Martin Luther King Jr. once said that ignoring Gandhi was our own risk. There is nothing wrong with taking a trip to the “Candy Shop” with 50 Cent, but ignoring young, educated and inspirational artists such as Nafeesa Monroe might be our biggest mistake.
Without taking any credibility from other, more pop-oriented artists out there, this young lady delivers more of a message than many conscious Hip-Hop artists can fit in an entire album. Unfortunately, strong messages in art are often lost in today’s commercial world. Even Kanye West, who was definitely on the right path with his hit “Jesus Walks”, cheapened his message with lines like: “The way Kathy Lee needed Regis / That’s the way I need Jesus”.
An actress and poet, Nafeesa has worked in the mainstream on The Jamie Foxx show and The Parkers but it is her independent work and her poetry that she is most passionate about. The word ‘poet’ does seem to have a stigma attached to it, and people who think poetry is not for them can miss out if they forget that two of the greatest poets in the world were Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives spoke with Nafeesa Monroe about a variety of issues that concern us, from women’s roles in Hip-Hop to the war in Iraq. It is only when we speak, that we are free.
AHHA: How did you get into poetry? Who inspires you?
Nafeesa: As far as artistry and poetry, the first poet to inspire me was Lucille Clifton. When you read her work it appears plain and simple, she doesn’t use a lot of big words. But she has meaning and a lot of depth in her poetry. I used to think that I couldn’t be a poet because I didn’t know a lot of big words. I was like, ‘I’m not a poet; I don’t have the vocabulary for it.’ But she was the first person that showed me that it’s not about using big words but how you use your words, what you’re saying and why you’re saying it.
AHHA: You talk about your childhood quite a bit and the difficulties that come with growing up half white and half Black. Is that an inspiration too?
Nafeesa: My childhood is definitely an inspiration. Growing up of mixed ethnicity in an all white neighborhood with my white mother…for a lot of my life I thought I was white and I wanted to be white. Then there was a point where I realized that I wasn’t and that everybody else saw me differently than how I saw myself. And so there was a big struggle where I wasn’t accepted from the white people or the Black people. I was too much of the other for everybody. So I was always struggling to find that place to fit in. I didn’t find it for a really long time, then I went to college in Connecticut and I learned a lot more about being African American, and that’s also when I started to write poetry.
Poetry is a place where I can be myself rather than someone else, which is what acting is. I think the first poem that people really related to was ‘Half Devil’. It was about a Black person calling a white person ‘devil’ and then they turned to me and said, ‘You’re only half devil’. I had a lot of people say thank you to me for saying what they were unable to say.
AHHA: What’s your definition of Spoken Word? And how would explain it to people out there who are only now being exposed to it?
Nafeesa: Although you can speak poetry, my definition of poetry is that it lives on the page. Spoken word is an art that must be spoken. I think it’s more tied to the tradition of African storytellers and I also believe that Hip-Hop came from spoken word. Hip-Hop was originally poetry. We get a lot of Hip-Hop heads that are listening to words that many not stand out have they been put over a really strong beat. Spoken word is more raw and anyone can be a great spoken word artist, in the sense that there is no one judging you. For example there is an Asian kid called Beausia. If you look at him he looks like your average Asian kid but he gets on stage and he says the most outrageous things that if he was rapping, noone would take him seriously. They would be like, ‘Oh he’s an Asian kid trying to be somebody…blah blah’. But spoken word allows him to be who he is and as crazy and wild as he wants to be. People take it as an expression of him rather than him trying to be something else.
AHHA: How did you get into acting? Do you find it hard to get roles that align with your beliefs?
Nafeesa: I’ve been acting since I was 11 years old so I grew up on the stage. There’s a weird part of me that feels home in a theatre than on the street or even in my house. When I came to L.A to do it professionally a few years back, I realized that there’s got to be a different passion behind it because if you’re here just to be a star it could be extremely difficult. I think what really keeps me going is telling the story in a different way. A girlfriend of mine, an actress named Kimberly Elise, said she wants to make sure that the stories of her ancestors are told properly and that’s one of the reasons that she acts. And I really identify with that. I think there is a certain healing that goes on through the art of film and television. Even some sitcoms that people think are really silly, but truth of the matter is, even laughter is a healer in its own rights.
I attempt to be selective with my roles but at the same time, I’m an actress who just wants to work also. I’ve been blessed that I haven’t had to play a prostitute but even a prostitute role, if the right one came along in terms of where she grows and changes, and I can show someone else who is in that life a different way out or a different way to approach their life, then I think it’s a valid choice.
AHHA: A lot of artists tend not to get political, so it’s very rare that we get to ask this question. Enlighten us with your thoughts on the war on Iraq.
Nafeesa: I have a cousin who just got back from Iraq. I’m not a Bush fan by any means and I’m not a fan of the war. I don’t think that we should have gone in the first place but at the same time the people that are there, and are loosing their lives, I support the fact that they have chosen something to fight for. And to be honest with you, at this point, we are in a situation with no answers. I don’t know that the answer is to pullout and leave the country in chaos. And I don’t know that the answer is to stay there and enforce our views on other people.
In the female aspect of it, I know there is so much that goes on with Iraqi women. There are all types of organizations to help these women function; women who now have to look for jobs and now have to be their family’s supporters. There are hundreds of kids who have no parents and that is the kind of thing war brings. Where is the American responsibility in that? Do we send parents over??
AHHA: Another issue you talk about is AIDS in Africa. Do you think people are completely aware of the situation going on over there?
Nafeesa: I have an extreme, extreme concern about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. I do feel that there is a possibility of loosing an entire race of people. It’s so drastic out there and it’s one of those things that I don’t think Americans are really aware of the level of emergency that it is at.
AHHA: Ok finally we have to ask you about Women in Hip-Hop. A lot of artists don’t say a lot on this topic, although it is clearly a problem. What’s your opinion?
Nafeesa: I would love to see more women like the old school women- I would love to see more MC Lyte, more Queen Latifah. And I’m not taking anything away from what Lil Kim does because that is who she is. But it’s about influencing the community around us and I want more young girls to walk around and say ‘I’m a Queen’ and ‘Who you calling a b####?’. Instead of hot pants and belly rings at 15, I want more of a balance. I want more women in Hip-Hop that are strong because they are women – not because they have money or because they have a man. They can be loving and kind but can still be hard and get stuff done.
AHHA: Would you say they are portrayed as meat and nothing more?
Nafeesa: Yes, definitely I think right now women are meat. They are portrayed as uneducated. I understand that a part of Hip-Hop came from guns, violence, attitude etcetera, but if you look at someone like Tupac, from his first album to his last, even he realized that there that has to be a positive message and something positive towards women.
AHHA: Where can people learn more about you?
Nafeesa: On my site at www.nafeesamonroe.com