Slam poet Nikkita Oliver on fighting racism with art
Nikkita Oliver was spending the summer in New York City when George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was acquitted. She says that she felt somewhat alone in New York, so she went out into the street and marched. It was there in 2013, while grappling with the reality of Martin's murder and his public trial, that she wrote her new poem "Firearms," which comes from the perspective of the weapon.
"I was thinking, not only did this man get off after murdering a 17-year-old, but he gets to take home the gun he murdered with," Oliver says. "What does that mean? What is that like?"
Oliver never planned to be a spoken word artist. In 2012, she promised a group of students that she would perform at the Seattle Poetry Slam. It was her first time performing, and she won. Oliver went on to become the 2014 and 2015 SPS Grand Slam Champion, to represent Seattle at the Women of the Word Poetry Slam, and to coach the SPS national team.
She had fallen into a new role in Seattle as a prominent artist-activist.
In 2015, Oliver won the Artist Human Rights Leader Award from the City of Seattle for her spoken word work and activism with the Black Lives Matter movement. This year, she collaborated with Macklemore on his song "White Privilege II" and then performed on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."
When Oliver isn’t performing spoken word, she uses her training as an attorney to help young and marginalized people understand the judicial system. Her day job is as a case manager for 4Culture's Creative Justice program, which is an arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people in King County.
Her poetry, she says, aims to transform people's hearts. The following poem, "Firearms," was filmed by Bryan Tucker.
I spoke with Oliver recently about her work, her activism, and the power of art to change the way we look at the world. Here are some snippets of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Indianapolis. What was it like moving to a predominately white city like Seattle?
Honestly, there was a little bit of culture shock. I went to Seattle Pacific University, which at the time was a predominately white Christian college. I had grown up with my mostly black family. Even though my mom is white and my aunties on my mom’s side are white, all my cousins are black, or mixed. I grew up thinking everyone was mixed, but I got to SPU and realized that not everyone is mixed. That was very jarring culturally. It was also a wealthy university and I don’t necessarily come from a wealthy family, so there was a lot of adjusting.
I was doing a lot of searching in regards to spirituality and grappling with the realities of Christianity and how it relates to things like colonialism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and sexism. SPU was a challenging place to grapple with those questions … but I honestly wouldn’t change any of that. Being in a place that is culturally jarring really set me up to ask some key questions that I inevitably was going to ask anyways as a black, mixed, queer person who comes from a family that wasn’t always economically OK.
Did you ever try to leave the University?
I totally tried to leave. I actually saved all of the money I had gotten from people for graduating high school, and there was a day I called my mom and was like, "Yo, I have $700 saved up and a plane ticket home is $600. I'm going to get on a plane and come home." My mother was like, “Don’t you dare. You need to stay there and you need to figure out how to make it work.” My mom was a late college attender, and I think for her, my sister and I pursuing … things that she knew would help us grow into our whole self was important.
That was one motivating force, and the other thing was, there were a few people at the time, a few black or brown folks that worked within the institution who invested in me. I had safe places I could go close the door and be like, "This place is traumatizing me," and they would listen and offer support. I was volunteering as an after school tutor a few days a week at Grant Hill Elementary School and those kids totally transformed the way I looked at the world and they became a big part of why I stayed.
How did the kids there transform the way you looked at the world?
The thing about being a teacher and learning to teach is that you eventually learn your students are the real teachers and they are teaching you every day what they want to learn and how they learn best.
Almost every youth in that program was someone whose teachers had written them off somewhere as not capable of something. The director I worked under was all about saying, what is a kid good at and how do we use that to build up the area they are lacking in? The only way you know what a youth is good at or likes, is to spend time with them and ask them. So the students became our greatest teachers in developing an after-school tutoring program that actually served their needs.
That experience transformed the way I thought about doing community organizing. The people you say you’re serving are really folks you’re learning from, and if you’re not listening to them, your program will never serve well. The community has to direct the work.
I've heard you say that in Seattle, racism is subtle. Can you talk a bit about that?
When I say it's subtle, I don’t mean that its impact is subtle, but the way in which it manifests — it looks different, it looks progressive, but then you dig deeper and find that it's really not.
A lot of people who talk about equity say they are putting policies in place to make things more equitable, and maybe they will hire black or brown folks to work for their organization. But when you dig deeper, are the black and brown folks being paid the same amount? Are the higher ed black and brown professors tenured? Does the program last more than three years, and was it effectively funded? There is a facade here of progressiveness and equity, that if you just dig beneath the surface, you’ll find it's not really a substantive, structural or institutional change that actually creates equitable access.
I told the mayor, we had a debate, I forget which policy we were talking about, but he said, "Well, we were the first in the nation to do it," and I said, "Well, just because you’re the first in the nation to do it doesn’t mean that it's progressive, because it doesn’t mean you did it right."
I think that happens a lot in Seattle, where we do things first, but we don’t do it right. We didn’t do it substantively, and in a way that black or brown folks inform the change. We need to do it in a way where black and brown folks get to participate and actually own the process.
What makes movements like Black Lives Matter effective?
When I look at BLM now, I talk about it as a resurgence and uprising within the black liberation movement. People have been fighting for black liberation for hundreds of years, [and] black liberation is really about all of our liberation. As long as anyone on this planet is oppressed, we all are living within an oppressed structure.
I think what BLM has done that is really powerful is it has built itself intersectionally. It has allowed incarcerated people, trans women of color, poor black women, queer black women and other folks within the black community who have been pushed farthest out to the margins, to be center, not only in the conversation but in leadership within the movement. If the most marginalized in our community are not free, then we are not free. So I think that is one key part to a movement, that it be led by the grassroots and those impacted. That is where the most radical solutions will come from.
We aren’t all positioned the same way in society. I have to accept that I’m privileged as a lawyer, someone whose family has seen upward mobility socially, I have a ton of privilege. That means I can take risks that someone with less privilege cannot take, and in order for change to happen, I have to be willing to sacrifice that privilege and take risks even if it comes at great sacrifice to myself.
[The Black Lives Matter movement] accepts the diversity of tactics, which means some of us will be agitators, disrupters, some will be interrupters, and we are going to do that for different places. Some will do that within an institution, some will do it outside the institutions. Some will do it one foot in, one foot out. It's going to look different.
The other thing BLM has brought to the surface that is really cool is respectability. What does that even mean to be respectable? It means that you buy into social norms, that you go to county council meetings, sit and listen and have the same conversations over and over that will never produce change and you don’t interrupt them. But what this movement has said is, we are going to interrupt you. If you have a conversation that continues to further marginalize me, then we are going to interrupt and we are going to disrupt. Even if you think that isn’t respectable or is disrespectful, we are still going to do it because we have been having the same conversations for too long.
How have protest marches impacted you and your work?
One night that was transformative for me was November 24, 2014. That was the night of the indictment decision for Darren Wilson. I was in my last year of law school and I spent that whole day with my headphones plugged into my phone waiting for the press conference to start. Even in classes, I had one headphone in my year. For someone in law school who is constantly hearing, “this is justice, this how you get the tools to change things from the inside,” well, continuously watching things like the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the non-indictment of so many police officers, I was like, is this legal tool even useful?
The non-indictment came down around 7 or 8 p.m. and I was sitting in the law review suite with my roommate, watching the press conference. When the non-indictment happened, my roommate and I were both baffled, both in tears, we got into my Toyota Corolla and drove to 23rd and Cherry, where communities were set up for people to come and have safe spaces, but it turned into a protest.
I’ve been to plenty of May Days and I've seen how police act towards protests, but that night, within a very short amount of time, the bike squad got very physically aggressive with protesters. There was mace, gas in the air and a lot of threats from cops to arrest people. As a law student, I knew very well there is a First Amendment right to protest, but I was looking at these cops, watching them escalate things. They were intentionally escalating the space with people who were obviously mourning and jarred by what we had been watching on our Facebook timelines and the news. For me, it was a realization that we have to continue resisting and fighting and pushing.
For many weeks there were a lot of protests and a lot of nights that my roommate and I spent in the streets as legal observers. We observed police activity but also when people got arrested, provided legal support. Finishing my last year of law school, I studied for evidence at those protests. I had a little packet and I would bring my flashcards with me and when there was a lull in things going on, my roommate and I would quiz each other on rules of evidence. You could see Ferguson was really on fire and later, Baltimore was on fire. There were things going down all over the country and I was like, “Am I going to be sitting in my chair at the law school while this place is being dismantled and hopefully rebuilt? No, I’m not.”
How can artists impact the conversation?
I consider spoken word poets who do it the way I do as cultural workers. Our goal is to transform culture and to get people’s hearts moved. Then they will start to do the work to transform their own hearts. At the end of the day, we can put in as many structures as we want to, but if the culture of people around racial equity and racial justice continues to be one that is inequitable and unjust, we will continue to have these outcomes. So as an artist I try to have a conversation around my heart and with other people’s hearts that is transformative.
I also do a lot of research that hopefully speaks to the history we are missing. I try to bring that history into my work and challenge the white supremacy narrative and capitalist narrative we’ve been given. Doing it in a poetry piece, people listen more. If I just say it, people want to argue, but when it's artwork, for whatever reason, their defense doesn’t take over their ability to listen and they actually engage it.
Lastly, I think art is about survival. It is about being able to survive and being able to thrive. … Hip hop was developed out of needing to create peace in our neighborhoods, but also, we didn’t have the same kind of resources that other neighborhoods did. The innovation and ingenuity required to create hip hop as a culture — it allowed folks to thrive. They had an art form that allowed them to process their emotions, speak the truth but to also have a sustainable skill.
I think that is one of the powerful aspects of the sort of art that I do. It doesn’t take a lot to write a spoken word piece — you don’t even need pen and paper. If you can memorize it as you’re writing, you can come up with some incredible things to say to people that can be powerful. I think it’s a great tool for young folks especially to process the world and then speak truth to power in a way that is both transformative for them and the people they are speaking to.