The Heartlander Experience & Homeward - bound

by Sifundo

Willie Ney, Executive Director and founder of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives and First Wave Program, invited me to come out to Wisconsin for their Hip-Hop in the Heartland institute after First Wave performed as part of the Word Champions finale in celebration of London 2012. Word Champions is a creative writing and performance programme I run for under privileged young people in the Olympic host borough of Newham. It was just shy of a week before the institute I was given and accepted the invitation.

Looking back; to be invited, to able to attend and bring my son Jamal with me, to be able to fly to the other side of the world, to be an ambassador for the UK, to meet other artists, educators, teachers was one of the most enriching experiences of my career. The people who attended are committed lovers of community and educational activists, so much so I now refer to us as the ‘Heartlanders.’ This includes the amazing facilitators that we had: Dr Chris Emdin, Dr Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Taylor Mali, Mahogany Brown, Micheal Cirelli, Sam Seidel, Dr Dawn Elissa Fischer (a.k.a the D.E.F Professor or Dr D.E.F) and Adam Faulkner.

I could indeed write pages on each of them individually but my newfound obsession with the way things begin and end, and the often cyclical nature of that process, I will focus on the first and last workshops I had. Adam Faulkner’s workshop that week was born out of his Dialogue Arts Project which focuses on using writing to explore social identity and notions of it. To be honest I initially resented having to define myself as Black, as African, as Westernized, as young, as old; to categorise my social class, my economic class, my sexuality, my spirituality and all the other things in between. I resented all the spaces it left for me to feel blessed and inspired and angry and sad and ungrateful; to run my fingers over wounds and badges I didn’t even know I had. Although that exploration felt like a tunnel, what it became was a route into a question that Dr D.E.F would ask on the last day of the institute. What is your emancipation pedagogy? I had never truly considered what my emancipation pedagogy (EP) was until that point. Nevertheless like my subconscious notions of privilege and position my EP had been driving me to do the work that I have been doing as an educator for the last decade. What Dr D.E.F gave me was the language to be able to articulate and therefore claim the most empowering parts of my privilege and social positioning. This emancipation pedagogy/EP/extended play underscoring the story of my life and career was one I so took for granted I was no longer actively engaging in its rhythm. I had begun to take for granted that my parents were involved in the emancipation of my country of birth. It was only in 1980 that Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, gained independence and was one of the last of the African nations to do so. It was in sharing that story in Dr D.E.F’s workshop that allowed me to understand my (almost evangelical) passion to share the power of spoken word and performance in education came from a notion of freedom and equality that I had been hearing about since I was a little girl.  Before Dr D.E.F. my story of spoken word would have began with my own somewhat muted and repressed adult voice and the first time I liberated it by going to a free-styling cypher. This lead to performances on stage, which lead to commissions, which lead to teaching and eventually forming my own spoken word organization. I had just never traced the dots as far as my father’s recounting of personal and political history.

The series of poems that you read here are from thoughts I had after processing some of the intense work we did at the institute.  Primarily formed from what it means to me to teach and to be a poet. When I use those terms I mean Maya Angelou just as I mean Queen Latifah. I mean Lauryn Hill just as I mean Gwendolyn Brooks alongside KRS-One, Common, Dot Rotten and Monie Love. Just as there are contrasts and political contradictions in using those two terms with that list of people, I’m saying it just as I call myself an African and Londoner with truth and pride.

The poems shared here are my ‘ruff’ musings. My passion and love of poetry began with a cypher, free-styling, free-verse, going with the flow; I am honored to have been asked to share my free-writing with you. There are salutes to my inheritances, my upbringing, my love of poetry, of performance, love of community alongside staying on the educational activist or ‘Heartlander’ path. Even in their humble state I send these words off with the hope that my choice and arrangement of them may inspire or provoke thought, emotion and/or a sense of kindredness.  If so then you, and I, have the institute and it’s facilitators to thank.


Homeward - bound


Poets are not made
for a tough world, we happily hold
hands with the curl
of consonants, find verbs
that match our mood or shape/shift
our sentences. We are:
the faithful, the addicted,
the dreamers of the day,
the find-the-way-to-sayers,
the histrionic time travelers.
Home is simply the turning
of a page. Our hearts
pulse to the rhythm of applause.


I don't want to be open
-eyed, open -mouthed,
open-hearted, open-eyed
sometimes, but still I read.
But still I write.

I write
I write
I write.

Black is my renaissance
so I drink the darkest ink
in celebration. And when
Sylvia's sadness is my ghostly stalker
I claim the page for space
to mark our invisible footfall;
to evoke an Amen or Allelujah.
Are you with me
sisters and brothers?
Are you with me?


Home is the turning of a page.


Walk, walk, look back. Walk, walk, look back.
Words fall like rain; minds of Mirropane.
Walk, walk, look back...almost...almost home.

—Sifundo, London, UK

Sifundo ©2012