By Ari Kleinman
Close your eyes, and step up to the microphone. You have no script, no pages in front of you, but the words are flowing through your mind. You feel power in your veins and hope in your breath—you have a message, and it is about to break free.
The words you are about to speak have twisted themselves into your heart and are sewn, ready, into your lips. You might be Jazz Monique Hudson, spoken word artist from Oakland, Calif.
Hudson started with poetry when she was 10 at a spoken word poetry class at the West Oakland Public Library. She was suspended from school, and her father wanted to teach her a lesson. “It wasn’t a gift, it was a punishment,” she laughed.
But she wrote her first two published poems while she was there, and 12 years later she is a spoken word artist, mother, educator, and inspiration.
She believes poetry has a role in changing the lives of youth. “Poetry saved my life,” she said. Hudson had experienced the foster care system and its difficulties first hand during her adolescence, and was able to use poetry as a way to cope. She said, “When I was angry, it was a way to vent. Poetry was a way to unapologetically express myself, without any judgment.”
As an educator, she sees spoken word poetry as catharsis. It allows students who struggle to open up to deal with issues that they otherwise may never have faced. “I watch them open up and reflect on places in themselves that they never thought were there,” Hudson said. “Poetry for young people is transformative. Poetry for young people can also be very therapeutic. I’ve watched it as a healing process in the classroom. Students might not think they have something creative or talented inside of them, and they do these workshops, and they see it.”
Hudson breaks down what poetry means to her. “Poetry is a representation of the universe. When you look at the universe, it is all encompassing. What’s inside of me is one with the universe,” she said. “The ‘uni’ in universe stands for one, and the ‘verse’ stands for word. Poetry is a bridge between the present and the written word. It’s bringing things into the present, into existence.”
Youth today, especially in lower income areas, face many challenges. Hudson stressed that many of these struggles stem from having to deal with issues too mature for their years. When adolescents have to worry about finances and violence, when they have to worry about how they are going to feed themselves, they don’t always have the ability to discover their identity. They also have trouble finding their place.
“A lot of youth have trouble finding people they can relate to, so many of my students feel so disconnected,” she said. “They feel numb, or they feel like they are forced into feeling the way that they feel. They aren’t in tune with their bodies or with themselves.”
She is inspired by those close to her—mainly by her father and by her son. She notes Octavia Butler as a literary inspiration and as a literary influence. “Growing up, I didn’t always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a bodybuilder. And then I wanted to be a singer. It wasn’t until I picked up a [Butler] book that I was inspired to tell stories in a different way,” Hudson reflected.
She also feels inspired by author James Botwin. “He struggles with his own darkness and his own challenges. Sometimes as a writer we feel like we have to either talk about just the dark things, or just the light, but as a writer, he speaks about both.”
The most inspiring project she has worked on to date has been an installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. “I have always felt that poetry was bigger than me,” she noted, “but this piece was big. To watch all of these folks change.” She was part of the collaboration that created the “Future Soul Think Tank,” an art piece that urged artists and patrons alike to question what the soul would look like in the year 2038.
“My piece, based on [Butler’s] ‘Parables of the Sower,’ spoke to the impacts we make. Every space we enter we change, and it changes us. Like [Butler] said, ‘The only lasting truth is change.’” Hudson said.
“I created a short film chronicling my life and there was a poem behind the film, an interactive poem on the wall, with the words ‘I am,’ ‘I was,’ and ‘I’ll be,’ and people could come and add to the wall,” Hudson continued. “Next to it was a time capsule display where people could write to ‘their future self’ and take [the message] with them. I got to sit in a room and watch people instantly change and be transformed.”
Her biggest struggle is moving on from things in the past. “I’m turning 25 in August, and my biggest struggle has always been learning to let go,” Hudson reflected. “I’m not sure where it came from, but I’ve always wanted to hold on to everything. I sometimes feel that everything I’ve ever had is worth having, so I should never let those things go.”
She sometimes also struggles with accepting where life takes her. “I’m also learning that sometimes life is the complete opposite of what you would expect, and that not knowing [what will happen] is sometimes a destination, just like clarity is. “
“My biggest struggle as a writer is being afraid of my own voice,” she said. “Looking at myself in a raw form.”
Hudson sometimes has difficulty looking into herself when she writes, when she has to focus on what is inside versus writing something to inspire youth. “I was looking at a piece that I had written when I was going through a breakup, and it was just me. Raw. I don’t think I’ve been that raw since I was 16.”
She has strong messages to portray to youth. “There’s always going to be struggle. There’s always going to be things that are good and bad. There will be moments of defeat. My dad always said, ‘They knocked me down, they didn’t knock me out,’ and that reminds me that I will always have room to fight. And young people, I want them to know that they are the survivors. They haven’t faded.”
The fact that [youth] are here, means [they] haven’t stopped fighting, and [youth] can still figure out what [they’re] fighting for,” Hudson explained. “I want young people to see that it isn’t about the situation, it is about how they react to the situation. I want them to achieve a level of personal greatness. I want them to be inspired by their personal greatness. I want them to exceed their own limits and their own expectations, not the limits and expectations that other people put in front of them.”
Hudson is writing a book called “Defining Moment,” which will come out in August. “It is a poetic biography. I took five defining moments from my life to write about. One is my mother, the second is motherhood, and that’s all I’m gonna give you, I don’t want to give too much away,” Hudson laughed.
“I change the world starting with myself—the healing of my own self, and my own spirit. And it’s a ripple effect,” she said. “I do everything I can to be an active change for myself and my community. Sometimes that’s having a conversation with somebody, or smiling at them. I feel like one of the biggest things, one of the greatest things that I have discovered, is that everyone deserves the right to be seen as worthy. And they are. I will change the world by changing myself.”