|Posted on January 12, 2012 at 12:25 PM|
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 January 2012- http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/11/dean-atta-stephen-lawrence-poem
Until last week, Dean Atta was relatively unknown; unless you were deeply immersed in the world of spoken word you probably wouldn't have heard of him. Then, in the wake of the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he wrote his poem I Am Nobody's Nigger, and took the internet by storm. In five days, his poem had received in excess of 15,000 hits and gained him an extra 1,000 followers on Twitter. The poem was, he says, a reaction to "the injustice of the death of Stephen Lawrence", and to the loose usage of the N-word. "Watching Panorama, where they reconstructed his murder, and hearing that the N-word was the last thing they said when they stabbed him really struck a chord with me."
The poem began as an update on Facebook and post on Twitter, saying: "Rappers, when you use the word 'nigger' remember that's one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard, so don't tell me it's a reclaimed word." It received 80 likes and 50 retweets, and became the first line of a poem he wrote in 30 minutes.
We meet at a poetry event on Brick Lane in east London. The evening is the brainchild of Clarissa Pabi, a former president of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and features poetry, music, film installation and open mics – a chance for aspiring poets and musicians to perform. Atta arrives, smiling in a grey hat and pink jumper, and is recognised by many guests.
The 27-year-old Londoner has been writing and performing for more than 10 years. Initially, he says, poetry was an opportunity to vent. "I started writing about stuff I was seeing in the news, my own sexual identity and being mixed race." (His mother is Greek, his father Jamaican.) At Sussex University, where he studied English and philosophy, he was president of the African Caribbean Society and was the black students' rep on the student union council; he believes these roles helped instil a political and social conscience. Since then, he has been commissioned to write poems for galleries including Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and Keats House, as well as organisations such as the Damilola Taylor Trust.
In his Lawrence poem Atta writes, "How were you raised on Public Enemy/ and still became your own worst enemy." This isn't the first time he has criticised the exclusivity of hip-hop: last summer he made a BBC 1Xtra documentary with SBTV presenter Georgia Lewis Anderson called No Homo: Hip Hop's Last Taboo. The programme highlighted what Atta feels is the rejection of gay people by rap culture, something that led him towards spoken-word performance instead; he describes his poem Young, Black and Gay as a signature piece.
Dealing with his sexuality has been the premise of much of Atta's work; growing up, this was more of an issue for him than race. "You know you're black, but you have to kind of figure out that you're gay," he explains. He might have written a poem about Lawrence, but doesn't feel qualified to comment on the sentences received by Dobson and Norris. Nor was he aware of Carol Ann Duffy's response last week, her poem Stephen Lawrence. All he will say is that the media representation of black people is "very marginal", with "negative stories receiving a lot of airtime".
Atta admits he doesn't normally publish so quickly, though he is happy he did. "I recorded it on to my iPhone, and it was straight online. I tweeted it and it just went viral." Tonight, to an audience of around 40, he takes to the mic and performs it again, appearing much more apprehensive than he was in conversation. There are claps and cheers, and one standing ovation.
Atta's plans include more writing; he has written a play, Queen Pokou, based on the mythological west African princess, currently being performed on the London fringe. And there will be more poetry. "The power of poetry is limitless. Whether it's Obama's or David Cameron's speeches, or Maya Angelou talking, it's all spoken word," he tells me. "It's not just a niche scene happening in Hoxton. It's prevalent in our everyday life."
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