Q and A with Poet Jamaica West on Representation, Active Obedience and Advocacy
by Tonika Reed
Her Instagram bio is cautiously powerful as it reads: Spoken word performer. Author of “coffee black”. Print modelist. Advocate. Believer of the Gospel. Her name is Jamaica West, and over the phone, she was all of these and more; quite wonderfully eccentric. We have featured Miss West before on behalf of her chapbook, “coffee black”, which is bold in delivery.
I spoke with Ms. West over the phone from El Segundo, California, while she was in Dallas, Texas, getting into a van with her floormates to go to the venue she would be performing spoken word at later that evening. What began on my part as a nervous interview, became a comfortable conversation of sorts, and was quite refreshing.
I jumped right in.
Q: What sparked your desire to begin writing?
A: I think the very first origin of it was my older brother. He used to write poetry all the time...he would have these books; books and books of poems. So I think that was my introduction to poetry. But I didn't actually start taking it seriously until I was in high school when I wrote a poem as an assignment, just so I could get an A. My teacher saw that it was good, and they recruited me for the Poetry Slam team. So I was kind of doing it as a way of being involved in high school, and it kind of just grew. My poetry slam teacher was actually an atheist. I would write these poems about God, and he would have to critique them objectively, but it turned into a form of evangelism, which was really cool.
Q: What continues to encourage you to write?
A: It's so funny because, even after I saw that God was continuing to give me opportunities to continue to share poetry in church, I still didn't really like it. I was just so nervous-- with spoken word, performing in front of people... I tried to find ways out of it, but I continued to get opportunities to go to churches and people started offering honorariums, and it was weird to me, ‘cause I’m like, ‘God, I don't really even enjoy writing poetry per-se’.
I kinda came to a place where I was like,’God if this is something you want me to do, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it well, whether I like it or not.’ So right now I’ve come to a point where I enjoy performance and I enjoy the crowd a lot more than I did, but it's still, for me, a form of obedience.
Q: So, tell us about the chapbook, “coffee black”. Tell us about the goal of it, your intention behind it all.
A: So, coffee black. I titled it “coffee black” because when I think about that, I think about something that is straight, without a chaser. You taste the bitter and the sweet, and the tones of it. Coffee that is taken black is not for everyone. Yet, for people that enjoy coffee-- they will tell you that they drink it black because they understand the process that a bean goes through when it's forced into its final nature-- coffee.
I wanted to create something that was honest-- I felt it was important to put that out there as a Christian. I don't believe that we should leave the emotion of things that we go through. It doesn't always have to be Jesus, Jesus, Jesus on every page. I believe that Jesus lives through the narrative of our lives.
I also had all these poems saved in my phone. Two years of poems, that I knew could help somebody or could tell a story. But I also knew I could not perform it. So I was like, 'I’m gonna put this together in a chapbook and I’m gonna hope somebody reads it.'
Q: If you could describe your writing in one word-- or your writing style in one word-- what would it be?
Q: I saw that you do some modeling also. Other than writing, is modeling a big part of what you do and how does it play into your writing, if at all?
A: I don't want to say it's a big part-- more of like an accident or a side hustle. One thing that I was affected by as a child was that I never saw beauty described as a woman of color. I never saw brown women described as beautiful in the media. I never saw them described as beautiful by black people. I was picked on a lot of times as a kid for my skin. When I started to begin getting opportunities to model, I said yes all the time because I know some little girl is gonna see this, and I want them to know that they are beautiful. Their skin tone is beautiful, and it's worthy to be seen and thought of as beautiful.
That also filters into my writing. I write about my story. I write about who I am. A huge part of my story is that I’ve overcome and am understanding beauty. While I don't have a contract or anything, again, I just try to take as many opportunities as I can-- not to just be vain but because I know people are watching.
Miss West and I agreed that representation is very important.
(At this point Ms. West agreed, and informed me that she was about to get in a van with her floormates to venture to the venue in Dallas where she would be performing that night as a part of the XPRESSIONS tour that also featured poets: Joseph Solomon, Propaganda, and a few other Christian artists and poets)
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring creative, or someone who is looking to go into creative work like poetry or modeling?
A: Some advice I would give to someone going into these fields--even modeling-- is, yes, listen to advice, but don't allow the advice to be your overall authority.
If you have an artistic vision, or if you have something that is burning in your heart, or something that God is speaking to you about, or a vision God has given you, don't allow anyone to steal that out of your heart. It is God-given.
Q: Yep. A lot of times people tell us things that they would do, but they aren't seeing what we are seeing…
A: Yeah, they are only seeing it from their perspective. I mean, it's the same thing with parents. With parents, they can mean so much well, but they are coming from an entirely different generation.
Q: In the beginning of the chapbook, you listed a few people that inspire you like: Nina Simone, Dostoyevsky, Joan of Arc and some others. What is the consistent theme through those creatives that you see and admire?
A: They are very bold and passionate writers. I’m kind of sometimes made fun of in my desire to rebel, but I am so so inspired by these people [who] did it, and they succeeded. That has always inspired me and that has infiltrated into what I write. That’s why I created the chapbook, and that's why I did it with the structure that I did. I felt like, if Dostoyevsky can do it, and Joan of Arc can do it-- and succeed-- then I’m gonna do it.
Q: Well I’m glad you did it!
(She ‘lols’ and says a demure, thank you.)
Q (cont.): Your Instagram bio labels you as an advocate. Is there anything you are really passionate about, or any causes that you’re involved in?
A: Yeah. I’m really passionate about women’s rights. I’m really passionate about social justice for African American lives; for black lives, and I’m also secretly passionate about-- I haven't been as vocal about this--but passionate about disabled persons. I have a sister who has Autism and Cerebral Palsy.
I know from dealing with my sister, and growing up with her, that someone who is disabled, or behaviorally challenged, or who is not fully developed in the way that we think should be developed, should not be tried as a quote on quote, normal adult. That’s one thing I’m passionate about because I believe it's a major injustice that has yet to be even recognized-- the way that we try autistic persons or disabled persons in the criminal system.
Women’s rights-- I’m very passionate about that. I do not consider myself a feminist. That’s like saying the f-word nowadays. I don't use that word, but I am passionate about women’s rights….I have always had that burden to advocate for women because we go through so much. A lot of times, because of patriarchy, we are embarrassed and are shunned. We are shamed for what we feel and experience as women as if our emotions are inappropriate, yet, in reality, it's what makes us beautiful; it's what makes us amazing. It’s what God has intended for us.
Black Lives Matter is something that is important to me as well because blacks have been systematically oppressed. That's not something I’m afraid to say as a person. And that is not something that I’m afraid to fight because I believe that God is the God of justice. I know that more conservative Christians would not agree that there needs to be such a vicious fight, but for me in my convictions, that is something that I advocate for and am very passionate about.
Q: In the piece, “Magnify”, you address homelessness and kind of the intersections between class and race. What brought you to that place of wanting to write that-- or wanting to put those words out into the universe--if you will?
A: I wrote that when I was just starting to begin this process of reconciling with my father… I remember when he passed away. I was eleven and everyone else was having dreams about him-- like ‘Oh I had a dream and he’s at peace’. Yet, every dream that I had about my father was negative and dark. So I felt as though I didn't have this peace that everyone else had about his death. I wrote the poem for myself, really, in the sense of like, ‘if I could speak to him one last time, what would it be like?’
I made him a homeless person because in my heart I felt like, when we think of eternity, we think of heaven or hell, right? Either heaven is your home, or hell is your home…but for me, I didn't know where he was. So, in my heart he was homeless. He was without a home--eternal wise. [When] he’s begging for money, he’s begging for time. [M]y father would always get into these bouts about time; wishing that he could take things back, or that he had more time with us, or that he could see us graduate. So I took that memory and related it to time.
I believe time is a kind of currency that we kind of neglect. We kind of spend time like it's nothing-- but in reality, it's rich. There’s a lot of weight to it. A lot of us are poor with time, and a lot of us are rich with time. I just tried to use those different comparisons to tell that story, and to tell it as close to who I am, and to whom my father was, as possible.
Q: The ‘Melodies From Heaven’ part of your latest piece, “I’m So Black Christian”-- BEST PART! That was a REAL thing that used to happen at my house. Tell me more about this piece, and what working with Joseph Solomon was like?
A: That piece was Joe’s idea. It was literally all his idea. We were on tour last year-- XPRESSIONS, and he had this idea. I remember around that time, there was something happening with one of the famous apologists, James White. I think there was also another apologist... Systematic Theology...
Q: Wayne Grudem?
A: YES. Wayne Grudem. Joe is into theology… [H]e had this idea to identify with what he was feeling and asked if I wanted to do a group piece. He sent me a couple of lines, and I sent him back a couple of lines. It was just something that came naturally because being a black Christian is our life. It's like talking about drinking water-- that’s just what we do.
So working with him was very interesting because Joe is such a perfectionist, and everything he does is excellent. He likes to practice-- over and over and over and over-- until he gets it. Me? I’m a lot more relaxed. I’ve never performed a poem the same way twice. I’ll improvise. If I forget a line, I’ll just improvise. To me, that’s fun. For him, that’s like, ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! We have to say it the way we wrote it with the right timing, and if it's not, he just can't rest until it's perfect. We have the same writing style, but we are two very different performers.
Q: So what are your plans for the near future (other than finishing the tour)? Are there any projects you’re working on--anything coming up?
A: YES. YES. YES. I want to keep the momentum going with “coffee black”. I haven't been able to promote it as much as I would like to because we’ve been touring, and I’ve been doing other shows. [For] Coffee Black, there’s going to be a supplement audio project with it, because I realize that there are different kinds of poetry lovers.
I’m creating a musical production-- it will [be titled] “Coffee Black the EP”. One of the producers I’m working with is named Wes Pendleton, out in Philadelphia, and he’s amazing! He’s done work with a lot of CHH rappers like Taelor Gray, and I really enjoy his sound-- I’m really hoping to put that out soon. And then I’m hoping to put out another poem.
Q: Where do you feel that your writing, your side-hustle of modeling and your creativity as a whole is taking you in the future? And how have you seen it impact people? How has it impacted you?
A: I don't know where it will take me in the future, but I believe there is a future for it-- if that makes sense. I’m just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and pushing, and believing God will reveal the rest to me.
[T]o hear that, I’m drawn back to God because of art-- that’s the goal… I can go back and work at Mcdonalds or whatever, but if I know that God is glorified in the midst of it, that’s the meat. That’s why I’m not afraid to go into a secular arena and do a poem about God, because I know that He’ll be glorified, and I know that He works through the arts, and I know that He also works through mass entertainment media.
So if someone sees my picture somewhere and they know that it's me, they'll see I'm a believer. And they will see that my source is Christ, and He’s always been my source. Though life has not always been easy-- it's been painful--He has sustained me. I’m not dead; I haven't offed myself, I haven't-- ya know... and that is my final story. That is my final glory; that Christ has been my all, and through all, He has carried me --and that’s it.
After cordially saying our goodbyes, it felt like I had just gotten a glimpse of the beginning of the journey of Miss Jamaica West. I, and I’m sure many of her other followers, not only look forward to seeing the chapbook come into its audio form but hearing more honest, and seemingly effortless, artistic work from such a wonderfully eccentric human.
You can also view more information about Miss West herself on her website here.