We are pleased to introduce you to Taijhet Nyobi aka Tai Rockett. Based in the Bay Area this queer multidisciplinary artist is highly talented, humble, and immeasurably kind. Through poetry, theater, cinema, painting and photography, Tai shares her visions, her gaze and her emotions with the world. In Oakland, we discussed how she started writing, poetry, theater, and Dyke Central, the web series in which she stars. She also told us about resistance, queer love and more. Enjoy!
How and when did you come to poetry?
I’m an American. So what that means is I grew up in a time where education, the teachers spoke a lot and I took in a lot of information. I think poetry was a way to reflect back the information that I was taking in. We learned a lot of poetry in school I think grammar school just as a memory you know like nursery rhymes, rhymes. So I always like the flow of it and it reminded me of the music that I learned at home like church, gospel and songs in the Bible. So I really appreciated that similarity because it was pretty much the only thing that was similar. I was one of three black students in a whole entire school of white students. So poetry was kind of a way for me to find something that I was familiar with. And as I got older we studied more writers. And I felt like the poetry that we read in school all the poets well they looked at their world and they look at their surroundings. So I think it was a good way to learn how to interact with the world, through poetry.
Were there any authors that you studied in school who influenced you?
Yeah… Shakespeare, I mean we read a lot of his plays but the form it was poetic. So, Shakespeare was very influential. Also, you know all of the classics like Emily Dickinson. I remember being in my sophomore year in high school, reading Emily Dickinson. Just because she was the first woman that we discovered. All of the years, it was always male authors like Jack London, like Huckleberry Finn, Antigone all the things that we read were by male artists and the first poem we read I remember being like “Emily… Emily?” and then second-guessing myself “oh it’s probably still a man”. And I raised my hand “Oh, is the poet a male or a female?” and the teacher is like “female” I was like “wow” so that was really cool. But of course I think in my own community, outside of education, Langston Hughes was like huge as an African-American poet so I really I am very familiar with all of his work.
When did you learn about black poetry? Was it in school?
No, definitely not. Before I knew it was poetry, it was just in my own neighborhood and they would have ciphers. The kids on the streets- mostly male, it’s male-dominated – they would freestyle. I only knew poetry as something that rhymed so I would hear them and I thought that it was my introduction like to be vocal about it to take poetry of the page. I remember I wrote something at home and I memorized it and then I went to the corner and I performed it and I remember they were like : “no that doesn’t belong here”. So then I knew there was a difference between like, freestyle, hip-hop and then poetry. But lucky for me at that time spoken word, you know… I was born in 1985 I’m 29 years old so at that period around 2000 and it was like in the late nineties and the early 2000’s spoken word was really big. One of my friends who was into the cypher was like “you know you should go to this place cause they do stuff like that”. But we never knew what to call it ; we were just looking for place where we could experiment. So I went to this coffee shop where they had like young poets there and that broaden my idea of what poetry could be. I think I was about 16… Some people were singing, some people were being really loud and aggressive and it was political, some people were talking about love you know. Yeah that gave me a sense of what poetry could be.
And where were you living at that time?
I was in Long Beach, California.
What did you talk about in your first poems?
I talked about resistance but in a very abstract way : the only thing that I knew. Yeah, resistance, like thing that were unfair. So I think the things that were big for the black community during that time was like: there were AIDS, there were drugs so just like talking about kind of things I kind of saw in my own community like what was going on. Some of my friends were getting shot, just pretty hard things. But you felt that you had kind of control over the situation cause you would be talking about it in a way that was positive… Like playing with the words somehow gave you a sense of control cause there was a lot of changes going on at that period in your life and things you really do feel hopeless about.
Were there some events that were important, particularly significant, at that time?
In the scheme of things like big historical events they may be very small but in high school Magic Johnson came out to the community that he had HIV. It was like a big thing. I think at the same time my cousin in my family who like was closeted gay died of HIV so it became this thing… Well I wasn’t out as a queer person but I began to associate like death, at a young age, with black gays communities whether it was like violence or disease.
I think there was a misconception back then that it could only happen to gay black men. It became a thing where HIV was associated to black men and black gay men. The word of that year was like “down low” you know “on the DL”, men who are closeted, black men who are closeted.
Where are you today with poetry, what are you writing about ?
Resistance is still a theme. It has always been a way for me to see like what’s happening in my community and how are we like coming together and dealing with everything that we had to deal with. When you’re in a community of color, when you’re in like a queer community of color there just so many things that attacks your community you know. So I think right now in terms of resistance I’m looking like… mainly like… So there was one project that I work on I was noticing that a lot of queer women, of color and women in general, like have to deal with like sexual assault and just like the pressure to conform in a certain way ; like in your gender presentation by patriarchal society.
So yeah resistance to that I talk a lot about. That and how we heal each other and heal ourselves. So like queer love and how it’s benefits for our resistance and how we can be rebellious. But I think I’m in this phase of my life instead of looking at my community I’m looking more at myself. I think up until now it’s been about like “oh my community” as a whole and now I’m just talking about really personal things. It’s been interesting because I don’t have thoughts that are the same as my community you know. I may have things they wouldn’t agree with; that’s good to realize that that’s there you know. That we are a community but that doesn’t mean we all think the same.
I guess your style evolved since you first started writing. What would you say about your current writing?
My style has definitively changed. When you’re young you want to fit in and you’re afraid of doing something different so spoken word I feel like we all started to handle it the same way. But I think what cause me to change my poetry was reading more poetry and coming across poets who had… you could tell on a page they had a different style. And I started to search for my own style. And I think how I came across that is really understanding what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
I’m not a loud person I’m not a like aggressive person so you know I don’t have to write like that. I enjoy reading stuff that is loud and aggressive but I think the more confident you become with yourself the more like you come out on a page and I’ve noticed that. I think I’m greatly influenced by form, like meter and rhythm. And in my academic studies I was able to explore more traditions.
I think also digging more into things like African aesthetic, like oral traditions really influence like my meter and even some of my language and ways to talk about. Like my poetry really does feel like storytelling I’m in kind of archival so I feel like that also comes from the African folklore tradition of taking account of historical events or maybe going through a situation like a lesson for other people to see what happens. Even to this day I think deepening into other mediums like I like to paint and I also like to act, with theater and with acting on screen. It really does pull different personalities so my poetry has expanded based on my performing in front of crowds. I think it’s important to keep your work, to challenge your work to go into other mediums.
« Fierce »
I want to feel the type of piss
your bladder won’t hold.
scream to me —
what you’ve had to whisper
for so long.
we walk a land
that can’t stand the weight of us
the bee bullets sting FAIRY, QUEEN
the fragmented fists beat our souls
from these bodies we didn’t ask for
we so gaaaay… sooo fucking queer
make death into a drag ball!
unhem these wounds,
dazzle as we sashay scabs,
knees kicked in
and then rise
and then RISE
again and again
until they see us
Do you have a kind of discipline in terms of writing…
Yeah it is an everyday process. And I might not complete a poem but everyday I write and it’s usually in the morning. But there are times when I wake up and I just get inspired especially when I’m working on a submission like I work on something in the morning and I’m thinking about the piece throughout the day. And something would happen : I have a conversation and then maybe at 2am I wake up thinking about that conversation and I’m like “oh there is this one line that I can put here, that I can reorganize” but usually that’s in the morning. I feel that’s when it’s freshest .
Do you have plans to publish?
Yeah I do have plans to publish. I think I’m inspired to think of a way to present it. I’m not sure what is the most reasonable… Do I want to be on a online platform? Do I want to mix it with photography? I’m thinking right now how to present it like a visual poetics like how do I make it Pure poetry in a physical so that people can interact with it. Cause sometimes the page can be a little bit pretentious you know. So I’ve been thinking about that.
Why did you move to Oakland?
I grew up in Southern California and the Bay Area, I always heard about it. So I knew it was queer- friendly. At the times, I didn’t have the means to move here you know like I was in high school then I got into college at UC Riverside which is also in Southern California. It’s a place where it’s very hard to be one black cause there is not a lot of black people in Riverside and queer so in my undergraduate I went to a conference up here in the Bay Area and I was just like « wow! » I saw black people, I saw people Ethiopian I saw like everything here in Oakland… And it was like the field was open you know, like everybody, it’s a diverse community. So I was like « When I graduate I’m moving to the Bay » and I did it. After I graduate I drive up here in my Toyota Camry with all the things I needed and I found housing the first day that I move up here. So you know like a 7 hours drive… it was easy. And yeah that was seven years ago.
How did you come to acting?
I think poetry got me into acting cause you noticed like I say you could be alone in your writing and I didn’t. I wanted it to be a dialogue with the people. I knew poetry was big and it was like becoming a thing so there is a large community. So part of that was being on stage and there is a performance you can’t just get up there and read your poem put your head down looking at your paper there is a way that you got to be aware of the audience and connect with them. And I think that is the part once I got out of my shell I was like wow : there, this is a medium to connect people like some people when you speak to them. And, I’ve been in the audience you’re not always aware of things that are going on but the way somebody present something you can gain awareness question yourself like have empathy based on how the person presents it.
So I got into theater that way before I did screen acting it was theater. I did the Vagina monologues I don’t know if you… I was like ”wow”. I mean whatever the critique is on Vagina monologues but the fact that I was a woman talking about my vagina to an audience, an audience had to listen to that I was like : “wow, this is a really powerful tool”. When people participate as an audience member they have to sit and listen and then it’s your responsibility to bring some type of awareness.
So I never saw it as just purely type of entertainment. So that was theater and then screen acting it came about, I just… There was an audition and I wanted to challenge myself. I had never done screen acting. I knew it was different I knew it requires me to grow my acting skills cause it’s a completely different thing. But also it meant more for me being a black queer person because I don’t see a lot of black queer people on screen. So that that was very scary for me cause I didn’t have any actors that I could look at well you know like “this”!
It’s specific to be in Oakland and then having an openness to have queer people of color perform.
You’re kind of the main character in Dyke Central, how do you feel about it?
You know I didn’t know how big it was gonna be. It was really when it started… I was going to the audition like “oh I’m not gonna get the part” you know but it’s god for me, to like see how auditions feel. And when I got the part I was like “what? me? Ok cool… this is cool”. I didn’t have the money to go to acting school so I saw this as an opportunity for me to grow like it’s a small project “cool, I got to work with people and like to challenge and practice my acting”. And the next thing I know they re like “oh, yeah we’re screening at Grand Lake theater” there is gonna be like I don’t know 200 people coming through. I was like “Oh my god no, no !”. Theater is different : you’re on a stage with a lot of others people. There is no.. there is like a main character but I don’t know it just feels different that having your face blown up on a screen, projected on a screen. The first thing I thought was like “Oh my god I do not look like the type a person… I don’t deserve to be on a screen… People are not… People are gonna be like who is this ugly person that I have to look at and listen to them reading lines.” So I wasn’t even thinking about my skills as an actor or in a show. I was like I don’t look like I need to be on a screen. A feeling of dread come across me cause I thought this was a small project. I thought it was like small. And it was my first time acting on screen. So I was just like I’m gonna do horrible. Everybody gonna hate the show and they gonna think that the main character like ruined it. But I don’t know… The project goes on and you learn like it’s more about the story getting it out there. It’s more about creating awareness of queer people and there were straight peoples in our audiences and I was like “Oh, ok cool! Straight people are gonna see this. People are gonna see this and they’re gonna become more aware.”
So still now, I don’t feel like I’m the main character. Like I know it… But I feel like everybody plays a part everybody brings something that is important.
What about the fun you may have when you’re acting? Would you say that you prefer performing on stage or in front of a camera?
I used to prefer theater because the response from the audience is so much more automatic and you really feed off of their energy. Acting behind the camera means it’s you and the people you’re acting with and maybe some cast members. And I feel like there is a personality in theater you go with it you say yes to everything. It’s “Action!” nobody cuts ; you just have to go with it and I feel like that’s fun.
With acting there is so much pressure to get it right, to nail it, to get the right emotion, right thing It’s like “cut!” “stop!” and “go!” and it’s not my personality. But also it’s a thing that I m not strong at, so I feel if I get better at it, it will become more fun. I think out of the two, even if I’m not comparing them, what I love most about performing, acting with a group of people, it’s the connection that you build with the people that you’re performing with, the actors. I think there is something very magical and beautiful there that happens because you have to be in the moment. That person is in character, you’re in character. And you guys are bringing your life experience to the emotion that you have to perform and I think that is a beautiful to me cause you both being in a moment you’re being in present and you’re sharing something that’s very intimate. Like my interpretation of sadness when I’m acting right now all the experiences that I’ve had experience in my life. I’m interpreting how you want me to be sad and I’m bringing it to my body and then you’re reacting to that. And it’s very oh my god! when it’s an emotion or like an action that you have to do that you haven’t quite experienced yet that’s kind of powerful too you know. To feel it in your body, how it shows up! I don’t know I could talk about that forever. I think acting is gonna be like something that I love for a long time… and poetry. Both of these art forms have created so much growth so much personal growth for me.
Do you share what you’re doing with your family?
Do I share my art or my accomplishments with my family? No. Because everything, the part that I do are queer the things that I talk about are queer, the things that I capture with photography or paint are queer. They’re not interested. It’s not something that interests them. And at this point of my life like, in the beginning of just getting better at these I just can’t afford to take on the negativity. Yeah I feel as queer artist we don’t get as much support anyway so that would be kind of devastating. I don’t want their judgment. Which is unfortunate because I feel like I put a lot of hard work and it’s commitment and discipline too and I feel that’s honorable…
Tell us about your painting and photography
I feel at this point art forms are so accessible… You know like cameras they are not expensive as they used to be, you can buy paint for cheaper or you can buy used whatever. And you can find materials to paint on. So I think art, it’s just exploration. So yeah, I’m not a great photographer but I just feel this urgency to document the successes that are happening in the queer community you know like the experiences. I just feel like the urgency to document them you know. I love artwork. I love go to museums and I don’t see some of the experiences that are in my life. And I’m like “paint is so beautiful, I wanna see my experience painted too”. So I just feel this urgency.
And then with photography too it just another way to capture. At this point of my life there are so many beautiful things that are happening you know ; that I just share, I wanna capture it.
It seems you like to challenge yourself…
That feeling, the need to challenge myself, I think you just feel it when you’re in community that needs so much and lacking so much resources. You feel an accountability. You feel like “I have this resources, I have this desire, this skills and something needs to happen from me” you know . When you see how people are dealing with the pressure and struggling you just feel like I have to get it, we have to talk about this, we need to be part of the discussion to just to move the conversation forward a little bit more you know. Even if it does not make much change just to keeping it move forward. So that one day it’s possible. Yeah it’s important to challenge yourself.
* * *
« Night Owl »
I am the night’s favorite
contrasted on sheet
the make me moan
until I spill out everything I own
I am what machete does to cane
what cotton has done to blackened backs
I’ve danced in rooms the kind of mood where the moon
presses her ear to window sill
everything bare but these bones and this cunt—
tell me I’ve got the toughest skin
deeper and hold on
part this mangled mouth and call these seas
furious flood sand down my sin to instrument
listen to how I still make music for God
* * *
We thank Tai for the interview, for her welcome and we wish her good luck for her future projects. Much love !
This interview was done on September 18th, 2014. Taijhet Nyobi can be reach at this email : taijhetnyobi [at] gmail.com.