Whenever Nayo Jones performs one of her poems, she blacks out.
“Blacking” is where “you go so deep into the emotions of your poem that you sort of black out,” she said. Jones, a senior African American studies major, experienced “blacking” firsthand during her performance at the 2016 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI).
Jones performed a poem called “Sandra Bland” with alumnae poets Kai Davis and Jasmine Combs. Out of 67 teams, Temple took first place.
Jones said she fell in love with spoken word poetry during her time at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She formed a poetry team with friends and joined a slam league through the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement.
Jones joined BABEL, Temple’s Poetry Collective when she came to Temple. As soon as their trio was formed, Jones, Davis and Combs knew they wanted to write about Sandra Bland because her story was “so specific to mental illnesses and how they interact with black womanhood,” Jones said.
Many debated whether the death of Sandra Bland was a murder or a suicide. The poem introduces the idea that maybe a suicide can be a murder, especially when “there’s so many forces pushing you from the outside, telling you to hate yourself and telling you that you don’t deserve to live,” Jones said.
“It was a really liberating and difficult piece to write, because there’s so much trauma we’re working with while also putting it into clear writing for everyone else to understand,” she added.
When the team finished performing, Jones said they came off stage and collapsed into each other’s arms.
“That was one of my favorite moments. Having that moment of release and sorrow, but also triumph because we’re still here, we still exist and we get to speak on it,” Jones said.
The poem went viral after Huffington Post wrote an article about it—titled “This Poem About Sandra Bland Is A Powerful Reminder To ‘Say Her Name.’” Going viral wasn’t as important as knowing that there are “so many people who understood, who we were able to impact,” Jones said.
Jones believes all black people, especially black women, feel this “hatred from the outside.”
“We’re not only getting hate from the white society, but also a certain level of self-hate from the men in our society,” she said. “All we really have is ourselves.”
Jones noticed the hatred toward black women in 2012, after the death of Trayvon Martin. Black women were protesting and creating organizations, yet “we were still talked about as if we’re allies to a movement that we are also dying in,” she said.
“You’re never hearing about Rekia Boyd or Aiyana Stanley-Jones because it’s easier for most people to want to fight for a man,” she added. “No one ever hears of us and no one ever speaks of us.”
Jones also uses music as a platform to speak about topics most important to her as the lead vocalist of The Bad Tequila Experience. The band went on its first tour this past summer, lasting a week and stopping in seven different cities.
The band’s genre can span from rock to include “elements of jazz and latin,” said Jones, who usually writes the lyrics. “It’s whatever we’re feeling at the moment.”
“Nayo has inspired all of us in a huge way,” said Hector Ayala, the band’s drummer and a student at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “She’s very active when it comes to different issues and has brought that sense of awareness of what’s going on in the world.”
She said Philadelphia is not only a great place for music and poetry, but for activism as well. The art in Philly is really “raw,” Jones said, so her poetry needs to be very “vulnerable, emotional and social justice based.”
Jones finds inspiration for her poetry and music through her experiences as a black queer woman. She has had both white and black people tell her she’s “not black enough,” she said.
“Experiences that are very influenced by the intersections of my identities make for really impactful art,” Jones said.
Jones was a part of “In Defense of Black Bodies”, a protest movement led by black youth, where she created a song that includes the lines, “Mama black bodies are dead in the streets, we can’t keep dying at the hands of police, so we’re rising, rising in all of our dreams.”
Jones said the movement doesn’t exist anymore, because the members became exhausted by having to constantly relive their traumas. She remembers crying during protests, only to have police officers laugh in her face.
Jones’ main goal for the future is to continue positively affecting people through poetry, music and activism.
“If I can impact one person, “ she said. “Whether I bring them into social consciousness or introduce them to African American studies concepts, I will have achieved my goal.”
Tsipora Hacker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.