Interview: Yomi Sode
With LA Markuson
According to the British Council, “Yomi Sode is a London-based Nigerian-born spoken word poet whose work centers on the intersection of Nigerian and British cultures which can be humorous, loving, self-reflective and, at times, uncomfortable.”
That is all true.
But after seeing him perform and getting to speak with him personally, I would venture to say that Yomi Sode is, simply, a loving, bridge-building human being of the world.
With profound candor and humility, he featured on our stage last night, an invitee of the British Council to come and perform in the U.S. with Miles Hodges. Yomi opened his performance speaking about the themes of being black and being African, that run through all his work. He was informing the audience of his voice, a voice within him that he has to pay attention to. We were already brimming with excitement to hear that voice.
His poems on the politics and identity as a young man born in Nigeria, living in London, were filled with compelling contrasting couplets like,
Johnny greets everything that breathes…
Bombs still go off in random places —
but less bloody than back home.
Johnny has arrived.
Resisting but not really
Reaching out but not really
“can I touch your hair?”
“how do you stay alive?”
He made these huge and very scary issues more approachable with his tender tone. He delved into a poem themed around mental health and depression; a conversation with his mother about depression:
You cannot charm a dark space…
What do you mean, “mental health” ?
It’s because you don’t go to church.
Remember, you’re not from here.
By the time he started into a poem about making love, we were basically in puddles around his feet, absorbing every turn of his phrasing. He said,
However, I am a natural Yoruba, so you’ll say my name over and over and over again…
When you refocus, tell me it’s not love you feel.
It’s okay, it’s only me.
I pulled myself back together to speak with Yomi after the show. I asked him how he felt on our stage, and if it felt noticeably different to him than the many other great spaces in which he’s performed. He said in addition to the welcoming energy of the room, the apparent care of the audience for the art, he adored our house saxophonist, Maria Grand. (If you aren’t familiar with our style at Bowery, we actually have live musicians that offer interludes and accompaniment to the poets. It makes for vibes that stay with you for days.)
When I asked him to elaborate a little more on his experience being a black man in the U.K. versus what he knows about the black experience in the U.S., he had an incisive perspective to share. He’s noted a phenomenon where police in England still are prejudiced and problematic at times, but the racism is taboo, quiet, and behind closed doors much more. Here, the experience is much more in-your-face — the elephant in the room demands to be discussed.
When I asked him why he uses poetry as his medium, Yomi leaned in and looked at me to say,
Poetry doesn’t have the answer.
But poetry can aim to raise the discussion.
I don’t want to make people feel so intimidated that they can’t talk to me after the show. I want you to feel the shake, then I want to be here to talk about it after.
My door is open for conversation.
It was hard to tear myself away, but he had a slew of friends and fans waiting to celebrate him.
It was a real honor, Yomi, and we wish you luck at your show Friday.