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Black Advisory Hub


By Zeena Elhassan

Interview with Christabel Okongwu

Christabel is currently in her first year at Cambridge studying Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Fitzwilliam College. She performed the incredibly powerful spoken word performance below at the conclusion of the Black Awarding Gaps and Decolonisation Forum, held at Cambridge University in March 2023. 

Afterwards, we spoke about her motivations for getting into spoken word, her sources of inspiration, and for tips or advice for aspiring student performers.  See our conversation below.

Q: What made you choose spoken word as a vehicle for the messages in your poem? 

Christabel: I feel it is important to highlight things that only people who are minoritised are facing – for instance, encounters with College porters, thinking about whether the person marking your paper is racist, how issues have followed through from school … the things that people likely do not think about if they are not affected by it. 

I initially tried to get these thoughts out on my Notes app on my phone. I didn’t know how to express it, but when written in poetic form it was a nice release. Being able to form an artistic expression that encapsulates how you’re feeling is very cathartic, as once you’re about to put it out there, you are able to not think about it as much. I started by not reading them out to anyone, it was just for myself, a way to gather my thoughts into a cohesive form. I enjoy writing spoken word, so figured performing it would be the next step. The opportunity to share arose through the ACS x Cambridge Union event, where I thought maybe others would resonate with things I had to say.  

Q: How did it feel to perform it at the event? 

Christabel: It felt great! 'Race' itself can be an uncomfortable subject – I do not like to sugar coat it, or water it down until people feel okay, because the discomfort is necessary if it is being said in its true form and with truth. I’m glad I got that across in the right way, which I felt afterwards from the applause which felt surreal, and reassured me, as I thought ‘oh okay! This has landed correctly’, which was a nice feeling. 

Q:  Moving forward, what would you like to write about? 

Christabel: Before I started writing, I had enjoyed viewing spoken word online, I recall a group of 4 people performing a spoken word on police brutality which was done in a very clever and captivating way, which sparked my interest in using this as an outlet for issues to do with race. But now, I more so just write what comes to my mind, I go about my day, jot things down before I forget them, and return when there is time to sit and finish it. I only write about things I’m passionate about, so when thinking about wider themes, the ones that come to mind are race, womanhood, femininity, social relationships, how we see each other in the world, how we relate to other people. 

Q: Outside of spoken word performances, where do you get your inspiration from? 

Christabel: Musicians inspire me a lot. Dave’s performance ‘Black’ at the 2020 Brits with a pause to add an interlude about race, or Stormzy’s mention of Grenfell Tower in his 2018 Brit performance, the way they push what they are saying so explicitly, that inspires me. When a lot is going on, that’s when things flow for me. If I’m in a great mood with no care in the world and everything is fine, I may not be in the right space to talk through problematic issues. It’s important to be disconcerted at times, to allow the poetry to provide the headspace through which to clear my mind.  

Q:  What would you recommend to other new or aspiring performers? 

Christabel: Don’t wait until you are not nervous. Do it through your nerves. Bring your friends. The first time I performed, my whole flat came and watched me in the audience – get your friends to hype you up! I was shaking beforehand but seeing them helped me feel relaxed. Even if you feel like you are not ready, if you in your heart know that it’s good, then go for it regardless and do not downplay yourself. You may not reach a point where you are super confident, but you should do it anyway. 

Go here to find a transcript of Christabel's spoken word poem.