Titilope Sonuga is the perfect person to kick-off our series of profiles. This woman is a work of art: a poet who is also an engineer, a traveler with a thirst for adventure who has chosen Edmonton as a home base, and a woman who lights up the stage with confidence (even though she insists she was incredibly shy at one point). Sonuga is a series of fantastic contradictions that force you to turn her way. Her talent, strength and distinct voice are what separates her from the crowd.
At the age of 27, Sonuga is already an award-winning poet, published author and has a debut album of lyrical poetry called Mother Tongue (available on iTunes). However, it isn't her impressive cv that has caught our eye, it is her contribution to the spoken word poetry scene in Edmonton. She is slowly evolving into one of the city's most recognizable poets. As the founder of Rouge Poetry, a weekly spoken word evening that soon birthed The Breath in Poetry Collective (BIP), she has fanned the fire of an art that is connecting with people from all walks of life. The demographic that is perhaps the most rewarding to see pick up this form of expression is our youth.
Sonuga often hosts workshops in schools throughout Edmonton, along with fellow BIP member Ahmed Ali who organizes slam poetry sessions specifically for young adults. Due to it's rhythmic nature and encouragement for the artist to reveal a story, often their own, spoken word is associated with rhythms that are a part of some of the most popular music that resonate with tween and teen listeners.
"It is a form of poetry they can relate to something like rap," says Sonuga. "I think by virtue of what it is, spoken word is inherently cooler to kids. Once you get them on the side of the coolness of this thing, the trick is to then draw out their natural voices."
Sonuga says it is incredibly important to create a welcoming environment that assures students nobody will laugh at them, regardless of the poem they scribble down and recite.
"Watching that kid who didn't say a word when you walked into the room, come up with his little piece of paper and read his four line poem in front of the entire classroom is such a a moving thing to see," says Sonuga.
Spoken word is often performed through slam poetry events, which can be incredibly competitive. Participants are given a restricted amount of time to recite their original work on stage. Judges immediately reveal their scores, based on delivery, content and reception from the crowd––which can range from voracious finger snaps of approval, to a deafening silence.
Sonuga recently hosted the Edmonton slam finals at Metro Cinema as part of the 2013 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Judging by the hearty turnout that affirmed their decision to move to a larger venue this year, it is obvious that the local poets and their enthusiasts agree that she is someone worth following.
What is the biggest misconception about spoken word?
People think that as a spoken word poet, you don’t have merit as a writer. The biggest misconception is that spoken word poets can’t actually write. Some of the best spoken word poets I know are amazing writers. You read their stuff on paper and they can throw down on the stage.
What poem do you love to perform? Why?
There is a poem called Sacrifice that I do often. It is a poem about my parents. It is essentially our story as an immigrant family. My parents gave up everything to come to Canada and give my sisters and I an opportunity to get an education. The first time I performed that poem was at the Poetry Festival a couple of years ago. My parents were in the audience and it turned into a cry fest. My dad is a very strict and stoic guy, but as soon as I started doing this poem, he started to cry in front of a room full of people, which he would never usually do. I think at that moment I knew this spoken word thing has the power to do something to you.
Best moment from the past 12 months?
Meeting Maya Angelou last year. It was a life changing experience. Sometimes you are afraid to meet people you look up to, but she is exactly what you would imagine, very humble and sweet. She is honestly like a grandmother.
What brings you comfort?
My family. Our journey is a long and beautiful one. Having all of my family in one place and looking at the faces of my niece and nephew, those are the sorts of things that make me feel anchored and grounded, that brings me comfort. I am also Christian, so I think at my very core I have a belief that everything is going to be okay.
What is your go-to song?
I have so many! I am a music junkie.
Bag Lady by Erykah Badu. I can be a bit of an emotional bag lady.
What is the last book that left an impression on you?
That is a tough question because I read a lot of books. I just finished readingI know This Much is True
by Wally Lamb. I just read it for the second time. I think I go back to it because I think it is just a brilliant story. I read a lot of books by African authors as well, but there are just too many to list.
What was your last memorable meal?
I love Nigerian food. When I eat it here, it is just not the same as when I eat it there. I was last there in December and we have a meal called pounded yam and egusi soup. It is basically like a yam pounded into a paste and the soup is made from leafy green vegetables and deliciousness. If you ever make it to Nigeria, just order that and they will set you straight.
*answers have been edited for clarity and length.