Speaking out

Kai Davis, a member of Babel, became a YouTube star for her spoken word performances.

Kai Davis performs spoken word. | Courtesy KAI DAVIS
Kai Davis performs spoken word. | Courtesy KAI DAVIS

The lights dim and mouths shut.

But not for long.

Nineteen-year-old Kai Davis takes center stage as a limelight illuminates her body. She’s only been doing this for roughly two years, but the audience can’t tell with the way she stands and recites lines of poetry, loaded with personal emotion and feelings about sexuality, race and daily life.

When she talks, she sings. And as she sings, the audience calls. They clap, snap and raise their hands toward Davis as a sort of poetry goddess. Some recite lines under their breath, and some whimper as they realize Davis’ personal experience has become a stabbing into the deepest part of their being. They can relate.

Davis, a sophomore English major at Temple, has become somewhat famous in the poetry community and a bit of an Internet phenomenon.

She’s traveling the nation, performing her poetry and conducting book signings for her newest chapbook, a self-published collection of 20 poems called “Music and Marrow,” but she might be better known for her YouTube videos and Tumblr gifs.

“It’s interesting, seeing something that’s such a plain, simple part of my life become so important to people,” Davis said.

Her performance of “F— I Look Like,” arguably her most popular poem, has garnered nearly 250,000 views on YouTube, which is a rough average for the number of hits she gets on each video.

The poem targets race in the classroom.

“It’s like we think giving 100 percent means getting 100 lashes / and my people don’t even know that we’re working with our oppressors / just passing on the torch, but we can’t pass the bar / because the bar’s been set so low that we’re crushing under the weight / and you expect me to cut class and get an F just to perpetuate the stereotype that’s been instilled in this b——- curriculum? / F— I look like?”

The video shows a positive reaction from the audience. Most commenters react similarly.

“I’m sure it’s gotten to my head many times, I can admit that, it’s really difficult for it not to,” Davis said. “But I remind myself on a daily basis – it’s like a mixture of me tearing myself down and being like, ‘You’re not worth any of this.’ And me being like, ‘Hey, you’ve done these really great things, so own that.’”

Within the comments for the video and ones like it are people marking her as an inspiration or role model, but some comments are negatively geared toward Davis’ heavy lines.

“When the videos first started getting popular, I would read the comments because I wanted to know what people were saying because it’s new, but people had a lot of really racist, sexist, homophobic things to say about me, and it stopped affecting me because they’re bigots,” Davis said. “And bigots are bigots. And it has nothing to do with me, but it has to do with them. They have so many fears and hate inside of them that’s going to eat at them in the long run. I’m liberated by being able to tell my story.”

Davis said she draws inspiration from not only the comments both hidden behind a computer screen and spelled out for her in reality, but it’s mainly her day-to-day life that compels her to keep writing.

“It’s both a mixture of things I have to deal with personally and things people that I’ve seen have to deal with very personally,” Davis said. “I’m black, I’m queer and I’m a woman – there’s a lot of things I can write about, and I write about them because I experience them daily.”

Davis said that when she receives those negative comments, she “isn’t doing her job.” Her main goal is to not only tell her story, but to have people understand. Luckily, she’s got a strong support group who do.

Davis arrived to Temple on a full scholarship, but it wasn’t the only factor that went into her decision to come to the school.

Her passion for poetry began in high school, when she happened to meet up with a friend to hang out after she finished a workshop at Philadelphia’s Youth Poetry Movement, a nonprofit in the city that promotes the creative art of spoken word. Davis stumbled into the last 45 minutes of the event where the members were talking about their experience not only of the day, but the impact the program made on them thus far, which prompted Davis to keep coming back.

Prior to her involvement with PYPM, Davis said she was nervous of public speaking, but the organization gave her the courage to speak up.

“To share your art on stage in front of a microphone – there’s just so many fears at once coming into play, and then I realized if everyone else can do it, and they’re sharing the most intimate parts of themselves, maybe I can do it, because it is a very liberating experience,” Davis said.

Today, she still hasn’t left. She’s a mentor within the organization, volunteering time at workshops and events.

Davis said PYPM has grown into a family for her. When her friends from the program began to graduate, they went to Temple. When they arrived to the university, they joined Babel, Temple’s slam poetry group. Davis naturally followed.

Today, she said Babel has grown into her close family as much as PYPM. And as for her fame, she said they can’t help but chuckle.

“It’s kind of like an ongoing joke,” Davis said. “They’re very, very proud of me and support me through everything, but at the same time it’s just so funny and unfathomable to them that anyone’s interested that much. Not that they don’t think I’m a good writer, they definitely respect everything that I do and all of my art. It’s not so much that they’re surprised by the notoriety of it, but more so the fanaticism around it.”

Even the youth attending the workshop aren’t fazed by Davis’ popularity.

“It’s not like a big issue, because it’s a family. It’s like if your uncle was a famous flautist or something,” Davis said. “You don’t even think about it, because he’s just such an a—— at Thanksgiving.”

Davis is working on another chapbook for her fans, but it’s taking some time. “Music and Marrow” is the collection of works written over the course of two years, but Davis said she’s slowly picking pieces to puzzle together her latest endeavor.

And as for the future, she doesn’t plan on stopping.

Davis plans to use her degree to teach children, whether it be in an elementary school or in a college classroom.

Recently, she was invited to speak at an English class at Delaware Valley Charter High School. After talking to the class for an hour and a half, she called on some of those raised hands she sees so commonly during her performances.

After the session was over, the teacher said Davis got a student to speak who had never raised his hand in class before.

“I don’t need to end a war, I just need the one kid who’s never raised his hand raise his hand for the first time,” Davis said. “I just need that.”

Patricia Madej can be reached at patricia.madej@temple.edu.

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