Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born poet/writer who was a featured cast member of the National Touring Company of the Tony Award winning Broadway show, Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam. Not a stranger to the stage, her poetry has also opened shows for Grammy Award winning artists, has earned her an appearance on the NAACP Image Awards as part of a tribute to Venus and Serena Williams, and has positioned her as a featured performer for Johannesburg, South Africa’s annual arts festival, Joburg Arts Alive. Most recently, Bassey came to her home country Nigeria to have a show tagged ‘BASSEY IKPI LIVE’ which featured a poetry contest which was held in three states, Lagos, Abuja and her home state, Cross River (Calabar), delivering her best pieces of spoken words. She goes ahead to share with us a typical day in her life, her passion for poetry and why she is so interested in writing about mental health.
Mayreejay: When did you discover your love for poetry?
Bassey: I fell in love with poetry at the age of 8. I read a poem by Nikki Giovanni called Ego Tripping that I loved. I learned to speak English age 5 and learned to read very soon after. I fell in love with language and words and how they were manipulated and poetry does that.
M: How long have you been writing for?
B: Since I was 8.
M: What has been your greatest inspiration thus far? B: Life. People. Living. Humanity. M: Your greatest fear and challenge would be?
B: My greatest fear is being a failure. My greatest challenge is learning not to be so self critical. I also have a tendency to be so afraid of failure that I’d rather do nothing than fail.
M: Tell us how you got to be a part of Def Poetry Jam.
B: A friend of mine wanted to audition for the show and wanted me to go for moral support. When we arrived, we realized that it was a closed audition so for me to go in and support him, I had to audition as well. I ended up winning the entire contest and from there got Def Jam’s attention. That lead to Def Poetry and the producers and directors liked me, then was asked to join the touring cast.
M: What was the experience like?
B: Amazing and once in a life time experience but physically and emotionally taxing.
M: Where there high and low points of it?
B: The highs are the live audience. Preforming your poetry in front of thousands of people every night and having them hang on to every word, is amazing. There’s nothing like it. The energy and the rush and the connection you make with strangers is so beautiful. I also got to travel a lot and see places I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The low part is that all that moving around wasn’t good for me. I like stability and having touchstones to remind me of where the ground is. It’s easy to get caught up in this “rock star” lifestyle. You lose touch with friends because you’re never home. It really takes a lot out of you.
M: What was the last book you read?
B: Wild Stars seeking Midnight Suns by my favorite author, J. California Cooper. I got to meet her last year, it was one of the best experiences of my life. She’s amazing.
M: Not so many people appreciate the depth of spoken words, what is your take on that?
B: I think that music and drama and literature are things that we’ve all been exposed to as respectable types of art. Spoken word to the untrained or unknowing person just sounds like someone standing and talking. It’s much more than that. Once they realize that spoken word is just an extension of literature/poetry, they get it a bit more. I think the onus has to be on the performer though. It can’t JUST be about the performance, the words, the poem, the ideas conveyed have to be clear in the writing so that when you get on stage, they translate well. It has to move easily from page to stage. It’s not drama or pantomime and it’s not just standing there and reciting, it lives in that space in between. When done well, spoken word/performance poetry is compelling and riveting and powerful. When done terribly, it’s boring and ordinary, the key is to make sure you can recognize the good from the bad just like any other art form.
WATCH THIS VIDEO: Bassey performing one of her loved poems”HOMEWARD”. Uploaded on YouTube by Bassey Ikpi on 29 Oct 2006. The woman who inspired me and this poem passed away yesterday September 1, 2011. I dedicate my work, my life, words and my heart to her. Rest in Peace, Grandmother.
M: Have you written any books yet?
B: I’ve started 3 books and completed 1.
M: Can you summarize what a typical day is for you?
B: I don’t really have “typical days” If I’m in town, I wake up around 6 and just lie in bed trying to figure out why I’m up so early. Then around 7 my son will come running into my room. I get up and get him ready for school. Drop him at school. I come home and make some juice. Then I’m on my computer all day either doing work for my NGO or writing depending on whether or not I have a deadline. Then it’s time to pick my son up from school, feed him, take him to soccer practice or a game. Then home, feed him again, put him to bed and then back on the computer. It’s very glamorous and exciting. When I’m on the road, it’s a bit different but if you want to say “typical” that’s typical.
WATCH THIS VIDEO: Apology to My Unborn by Bassey Ikpi (Def Poetry Jam)
Uploaded on YouTube by Bassey Ikpi on 30 Mar 2007. (This is my latest Def Poetry Appearance. It’s an open letter to my unborn child. And yes, I was really pregnant. I have my son as proof:).
M: Three(3) things you can’t do without?
B: Family, shoes and the internet.
M: Favorite color?
B: I don’t have one. My son’s favorite color is Chelsea blue so I usually incorporate blue into things like cell phone cases and random items for him. I look amazing in green though so maybe green.
M: Trousers or skirts?
B: High end straight leg denim jeans
M: Braids or weave?
B: Whatever makes you feel good and look best.
M: Food or drinks?
M: Heels or flats?
B: Heels. The higher the heels the closer to God.
M: Why the particular emphasis to write about mental health?
B: I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder years ago while on tour with Def Poetry. I realized that not a lot of black people were talking about it. I’m in a unique position where, for some reason, people listen when I talk and pay attention to what I write. I felt it was my responsibility to keep the conversation going and maybe that would help someone else feel less alone. I want to show people that you can go through something like that and live with something like that and still do well as long as you take care of yourself. We have the wrong picture of what mental health awareness looks like and I want to be part of the movement that changes that image for the better.
WATCH THIS VIDEO – The Siwe Project: Choices. Uploaded on YouTubeby Bassey Ikpi on 10 Dec 2011
The Siwe Project is a global non-profit dedicated to promoting mental health awareness throughout the global black community. The goal of the organization is to widen the public dialogue regarding the lived experiences of people of African Descent with mental illness. By providing opportunities for dialogue and the uplifting of new narratives and discourse, The Siwe Project aims to encourage more people to seek treatment without shame.
Follow on Twitter: @theSiweProject; Like on Facebook: Facebook.com/TheSiweProject
Questions by Mayreejay.