Slam Poet Inspires Self-Love, World Change at the Cat

Julia Hubay, Arts Editor

As people began to stream into Sonya Renee’s performance at the Cat last Saturday, every chair was quickly filled, and even the floor was packed before the poet and activist began. The evening kicked off with an open mike show featuring some talented students, and then at 9 p.m. Renee took the stage dressed in a vibrant, citrus-colored dress and perched atop six inch coral heels.

She began by establishing an informal rapport with the audience, joking about the weather and the inappropriateness of her showing up to the Cleveland airport in sandals and a sundress. Then, to increase the energy in the room, Renee had the audience participate in a call-and-response session with chants about self-love and poetry. The Cat audience began at a high decibel level, but to motivate them to reach even higher sonic heights, Renee encouraged the slam poetry fans to “be as loud as my shoes are fly!”

With the crowd sufficiently hyped, Renee jumped right into a poem about a romantic evening that had been going well until her date didn’t want to put on a condom (she explained that she hadn’t been planning on doing this poem, but she felt like she needed to after finding herself in a room with a prominent bowl of free condoms). The poet recounted how as the date ended she realized that she was worth more than the risks involved with that decision, proclaiming “I fucking like me!”

After this opener, Renee’s stage persona transformed from one that was primarily light hearted to a much more political one. The messages of her poems were well-packaged in her verbal artistry and beautiful flow, and the mood in the room became much more serious. While demonstrating her broad artistic range, Renee addressed all kinds of injustices in American society, from blatantly sexist government policies about women’s bodies to the passing of insidious comments that appear innocuous but betray racist sentiments.

After a few poems that left the audience thinking hard about their own prejudices and, examining the privilege that we all have and take for granted in this country, Renee opened up the floor to some questions. She satisfied one audience member’s curiosity about her favorite poets by identifying Rachel McKibbens, Lauren Zuniga and Andrea Gibson among others. Renee also shared that she could attribute her earliest poetic ambitions to her experience of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The artist commented that as an activist, she uses her poems to change people’s minds about issues that she cares about by exposing her humanity through her work, allowing even those who disagree with her views to sympathize with her.

But not all of Renee’s poems pointedly addressed hard-hitting issues. In fact, one called “Slices” came with a story preceding it, about a comically traumatizing experience she had with a fake-cheese product that alarmingly didn’t melt even under extreme heat. Renee explained the magnitude of her love for cheese, jokingly commenting that although she’s not a vegetarian, before she would “shank a cow” she would be sure to milk it for the cheeseburger. Though humorous, this poem was also advocating for change, addressing the low quality of what we are willing to put into our bodies and what manufacturers try to market to us as food. Renee conveyed the horror she felt at the unnaturalness of this “cheez fud product” with such intensity that all of the audience sympathized with her disgust at the atrocity of “slices” while dissolving in peels of laughter.

The final poem that Renee performed returned to a more serious subject, discussing the body issues that plague Americans and the way “our economic system runs on our self-hatred.” This poem, “The Body is Not an Apology,” shares its name with the movement founded by Renee about a year that is centered on fostering positive attitudes towards the bodies that we have today. In contrast to the standards of beauty and marketing schemes that tell us we should be unsatisfied by our physical selves, Renee boldly proclaims that we are all “divine and worthy and beautiful, just as [we] are.” If her listeners can get behind this idea of accepting ourselves, Renee believes that it will spread and do good for the world. As she says, “I believe that radical self-love is the gateway to radical human love.”