Queen Sheba’s relationship with spoken word poetry began in fourth grade when she was asked to memorize and recite Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”. Although the Norfolk, Virginia native can remember writing poetry as early as second or third grade, it was this opportunity that built up her desire to become a performance poet. Now, several years in the game, and with performances across the United States and in countries around the world under her belt, Sheba is well on her way to achieving her goal. In the week leading up to her performance at the 15th annual When Sisters Speak, hosted by Toronto’s spoken word veteran Dwayne Morgan, while recovering from bronchitis, she takes time to reflect on her journey thus far.

IF YOU COULD SPEAK TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF WITH WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY? I think continuing to have your own voice is very important. What I notice now in the younger scene [is that] there’s a lot of mimicking of a common voice. I think that to be an outstanding poet, you have to find out what your belief system is, what your point of view is, what makes your point of view different [from] somebody else. Finding your own voice and just being confident about it. What I think people miss is that we are unique.

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WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST MAJOR CHALLENGE YOU HAVE FACED THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER? One of the challenges – believe it or not – is keeping up with technology, because as the years have gone on, [the presence of] YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter even, has changed how people market poetry, spoken word. It’s just a matter of staying relevant. And then, writing. Continuing to write even when nobody cares. I remember one of the doctors on the way out of graduation saying something that resonated with me: “Write even when nobody cares, because when you’re called upon, you’ll have that to read from.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST VALUABLE ASPECTS OF THE SPOKEN WORD ART FORM? I think one of the most valuable aspects is that it’s heard. I think that if people can hear what you’re trying to say, it’s moving. Spoken word is like a song. When you say it out loud, people can connect with it immediately. Even when you have classic poems, people remember the lines and they’ll say it with you, they’ll be inspired by those moments and those poems that hit them, that move them.

It’s really a bipolar experience, being an artist. People have a perception that you show up on stage polished, and they don’t know what you go through to get there. They don’t understand the expectations of you as an artist.

MUCH OF YOUR CONTENT CONNECTS TO BLACK WOMEN IN PARTICULAR. POEMS SUCH AS “GHETTO REVOLUTION” AND “WE ARE THE WOMEN” SERVE AS GREAT EXAMPLES OF THIS. WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR AUDIENCES TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR WORK? I always hope that they feel empowered, if they had any doubts about themselves or about anything that they’re going through, that they feel the empowerment to make the right decisions for them. Sometimes it’s hard to kick a drug habit, or hard to get up and exercise. It’s hard to kick out a lover, ex-boyfriend / girlfriend that was being abusive. Sometimes it’s hard too, for the men to disconnect from their vices as well. I speak mostly for women, but I try to really create a balance where I’m talking to the men. Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean that I can’t understand your place. I always want people to feel empowered.

ONE OF YOUR POEMS THAT CAME ACROSS AS ANOTHER PERSONAL PIECE WAS “THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING”. IT SEEMED TO TELL THE STORY OF A POET FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE. WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOU WROTE THIS? I was thinking about all the things that we go through. It’s really a bipolar experience, being an artist. People have a perception that you show up on stage polished, and they don’t know what you go through to get there. They don’t understand the expectations of you as an artist. People come up to you and want to share their life with you, which is beautiful. It’s exciting because that means I’ve affected you in a way that you feel comfortable to do that. But that also means that I’m leaving with all of it. It’s really heavy for me to take that because I’m an emotional person. You have to be emotionally connected to any of this to be able to write all of those things. It’s really a double-edged sword. I love it, but it’s heavy.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE? Memorable performance? [Truth be told], When Sisters Speak is my favourite show to perform in all the places I’ve been [around] the world. Out of the 10 countries and the 50 states and places I circle back to, my favourite is When Sisters Speak. You can easily hear a pin drop, or it’s like the place is erupting. You enjoy that roller coaster of emotions that’s happening. You can have people literally hanging onto every word you’re about to say and it could be erupting with laughter or crying or cheering. You want to be able to enjoy it and soak it up and know that you’re doing the right thing. I learned this a few years ago – the reason people clap is because they agree.

Words By. Andre McLean (@Andr3MD)