I'm not even one of those prolific writers with a bunch of books, I write because I have to. I need to or this line is just gonna keep rolling in my head and I just can't not write that down because I have bags and bags of lines that I just don't want to let go until I have to. And I know I'm not the only one. You've just got to get something out or else what are we here for. That's breath to me. That's life to me. That was something in my head and I did something with it and now it's here.
When you look at where you started and to where you are now, what's changed with you?
I think the reality of where it can go. I used to just think "let me go up on stage and read this poem" and that's it. And I see the business of it now and the connection of it now. I'm definitely more able to connect with the crowd when I perform a little more. I think I have much deeper understanding and appreciation of my gift and the responsibility and blessing that comes with this gift. I really see how much it means to perform and how beautiful and sacred poetry is and how much you can move people.
For people who won't be able to make the show what message would you like to send them?
I think if it’s someone who's less familiar, "poetry is not what you think it is, or it's not just what you think it is. When I first started writing one of my big things was I wanted to get the forward from the guy who doesn't like poetry or the girl who didn't want to be here. Show them that it's okay to laugh and poetry can be funny. That we speak in slang and we're not always proper. For the people who aren't interested, I'd just want to let them know if you would go to a comedy show, you could come to this show. You can come to the show if you want to hear something that might challenge you. It's not just what you think it is. And for those people who enjoy poetry, there's just so much and so many ways you can enjoy poetry, even the people on the bill, everyone's got books and albums you can find them on. We love the support that goes beyond the night of the show. We love the people who find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Read some of our old stuff, send us yours. There's so many ways to be a part of this scene.