Famed Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko wrote in her classic novel Ceremony, “It seems like I already heard these stories beforeonly thing is, the names sound different.”
With continued civil rights protests nationwide and the resurgence of the KKK in Charlottesville, Va., the quote enunciates: Our history is circular or perhaps it swings like a pendulum. Either way, the healing thesis persists: The more stories we have, the more voices that question and critique, the more we are galvanized to equality and so we celebrate the invigorating flowers that refuse to wilt. The posies that blossom from cracked and neglected pavements that tried to crush them. Today we remember the birth of a rich activist and art movement by speaking with a queer poet named Jasmine Mans.
During an interview with INTO, Mans, a 26-year-old Newark, N.J. native, explains the inspiration behind her most recent visual art installation.
“‘The Ravishing 1967’ is not only the fight and bloodshed of the Newark riots but also the uprising of the people’s collective mind,” the poet says. The installation, titled “Lawless Innovation for a Timeless Generation” was put on display in a collaborative gallery with artists Alex Scott Cumming and Ngu Asongwed at Newark’sGallery Aferro earlier this spring.
The Newark riots Mans paid homage to in her installation left 26 civilians dead and nearly 700 injured after four days of resistance, looting, and destruction that took place 50 years ago this past July.
“I don’t take being a poet lightly,” Mans says, “You see, poets and musicians were the frontrunners of the 1967 movement. They were the ones who stepped forward.”
Mans is forever inspired by the courage of her forebears, smiling as she remembers the words of Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” and the self-reliant lyrics of singer Nina Simone. She follows the path laid out by these legendary artists’ but fiercely widens their wake and catalyzes their means.
“I believe that my desire to be a writer was inspired directly by the artists and activists of the 1967 movement,” she tells me. Her voice is poised and unperturbed yet incredibly sanguine. Unlike many young artists, Mans knows not only her perspective but her creative genesis.
Best known for her spoken word poetry, Mans has racked up millions of views for her videos critiquing hip-hop icons Kanye West in “Footnotes For Kanye” and Nicki Minaj in “Nicki Minaj.” In both poems, she offers thoughtful criticism of both musicians, speaking truth to celebrity. the truth of their star-studded actions (and inabilities to act.). In “Footnotes For Kanye” Mans asks, “You forget you’re black, boy?” and “Maybe Yeezus was all talk/Jesus never needed Adidas to walk/ Why is he outlining sneakers when the south side is outlined in chalk?”
Mans is not simply throwing shade. She points out the realities she sees and hopes that the stars are listening and are open to constructive feedback. Mans is the commanding professor at a seminar, asking her students to hear themselves.
The text of a recent print Mans sells at a Newark coffee shop reads, “NEVER FORGET THE DAY KENDALL JENNER FOUGHT FOR OUR CIVIL RIGHTS,” commenting on the social media star’s Pepsi campaign. Her poetry begs. Imagine the future leaders these household names could inspire.
Small statements similar to the Jenner poem decorated her first visual installations in Newark, as well as her gallery at the “Feminine Product” gathering in Los Angeles this past March. Verse was spread across the white walls and concrete floors of her galleries including “MAY WE RESIST THE POWERS THAT TRY TO OPPRESS US, AND MAY WE LOVE BEYOND MEASURE,” “DON’T HAVE SEX WITH A GUY WHO WON’T EAT YOU OUT FIRST,” and “DON’T BECOME A MONSTER IN THE PROCESS OF FIGHTING ONE, OR LOVING ONE.”
Mans aims to strip poetry off the page and sling-shot it across the avenues, boulevards, and streets of the world. For now, she starts in New Jersey.
Currently, Mans puts her work onto t-shirts and mugs and aspires to adornbillboards, sidewalks, and other major public spaces in the future. “I want my words to take up space and I want to be really audacious,” she says. “I want to attack all the senses. I want to provoke people in a thoughtful and critical way.”
“Not everyone gets the same access to education, but we can all capture song and poetry,” she adds before speaking fondly of the first Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni poems she was ordered to memorize in oratory classes in a church basement her uncle took her to on weekends.
“One poem I remember memorizing was ‘Phenomenal Woman’ and at first I rejected it,” Mans tells me. “It didn’t transcend meaning to me until I was 21. But now, I know that is me. I am a phenomenal woman. I will walk with my head held high, I will strut, and everyone will see me. Those poems made me think I could write something like (“Phenomenal Woman”) too. I don’t remember the name of the woman who put the poem in my bones, but I owe her a lot.” She sums up her origins modestly, “I’m just a girl from Newark who learned how to write through other black women.”
Yet unlike many of her idols, Mans’ poetry openly uses the female pronouns of her lovers nonchalantly, queering the spaces she performs and occupies.
“When I fell in love with a girl, I told the world about it,” she explains. “When I was in love, everyone knew. Because that’s how deeply I was in love, it’s the totality of what I represent as a woman, you have to respect that I can stand on stage and be in love with a woman and I can still be like your sister or your best friend or your cousin.”
She continues by saying: “You learn so much about the world when homosexuality knocks on your door. Like when a black man finds out his black brother is gay. Straight people come out in these moments, because it’s like now we see the complexities of the hate and the prejudice that was hidden before or that we didn’t at one time have to talk about.”
After years of speaking at college campuses and spoken word poetry venues around the world, Mans now takes a moment for herself to figure out how to make her biggest impact. She is blueprinting many different pathways. Presently, she awaits the publication of three books of her poetry over the next two years and as she does, she is considering full albums of her spoken word poetry, adding music to her verse. She also hasn’t tossed out the possibility of rapping.
Whether it be spitting rhymes or plasteringthe billboards of the world with her art, Mans will always be the change she wishes to see. She will lead the resistance-positively andlovingly.