This article first appeared in The Alt on December 26, 2016.
Photos by Richard Lovrich
Amani Olugbala, better known as Amani O, poet, activist, advocate, MC, is running late; her phone is dead, her alarm didn’t go off and she hasn’t eaten. Known for her slam poetry, which focuses on cosmic and universal themes and for her fierce, almost otherworldly advocacy as a co-founder of the upstate chapter of Black Lives Matter, today, at this moment she is very human, with simple human problems.
She’s arrived at the Troy Kitchen just in time for lunch rush, and while she very badly wants to get something to eat, she worries she doesn’t have time to wait at the back of the line. She watches as others dig into their salads, hoagies and bulgogi plates. She’s a bit distracted, teetering on agitated.
Then a light goes on. She’s asked if she wouldn’t mind taking the stage and reciting some of her work. A transcendence occurs in plain sight. She bounds forward, checks herself in the mirror only briefly and then hops on stage. The expression on her face goes from stoic and distant to urgent and zoetic. Her eyes open wide, functioning both as spotlights to scan the room and as tractor beams–seemingly pulling everything in the room closer to her. Her hands snap into a flurry of excited action; they flit like a conductor’s, implore like the hands of a preacher, taunt like a protester’s, and at times praise and enchant like the hands of a druidess locked in some sort of celestial incantation. Words leave her mouth with strict precision and then flutter, twirl in the air, and explode one after the other like a fireworks displayed, each individual explosion positioned to amplify the next.
—“Black girl fly/black brown butterfly/with wings made of sofrito and henna/in place of antennas/I see you” –Amani O “Black Girl Fly”
“I think my art will be impactful to people who are just open to either being ignited, or reignited from a message that connects with them and encourages them to express themselves,” says Amani. “I think my art is a catalyst, it’s like a lightning rod. So if people are looking for inspiration or looking to enter a space where they’re received, they should come to our slams,” she says referring to the Nitty Gritty Poetry Slam she hosts at The Low Beat every first and third Tuesday.
She says she exists as a poet now to help people to heal themselves and as an advocate to help bring down the white male power structure that dominates our culture.
“I’m not asking people to do things I’m not willing to do myself,” says Amani. “I’ll be the sacrificial poet. I’ll go first, I’ll take the risk.”
Friends recall attending a court hearing for the three U Albany women who alleged they had been victims of a hate crime only to be charged later with lying about the incident. Reporters yelled questions at the three. Amani turned and began freestyling at the reporters about the role of the media, bias and race.
Having competed and won in regional and national poetry slam competitions, Amani says she’s taken a step back this year to work on a number of personal projects. She’s confident, but frantic, focused but consumed by possibility.
–“You are the color of life, of death, of change, of same, of tradition, of activism, of revolution and birth of spirits and damn audacity looks good on you. “–Amani O “Black Girl Fly”
Amani O wasn’t always the Amani who exists in this moment on stage, Amani the fierce advocate hadn’t yet found herself. Born as Amanda Wilson in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, she grew up strong and confident. Raised by her mother, she was fascinated with writing and public speaking. She says she decided to leave the city to attend Siena College, seeing it as a way to adapt to what she saw as the “white dominated world.”
It wasn’t until she ended what she identifies as “an emotionally abusive relationship” in 2014 that she finally decided to share her abilities as a writer with the public “All this poetry came at the same time, and I was just struck with how I suddenly had so much to so say,” Amani explains. “I asked from friends, ‘you think this is alright?’ and they encouraged me.”
From there she hunted down an open mic on Google and found The Nitty Gritty Poetry Slam. She says she quickly developed her persona with help from other local poets. “I think slam was to me like a transition from debate team–just another aspect of that kind of thing. I’ve never really had an issue with speaking in public and I found out, okay, people want to hear what I have to say, OK! So somebody told me to put away my phone and connect with the audience, and it clicked. It’s addictive.” It was that summer of 2014 when Amanda Wilson became Amani O. Inspired by the work of Assata Shakur, she abandoned her given name.
Amani O’s role in the Capital Region’s poetry scene has advanced hand-in-hand with her mission as an activist. As a founding member of Black Lives Matter she’s focused on uniting the area’s many activist groups.
“Black Lives Matter shows up in my work not because that’s what everyone’s talking about but because I see black liberation as liberation for us all.”
Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia have started working together to bridge gaps between their members and foster collaboration. “We understand how white people are really excited and energized to do this work. But first we need to have a lot of basic training and understanding that needs to happen. Our white accomplices are stepping in to be a buffer and we’re saying, ‘You can show up on the front lines once you understand things like implicit bias, you understand microaggressions,’ things like that.”
Amani has her hands in a wealth of other projects. She works at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, an organization dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system by teaching black, Latino and indigenous people how to farm. She also does workshops on poetry and expression. She hopes to publish a book of her poetry and is also attentive to her musical partnership with local hip-hop artist and poet Kat SoPoetic, called KATANI.
With such a full plate, Amani said she is still focused on helping other people discover their innate creativity and power. “I think back to that relationship; I remember back when I was like just in a ‘fake it till you make it’ place. I’m in a different place now. I knew my confidence wasn’t where it needed to be to get somewhere I needed to be. So I used poetry to envision where I needed to be.”
You can catch Amani O spit her fire at The Savoy Tap Room in Albany on Jan. 7th at an event called The B.L.A.C.K. Party. She’ll be joined by Kat SoPoetic, Taina Asili and a number of other area poets, musicians and artists.
—“You need not control me to be free/ I won’t encroach upon your rights you’re dignity/ anything you’ve earned or entitled to justly speaking/ if it be yours under righteous acquisition/deserved like air or breath, or breathing/ like nourishment like nature receiving.”–Amani O “You Need Not Control me to Be Free”