Reporting | Discipleship

Amena Brown Q+A: Poetry in an Age of Lament

How the spoken-word poet uses art to speak truth about race, faith, and womanhood.
Amena Brown Q+A: Poetry in an Age of Lament
Image: Mary Caroline Russell

In 2002, Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion Movement, invited an unknown artist named Amena Brown to perform her spoken-word poetry at a vision-casting event called One Day Link. The conference was simulcast to over 20,000 people. At the time, Brown had been turned down by graduate schools and faced disappointment. “I did my poem [at the event] and knew that God was trying to say to me, ‘This is why you didn’t get into grad school, and my plans for your life are different than your plans for your life,’” says Brown.

Since then, Brown has toured with Gungor and performed and spoken at Creativity World Forum, Chick-Fil-A Leadercast, the National Poetry Slam, and the annual IF: Gathering, where she will co-lead a pre-conference session for women of color. She participates in the Atlanta poetry scene at Urban Grind Coffee and Java Monkey and over the last seven years has produced four spoken-word albums. Her fifth album, Amena Brown Live, releases this November.

I spoke recently with Brown about poetry, racism, and how performance art impacts her life and faith.

So much of your work as a spoken-word poet involves music and rhythm. With that in mind, what kind of worship music compels you the most? And where do you worship?

The church [my husband and I] attend is called Ikon Church—it’s a small, new church plant, and it’s right in our neighborhood [in Atlanta], which we really love. One thing I love about the worship experience there is that it is has soul. I grew up listening to choir music and gospel music and am a lover of soul music in general, so that’s the music that speaks to me about God. In our church service, there’s a mix of what would probably be considered traditional, CCM-sounding worship songs, and there’s some soulfulness in there, some groove and funkiness. That’s a part of how God speaks to me.

How do the arts—music, dance, poetry—inform your relationship with Christ? And conversely, how does your faith inform your work?

Even though I started out doing spoken word in worshipful settings, I don’t consider myself a worship spoken-word poet. I know that I’m a Christian and I’m going to write from that context and framework, but that could mean a lot of things: I’m going to write some poems about God because I love God. And because Jesus saved my life, I’m going to write about Jesus. And I’m going to write some poems about being a woman because I’m a woman and because I’ve experienced what it’s like to live in the world as a girl. And I’m going to write some poems about what it’s like to be a black woman, and about what it’s like to have grown up in the South, and about what it’s like to have been in love and to have my heart broken. I’m going to write about those things because I’ve also experienced those things, and writing about those things is not any less holy than writing a poem that is explicitly about God. If I write a poem about grieving or a poem about being in love, God can also shine through those things.

I find that a lot of the art that influences my relationship with God is not art that would typically be done in a more traditional church service. [For example,] Beyonce’s Lemonade is very spiritual to me. Erykah Badu’s music also has been some of the music that God has really used to communicate his heart to me and to echo the scriptures to me. So I find that a lot of my most spiritually impacting moments have not happened in a traditionally sacred space, but nonetheless spaces that were actually very sacred. The groove and the soul, the harmonies—all of that really speaks to me a lot.

I know that you really care about nurturing artistic community, and that you talk frequently about the importance of artistic expression. So how is creative expression important not just for professional artists like you but for everyone?

We need poetry as a culture because poetry gives us a great space to contemplate both divinity and humanity. Poetry is a space to describe the amazingness, the omnipresent and omnipotent stuff of God. And poetry is also a great space for us to contemplate our humanity—our desires, our romantic feelings, our heartbreak, our grieving, our sadness, the things that make us angry. Poetry gives us the ability to see both of those things. And of course I feel that all art could be included in this. We can be reminded that what the amazing saxophonist or horn player is doing on stage is actually a small microcosm of the amazingness of God.

A few years ago you performed a spoken-word poem with Ann Voskamp called “Advent Lament, Brave Merry Christmas.” It’s such a fascinating piece and a powerful performance. One of the lines from the poem is “How in the world can a weary world rejoice?" What’s the idea behind that line?

I just love collaborating with Ann. It was such an amazing experience to perform that poem with her. That piece was our attempt to give words to what was happening in our souls [and the idea that] the birth of Christ doesn’t mean we just ring the silver bells now without discussing the sorrow that is really lurking underneath. Jesus was born into a time that was sorrowful, which means even in the midst of the sorrow and grief and tragedy, there is hope, there is peace for all of us. But [we try] to say that message not with “Let’s put our sad feelings away” but instead, “Let’s bring our sad feelings with us.” God can handle that. God knows those sad feelings that we have, you know?

Even leading up to the holidays this year, I feel like, man, what tough times, and what does Jesus have to say about this? Why does it matter for us to have a relationship or a connection to Jesus in the midst of all of this?

Right now our country is convulsing with racial conflict. As a black woman, what are you lamenting? And what are you hoping for, not just for our nation but for the church?

The racism [we’re seeing] has been present from the very beginning of our country, but we’ve hidden it, and now it’s rising to the surface. A part of that rising is very, very ugly and difficult. But even in the midst of this ugliness, the American church has an opportunity to not only lament but repent, and that means change.

Conversations are good, but at a certain point we have to start taking action to make sure that church staffs are more diverse, to make sure that people of color are welcome on all of the stages at the various different conferences and events that we’re doing. Reconciliation is a) hard work—it takes the grace of Jesus Christ to do it—and b) not just the work of people of color. It takes white people and people of color to do it. And c) reconciliation is a ministry, and the ministry of reconciliation is for all of us as believers. Nobody gets to cop out. Nobody gets to say, Well, I’m going to leave that to the people who are concerned. No, reconciliation is for all of us. It’s a work that God gives us the grace to do. We have to start repenting. We have to start admitting that racism is sin. We have to start admitting things, like [the fact] that the forefathers of America founded the country on sin. We have to start saying some of those things out loud.

In the “Letter to My Hair” video, you stand in front of a mirror doing your hair and performing (off camera) a poem that’s addressed directly to your hair. What’s the story behind the poem?

When I was eight, I was getting ready to go to some party. This was in the ’80s when it was really “in” to wear your hair up in a side ponytail. I was in the bathroom trying to get my hair like this before the party, and my hair just would not do it because my hair is so curly. I pulled my hair so hard that I made myself cry, and my mom had to come in and rescue me and get my hair together for the party. That’s the quintessential moment that you have as a black girl, feeling like, Am I beautiful just like I am? Is my hair beautiful, is my nose beautiful, is my skin beautiful?Do I have the kind of features that are going to be found to be acceptable or attractive?

I wanted to get my hair straightened as soon as I could, and I wore my hair straight for 20 years. Then I went broke, so I decided to grow my hair out and go natural. It was like meeting this person again that I hadn’t seen in 20 years, so that gave me the idea to write a letter to my hair and say, These are the ways that I’ve been very upset and angry with you, and now I’m looking at you and realizing that you have been beautiful this entire time. You don’t need all of these trappings to be beautiful.

As a side note, I am a proponent of be yourself. For some black women, they’re going to rock an afro, and for some black women, they’re going to rock their hair straight, and other black women are going to rock their hair in a perm. We all are going to have a different womanhood journey, it’s just important that we go on the journey and that we do the soul work of really loving who it is God made us to be.

December
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