A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color
Article & Photos: A. D. Odom
Part I | Part II | Part III
In an abyss of emotion
I’m emoting silence spoken
It’s choking me
‘cause you got me open like budding roses
Naya’Hri, in ancient Egyptian (Khemetic), means soul survivor. N’Dambi, is Yoruban for most beautiful one and Suhalia is loosely translated in Hindu to mean woman of prosperity. Naya’Hri is all of these and particularly, she is truly a survivor.
Naya’Hri and I initially started talking because she is currently a student of photography at the Otis College of Art & Design. Her desire to speak through imagery is where our conversations began; however, I discovered something much deeper than a young spoken word artist with an interest in photography. She was a runaway, a survivor of incest and rape, married, gave birth to a child and then mourned her passing. She became a surrogate mother for a couple wanting children and she continues to maintain an active place in their lives. She is a cancer survivor and has had her share of battles in that arena as well.
I discovered in our discussions a woman very similar to Christine – tough, direct and a Virgo. Since the first re-issue of GBF Magazine (March 2004), I’ve kept up with Naya’Hri’s poetry. Admittedly, I was a little surprised to discover her words were that of someone so young. At 24, soon to be 25, and going on 50, this young woman’s words strike at the heart of human emotion unlike anything I’ve seen in a very long time. I wanted to not only meet Naya’Hri, I wanted to interview her and share the experiences behind such strong words and feelings and an equally strong woman.
She told me, while young, she saw herself as Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. She admired how Athena leaped from the head of Zeus -already adult- and dressed with her armor. I do believe she is very much like Athena. This bold Virgo is fiercely honest. I, the interviewer, appreciated her take-no-prisoners style matched with blatant honesty.
This interview, conducted on a beautiful day in Leimert Park, was both exciting and enjoyable because she is so filled with life and passion you are almost swept away by her. Additionally, during the interview you could tell how much she is loved and well respected by many who saw her. In fact, during the interview, several people - two in particular - approached her to participate in their documentaries and she graciously obliged.
The following is my conversation with Naya’Hri, spoken word artist and warrior woman who -like Audre Lorde- has faced that death which can come from cancer and has truly given full rein to her anger and her loves. She is fearless.
ADO When did you start as a spoken word artist?
Naya’hri About five years ago. I got started really through force. It was not my intention. I used to just write poetry. I was entirely too shy and one day a friend of mine took me to this tiny venue in L.A. At the time it was still really small so it hadn’t become the very popular spot it is now. [My friend] said, “You know what, you should stand up and read some of your poetry.” I thought, ‘um, no, I don’t think so’. It was being held outside of a house at the time and I finally said, “Okay, I’d do it”. So, I got up there and was reading off the paper, just shivering. I remember saying, “okay, this is my poem and I hope everybody likes it.” When I was done everybody felt it and you would have thought that a good response would have just pushed me into to doing it. Oh No! It took another six months before I ever went up on a stage. It was so funny.
ADO How long have you been writing?
Naya’hri I wrote my very first poem – oh it was super corny- when I was six years old. I had a crush on my teacher and she was a girl. So I wrote this little bitty poem and I gave it to her and the next thing you know it was a parent-teacher conference. Before you know it, I’m in a different classroom – [mock crying]“She don’t love me.” That can be traumatizing to a child, especially a child in love. You can’t do that to a little kid.
ADO Have you ever published?
Naya’hri I have been published in, of course, GBF Magazine. I was also published in a chapbook with another group that I used to be part of called Freedom Infinite, which contains my brother, Obi Adisa Asad, one of the main reasons why I’m still in this poetry game today, and Jeremy Murphy. My brother is the most wonderful poet in the world and I love him. He gives me so much inspiration and is an amazing poet. They are two amazing artists. I have a poem featured in their chapbook called The Gumbo Experience. Yes, food for the soul!!!
ADO How did you start The Love Movement?*
Naya’hri Oh gosh. I got it started through another Carson-based poetry circle that I used to be part of called the Nappy Tongue Grass Roots Poets. The leader of that group, Sadiki Bakari, called me one day and said that two ladies over at the Ebony Talking Leaves Center are looking for someone -a poet- to host their venue. He knew I was hosting the open-mic venue over at Cabrini’s Spot every Thursday. So, the two owners of the center, Dr. Joyce Briscoe and Fern Stamps, basically sat down with me and talked about hosting a venue and I said perfect. Everything is pretty much left to me so I really am in charge – It’s really mine. The only thing they control is the building, which is very important. We have a good understanding and I really love them and being able to create some really great things with The Love Movement.
ADO How long has it been up?
Naya’hri Since November 7, 2003.
ADO So you were hosting Cabrini’s Spot on Saturday Night.
Naya’hri I was hosting Cabrini’s Spot on Thursday nights. We had two different visions and since it’s her venue, she should have the vision she wants – it just didn’t fit with me so I left.
ADO How long were you doing Cabrini’s Spot?
Naya’hri About two months.
ADO Do you perform or host only?
Naya’hri I try not to perform as often because anybody knows it’s not about the host. It’s about the people. So, I really put The Love Movement together for the people, which is one of the reasons why it’s called The Love Movement.
ADO You named it?
Naya’hri Yeah I did name the venue and actually, the first way The Love Movement came about was because that is the name of an album that was put together by one of my favorite hip-hop groups, A Tribe Called Quest. That was the last collective album they put together. Since I’m such a big fan of theirs, I decided to dedicate my venue to them. Plus, you can really play with that name. That’s like love of the arts, love of poetry, love of dance, love of music – it’s a really flexible title. Let’s say for promotional purposes, it’s “catchy.”
ADO What artists have you featured there?
Naya’hri We’ve had some wonderful artists there. Sandra Laraine Coleman, Alice The Poet, Gia Scott-Heron, Ta’Shia Asanti has been there…
ADO Did Ta’Shia do the Sakia’s Gunn thing there?
Naya’hri She was promoting for Sakia’s Gun and Mad Mad House at my venue. Gosh, whom else have I had in there? A great poet by the name of Babu… Jaha Zainabu, how could I forget about her? Makeda Kumasi, Jason David, Damnyo, Art.Us Mansoir and many others have blessed the space. Those are about all of the ones I can think of from off the top of my head.
ADO What holds you to do or continue with it – spoken word? Is it a passion, is it love, or is it a burning desire?
Naya’hri A lot of it is passion, a lot of it is determination, and a lot of it is sheer ego because I had a lot of ups and downs with my spoken word this past year; Some really just ugly, negative, energy…From miscommunications to misunderstandings and just a lot of sloppy handling of situations. I was really close this year to saying, “I will continue to write, I’ll continue to create art and do photography and everything, but you guys can have this spoken word shit. I don’t want it anymore.” But, Ta’Shia, my best friend Candace Mealy and Azaan Kamau were in my corner and just would not give up on me. If it wasn’t for those three, I have to admit I would have stopped. But they understood me and even though I don’t speak with Ta’Shia and Azaan often, I still appreciate that. I’ve written several poems about all of them as just my way of saying thank you. They haven’t heard them yet, but they probably will eventually.
ADO Now, you have two little two-year olds?
Naya’hri Yes I do. My little booties.
ADO What are their names?
Naya’hri Their names are Taiwo, that’s my son, and Kaia, that’s my daughter. They are twins.
ADO And you are . . .
Naya’hri Technically, I’m their Godmother. But I carried them, I gave birth to them. It was In-Vitro Fertilization. It was her fertilized egg, his sperm, and my body.
ADO You all raise or take part in raising . . .
Naya’hri Yeah, the father passed away recently, unfortunately. That was back in April.
ADO Oh, that’s really recent.
Naya’hri It was really nuts the way the entire thing happened. I was completely and totally in shock. I’m still mourning but I was capable of doing something really wonderful. I was able to go with my aunt, several other [Yoruban] priestesses and the mother of my children to the USHA Healing Village in La Ceiba, Honduras. We went down there for a week with no TV, or any distraction… just beauty, silence and a safe space for me to grieve. Up until that point, I was just running and I didn’t take the time to cry. I reacted really badly, to the point where I purposely injured myself. I knew I needed to leave so I went down to USHA and it was wonderful. I got to cry and that was the first step of my mourning. Whenever I felt the urge to cry I would just let myself do it. The children are going to be moving to Africa at the end of this summer. They’re leaving me. They are going to Ghana.
ADO Are you going to Ghana?
Naya’hri I’m not moving, no. I will be going there to visit them at least like twice a year. And when they’re 13, they’re going to come back to the States. Yeah, I know, long time. They’re leaving in September after so they’ll spend my birthday with me. I love the fact that I have them. It makes me happy that I was able to take part in such an important task for these two people who wanted a family and I was able to give that to them. It also makes me miss my daughter so much. But, at the same time, it makes me – it still makes me happy because either way it goes, I know I’m a damn good mom and there’s no one who can convince me that I’m not. No one can convince me I am not a good mother.
ADO Your daughter, Katarina, died at what age?
Naya’hri She was two years old. She had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
ADO You mentioned she was a rather precocious little one.
Naya’hri Oh God. What a rambunctious little child that was. I couldn’t keep an expensive anything in that house because sure enough her hands would be upon it. “Mommie, what’s this?” Then, all of a sudden, you’d hear a crash. “Well, it ain’t nothing now baby is it?” I’d say. She was extremely accelerated –vocabulary and all, which makes me believe that she wasn’t meant to be around for a long time. I honestly believe she was one of my ancestors, reincarnated, to teach me a lesson and as soon as I learned that lesson she went back home. She did things I still have not seen another two-year old child do. She was so very special.
She did not look like me at all; maybe her nose and her lips but other than that, no. She was born with extremely fair skin, sandy blonde hair and gray eyes because her father was Russian-American – my ex-husband. It’s really something when she came out. I said, “Okay, are you sure? No, this one is mine? If you say so, okay she’s mine.” It was fine. We bonded and I loved it. She made my life a living joy. We would just laugh and play and paint.
ADO She was an artist herself – she came by it naturally?
Naya’hri Oh, she was quite the artist. I remember that I let her paint her own little spot in her bedroom one day –like a little corner of the room- and I just reserved that piece of the white wall for her to paint. Over the course of maybe three or so days, she painted her butt off. It was amazing. She was a very intense, focused, little girl. I miss her every day. Every day I wonder what she would have been like. She was born on my 19th birthday. So, this year she would have been six years old.
*The Love Movement is an open-mic gathering of poetry, song,
music, dance and visual art. The Love Movement gathers every 1st & 3rd Friday
monthly, 7:30-10:00 P.M., at:
Ebony Talking Leaves Center
17531 S. Central Ave.
Carson, CA 90746
Anyone interested in performing; would like to be added to the contact information list or any other inquiries, please contact .
Anyone interested in performing at L.I.P Service, please contact
The abundance of time
Turns the clock backwards on itself
Until today has no meaning
And only yesterday and tomorrow
Hold clear images
In the reflection of a mind
Held up to the mirror of life . . .
Naya’Hri’s daughter died in her arms at two years of age when Naya’hri was 21. After Katarina’s passing, Naya’Hri said she reverted back to infancy, became very depressed and underwent counseling to overcome her grief.
Naya’Hri’s poems are often filled with words that come from those who, like Socrates, have tasted from the cup containing the bitter sweetness of hemlock. Molested as a child, raped twice by “eight different guys,” stabbed, beaten, battled drugs and, while a teenager, lived on the streets of Los Angeles one Summer. Naya’Hri has also battled cancer.
Now, upon reading her words one can almost hear a distant battle cry and it is more than “I am woman, hear me roar.” She is truly a survivor.
Naya’hri I ran away from home. That was during the summer. Being stupid, I ran away and ended up homeless. It was a dumb move among many dumb moves that I admit I’ve made in my life. I think my life was hard – mostly it was hard because I made it that way. I think if I had wised up on a lot of things, I probably would not have gone though as much shit as I went through. A lot of it was pushed upon me and it made me into this really cold, hard, angry, bitter person that just wouldn’t let anybody really close to me until this day . . .
ADO You sure that’s not a Virgo trait? Okay, never mind.
Naya’hri You would think it is, and actually it is but then you add that on top of it and you’re dealing with a fortress. You’re just dealing with a brick wall that was hard to break down and even nowadays; I still have moments when I am just really defensive. I’ll turn really hard and I’m just on survival mode. I’ll just come out with guns blazing and fists cocked back saying, “Say something, I dare you. I dare you try and break my heart. I dare you try to make me angry. I dare you try to just do anything to mess with me.” Then, I have to sometimes remember it’s not that bad anymore; I can relax. I have people now who actually care about me, who love me and even though they are not related to me by blood, they are more my family than my biological family will really ever be to me. That’s the whole point for the saying “old habits die hard.” So, it’s going to take some time.
ADO How did you – you turned it around, finished high school, got yourself through college paying little or no money and now you’re putting yourself back through for another degree. [Note: Naya'Hri already has a B.S. in Computer Science from California State University at Long Beach]. So you woke up somewhere...
Naya’hri I had to. I think the one thing that truly saved me mentally and emotionally was my daughter. She saved me from myself and in a lot of ways. Even though she was just a little baby and needed me for everything, she protected me because there were so many times I was suicidal. Then I would look at her and she’d look at me as if to say, there is no one in the world better than you mommy, and I couldn’t do that. I had something to live for then and it was my little girl. Now I live for me. I think that’s what she came to teach me -to live – live for me. Don’t take people’s shit anymore. I have a good heart; I’m a good person. I have the ability to give a part of myself to someone else without losing my mind in the process. She taught me how to love in a healthy manner. She was –she is- the most . . . [teary eyed] She was the most wonderful presence. She is the greatest person God ever created. In 24 months, my daughter was everything that I am still trying to become. I think that’s the one way I can sum up how I feel. She was everything I am still trying to be.
Even with my Godchildren, even though they don’t live with me, I am – even from a distance – a very active parent. I play a very active part in their lives and I know a lot of people get confused when I call them my son and my daughter, but we are a family. I fed these children and I carried them. They are going to be surrounded by a lot of culture, a lot of history, and a lot of love. It’s going to be good for them.
ADO Let’s go to the college because that’s the thing that just amazes me. How – you went – how – see I can’t even get the question out.
Naya’hri Actually, I know what you’re trying to say. I actually went to a grant writing workshop where I paid $15.00. It was just like a little grant writing workshop that tells you what organizations are looking for and how to get money for college and whatnot. So, I applied those techniques. I read a lot of books on how to write a grant. I basically taught myself how to – for the most part – how to write a grant and then I started. Then the scholarships came and of course I had to work really hard because I sucked in high school so I had to really make it up in college. I had a lot of rich White people who didn’t know what to do with their money and seeing that I am the inner city youth, they figured this is a tax write off or something nice they could do. “Oh, we helped this poor Black girl go through college…Look honey, a Negro who wants to learn.”
I would think, I don’t care why you’re doing it; just give me the fucking money. I went for every scholarship and grant I could, be it for $50.00 up to – it didn’t matter. I entered every contest, I wrote every essay I could, I did whatever I had to.
ADO But you got through school.
Naya’hri I should not have to pay for my college education. Why? Reparations did not come around fast enough so consider this equal pay. You’re going to put me through college and I ain’t paying for shit. I don’t care. White people may read this and think that I’m just racist and you know what – pro black does not equal anti-white. It just means y’all got issues and I just happen to see them. If you don’t want to see them about yourself, hey, that’s your business. I’m not afraid.
People want to call me revolutionary and I think people misuse that word. You see “revolution” in commercials and car ads. I just think I am somebody that puts herself in a position to be a force to be reckoned with. But, I do not consider myself a revolutionary because there are no real movements that have been going on that I can say, “I’m a part of this”. I guess the biggest thing now is, you know, the marriage thing.
ADO Did you go to that thing the other night? [Referring to the meeting at BOND]
Naya’hri No, I didn’t even know about it. I am very active in that sense – now that is something that I can say that I am – I am very much an activist. I do believe in giving back. I don’t believe in being in this life, in this particular community where there are so few of us already – so few women like us – just for the hell of it. Read your books, do your history. How many know who Ruth Ellis or the Hottentot Venus is at my age? How many people my age know about Sakia Gunn? This is a sister who became an ancestor at 15 at the hands of ignorant folks. People need to know that a lot of women fought and died just so we can be able to say, “I’m a butch” or “I’m a femme” or, “I don’t do the label thing, I’m androgynous”. I went through my journey with the whole butch/femme experience, and I’m doing my thing now. I’m being true to myself as a woman whom loves others like me… as a poet, as an artist, as a photographer, and just as myself. I’m just accepting all of the areas of myself, good and bad.
That book, The Black Women’s Body of Photographic History – Deborah Willis and Carla Williams – changed me. I recommend it as the one book I feel people should read. Women should definitely read Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful. Any book written by Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde, they need to read that.
Get in touch! That’s why I do as much as I
can with young women. I do as much as I can by being involved with ULOAH,
A Burst of Light film café and
L.I.P Service. I have a
voice and I’m putting myself in a position where it can be heard. We can do
something instead of just sitting, talking and waiting.
see God laughing
Turning out all he has forsaken
And placing the pieces on opposite ends
Of a fatal chessboard
Where I have been held in checkmate for years
Naya’Hri has a passionate interest in intergenerational issues and discussions between young and old. In last month’s GBF Magazine, Naya’hri interviewed several women on this topic. Her article, Bridging The Gap: An Intergenerational Sister Circle, is an interview with Sabra Pratt, 19; Celeste Walker, 26; D. Lisa Powell (ULOAH), 45; and Sheree Costa-James (Lesbians Sister Plus), 52. In the intro to the article Naya’Hri states:
To have the thoughts of black lesbian youth and elders co-existing in the same space to share their thoughts is an experience that happens infrequently, yet it is the exact thing that is so desperately needed without our community. I began thinking, what would happen if women of diverse ages let down their guards and spoke to one another without the division, titles or pretentiousness that is usually present in situations when youth and elders are together in the same space?
Besides her passion for writing and the spoken word, another of Naya’Hri’s passions is to build bridges between two generations to create open dialogue. As she put it, “there are so little things specifically for elders and there are so little things specifically for youth so we’re both very guarded and we’re very territorial. A lot of elders may find this statement to be offensive but elders and youth piss on their territory and mark it so they know where it is and don’t let people come into it easily. That’s probably necessary, but at some point in time the barriers are going to have to be broken.”
In this final portion of my interview with Naya’Hri, she talks about some of her passions, a workshop she has developed for others interested in writing or the spoken word, cancer and of course, intergenerational issues.
ADO You’re doing a workshop at Sistahfest this year. The workshop is called …
Naya’hri Speak OUT: From the Pen to Performance. Right now I am in the process of creating a foundation by the same name, Speak OUT. This organization is going to be designed to promote unity and bring visibility to gay and lesbian poets and writers within the Los Angeles community. It’s going to be workshops, showcases, book signings and much more. I’m going to try to do everything I can – website memberships where you’ll be able to sell your stuff and promote. I say it’s going to take maybe a good year to get it off the ground. I’m still trying to fund it, design letterhead, and find a space for headquarters. I’ll say in about five good years, Speak Out will be strong and I want to keep in touch with several of the top gay and lesbian publishers such as Redbone Press and others.
I mean the only one I could really think of right now that is really doing her thing who is an out Black lesbian is StacyAnn Chin, who is just an remarkable poet with this big hair. She just came off of tour with Def Poetry and she’s my sheroe. There are heroes and sheroes, and she is definitely a sheroe! If I ever get a chance to meet Stacy Ann Chin, I want to hug her and tell her how much I love her. She makes it possible for sisters like me to not be afraid to just say what I’m going to say and not edit anything. This is how it is. What you gotta say about that?
ADO Now you said you were diagnosed or, they told you three times . . .
Naya’hri That I was going to die. First, I had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and then I had cancer of the stomach and luckily, I was able to get out of that without them having to remove like half my stomach and stuff like that. Then, recently, this past year, they detected cancer of the breast so they just went in and just removed the cancerous material.
ADO How do you – what drives – what keeps your faith or strength or do you just like say “screw you”?
Naya’hri I was able to just flip the bird at the stupid ass doctors who didn’t have any faith in me and told me that I was going to die. Like I said, one the things that keeps me going is my own ego – to satisfy my own ego so I can say “in your face.” I will not lie; I am still in this stage where I am working on not being a confrontational person…Oh man, let me tell you something. People think it has to do with my age that I’m confrontational and I want to flip the bird to these people too. This is one thing I do want to talk about a little bit…the fact that I am so sick and fucking tired of women who are older than me that are constantly making me prove myself to them as if I need to. They think that their age grants them automatic wisdom, as if to say, “I’m 50 years old, so therefore I know more than you.”
You see here’s the one thing that youth need to understand. We need the elders. But this is something that the elders also need to understand – you need us too, because when you are ancestors, we’re going to be the ones that are still around to carry on your legacy and your story. If you don’t tell us and you don’t show us the right way to represent you, then everything that you ever worked for is going to be gone when you’re gone. Sistahfest, gone! Nia, gone! Zuna Institute and the National Black Lesbian Conference, gone, gone, if you don’t include us! We need to be there.
ADO Now, I agree on that one. I really agree on that one.
Naya’Hri I want to be able to include the youth at Sistahfest. I want to see more young women interacting with their elders. All I keep hearing is “respect the elders,” and that’s right, we should. I think I’ve only heard two people so far – Dr. Kofi Adoma and QUEEN – say, “Respect the youth”.
A lot more young sisters are getting sick of the clubs, pride festivals and escalating ticket prices every year only to have the same shit. Those places are cool and serve a major purpose, yes, but there are a lot of youth getting tired of that. If we can’t afford these retreats then give us some scholarships. Get some sponsors up in here. Allow us to see that there is something else out there that’s positive that our community is doing. It just can’t be all about the clubs, prides and hanging out at a certain train stop or park on particular days. It cannot just be all about ass shaking in your face. There has to be more and there is more. We have reading groups. We have drumming sessions. We have all of these things. We have all of these events that we can be a part of. It’s like Celeste Walker said in the interview that I did in July for GBF Magazine: “There will be greater communication in the future because in the end, [youth and elders] have no one but each other”.
Naya’Hri credits many people for providing her with wisdom and guidance. These are: Cookie Fields– “She’s my sheroe and warrior.” Marquita Thomas of Out & About; Stephanie Wynne of GBF Magazine; Ta’Shia Asanti, whom she could not say enough good things about; QUEEN; Dorothy Randall Gray; Gayle Fuhr; Azaan Kamau, editor of GBF Magazine; Assata Shakur (Naya’Hri will be interviewing her soon – I just know it); Octavia Butler; Samiya Bashir; StacyAnn Chin; Saul Williams; Dedan Kimathi; Kathleen Cleaver, Fannie Lou Hamaer; Alice Paul and Molana Jalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi, a Persian writer who, through his famous work Masnavi, created the largest mystical exposition in verse. You have to read his work in order to enjoy the words.
Her organization, Speak Out is forthcoming, but you can catch a glimpse of it at her workshop, Speak OUT: From Pen to Performance, this year at Sistahfest. Naya’Hri is a proud member of the Phi Nu Kappa sorority, Inc., one of several emerging lesbian Greek organizations. She has just returned from a photographic expedition in Spain and is currently in London for the 2004 International Women’s Arts Festival, which is done every other year. The next festival will be in 2006.
see my body next to yours, sleeping
And the caustic silence begins to soften
Till all time has left me with
Is soothing peace
And the rhythm
Of our breath
Naya’hri S. Contact information: GBFMusic@yahoo.com.Home