I remember standing on stage, In front of 400 (mostly drunk) hip hop and poetry fans and feeling like my life was over. I had been invited to be part of a “mc’s vs poets” battle in the UK and when I turned up that night I was pretty unprepared for what that meant. I also was unaware that this night would change my life.
In honesty, I had spent my life on stage. Performing. Wearing masks (literally and metaphorically) embodying characters and pretending. The problem is, when I stopped acting and started my Spoken Word career at the age of 20, I was very quickly confronted with the fact that this was NOT performing in the traditional sense. I had been trained my whole life to be something else so well that people believed it was real. This, however… This was something new, different… It was not acting. It was being. And fuck that was uncomfortable.
So there I was on stage at a hip-hop battle (as a girl who really had very little experience of the hip-hop scene at the time) and the mask I desperately wanted to be wearing (the one that would mean people would accept me in this savage realm) was my self-defined mask of “cool”. The problem is… this is not acting… it’s being… and who cares of they believed me or not because I didn’t believe me. And it showed. There I was, literally in the battlefield waving around my banana-gun hoping people would believe it was actually loaded and trying desperately to convince myself that no one could see how glaringly yellow it was.
They could see.
And they called me out on it (in their own brutal way)…
Of course, I continued with my poem and the power of what I was saying shone through, they applauded and went home and never thought about it again…but here is the problem,
…I walked off stage and I hid in the back room until every single person (including my family members) had left the building. I went home, I changed my name on Facebook and I cried. For the next week, I woke multiple times a night gasping for air convinced there were hundreds of people who hated me.
Because I was so desperately wanting to be accepted that I sabotaged it by lying to them and to myself.
Of course, they didn’t hate me (well not all of them) and even if they had, it’s not the point. The point is… until I could walk on stage and declare “hey! I’m here in the centre of the battlefield with a banana. It’s not loaded and in fact, I may even slip over on the skin, but hey… would you like to share it with me?”. Until I could be courageous and vulnerable enough to call my own elephants, that were creeping around the shadows of the room of my guts, out onto that stage with me… I was never ever going to be able to walk off that stage with anything other than shame.
That night haunted me and still does at times. In honesty, there is a video of it, somewhere out there on the internet, that I attempted to watch once. It got to the point when I walked out onto the stage and said my first few words and, watching it, my heart was beating so fast I almost vomited so I turned it off and never watched it again…. It was filmed almost 10 years ago.
However, that night was also an initiation. From that point onwards I knew, that unless I could truly be myself when public speaking (by public speaking I mean speaking to anyone other than ourselves…and sometimes even to ourselves) I would always be carrying around the heavy burden of shame… and eventually, my back would break.
And don’t get me wrong, sometimes I still catch myself waving my banana and pretending it is whatever suitable weapon I assume I need in that space. However when I see it, and I see it, I am prepared to take that risk… mid battle and say “Hey. Let’s be honest here, I wouldn’t know a samurai sword if you threw it at me and this, this is an elongated fruit I use to feel like I belong. The truth is, I haven’t got a clue what you expect of me so I’m just going to give you what I’ve got, as it is.”
“banana split anyone?”
Written by Fleassy Malay. Photography by John E Photography