‘Artists After Hours’ Talks to James Street, Spoken Word Poet and Vice President, EROT

March 17, 2017
James Street

James Street

Artists After Hours, a series from Carolina Arts and Sciences Magazine, features interviews with faculty, staff and students in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who pursue artistic avocations in areas not directly related to their day jobs or studies.

James Street ’18 is a public policy and critical race theory major.

Poetry is all about honesty. It’s being able to liberate yourself in front of a large group of people and to talk about whatever you want, however you want. Being able to perform a poem about the slave trade, for instance, is a cathartic experience. Being able to talk about real issues, to be honest not only with the audience but with yourself, there’s a lot of growth in that — being introspective and self-reflective.

Over tear-salted waters

warmed by slave blood,
The Atlantic churns
like the good-ship Jesus,
A hurricane is born.

Moisture rising like ghosts
forms tropical depression
Off the coast of West Africa,
pleads Ghana goodbye,
Barrels toward America in slave ship trajectories like evil unbothered to stop.
Rises above water like baptism finales at the same location slaves were unloaded. …

These are the beginning lines of my poem about hurricanes as a reincarnation of black women who were stolen from Africa. I discuss the devastation that has been caused by both. In the aftermath of a hurricane, people try to “fix” the damage, but no one has ever tried to fully “fix” things for the descendants of black women who were enslaved. It’s a poem about the hypocrisy of some white people who see nature as evil, but fail to recognize the evil that they have caused and may continue to cause.

I was a participant in Project Uplift, a program which brings high-achieving high school students from historically under-served demographics to Carolina for two days, when I saw EROT perform for the first time. I was already interested in spoken word poetry from watching YouTube videos, but when I actually saw a live performance, I was really intrigued. So as soon as I arrived on campus, I looked for audition dates during the first semester of my first year. I auditioned, and I got accepted into my EROT family.

EROT hosts shows that have varying themes, but because it is a subgroup of the Black Student Movement, a portion of our work tends to focus on race. There’s a lot of call-and-response in these performances. Spoken word engages more with the audience than written poetry because it’s based on a discussion between the poet and the audience, through snaps, sending positive energy and more. We do poetry slams, shows, open-mic nights, everything. Altogether, we perform about six times a year, but we do small pop-up performances throughout the year as well.

I also work with Blackspace Chapel Hill through the Bonner Leaders Program. Blackspace offers community-based programs to local youth. We have been working on the mission statement, which is something like “shaping change through any medium necessary,” using art as a liberating experience that can help youth be creative and be able to think outside of the box about the things that oppress them.

At Carolina, I’m also a McNair Scholar, so I’ll be going on to get a Ph.D., probably in something related to race, public policy and the law. The scholarship is for underrepresented students who have an interest in higher education. My current research is studying the correlation between depressive symptoms and substance abuse in Native American communities and developing culturally competent programs to address mental health issues. I’m also interested in law school, and in working for the government or a nonprofit.

I am involved in a lot of things. I’m president of the Carolina Indian Circle, I’m the on-campus coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and on the Student Advisory Committee to the Chancellor. But EROT is really connected to everything I do — to me as a person, to my major, to my co-curricular activities.

I used to get nervous when I first performed. Then I started to realize I have nothing to be afraid of when I perform because everything I say is my truth. If I’m being myself and I’m being honest, what is there to fear? Some poems are for me, so I don’t care if the audience likes it; that’s not the goal.

Something that I really love about EROT is how diverse we are. We have members with roots in Cameroon, Kenya, India, Nigeria and states all across the country, and that diversity really shows in our poems. We learn about other people’s honest experiences and understand each other and ourselves better.

Open-mics provide a safe space for people of color, people who are marginalized, so they can share their story. There’s a community there, a family, an understanding and a sense of belonging. We know it’s OK to bring our full selves because the open-mic community is so loving, supportive and understanding.

EROT’s spring performance on April 6 in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History will feature a “throwback” theme. For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/EROTPoetry.