It’s almost impossible to watch Oompa perform without feeling things move deep in your core. Oompa’s poems, which revolve around her life as a black, queer person raised in Roxbury, both resonate and educate. As a national slam poetry champion and highly-acclaimed recording artist, Oompa is dedicated to guiding her community. Having honed her craft at the Haley House in Dudley Square, a celebrated gathering spot for people in the surrounding area, Oompa has goals of giving back.
When I went in to interview Oompa, she was leading a poetry slam workshop in the Haley House basement. I listened to her answer the questions of budding poets: Are there any topics that are off limits? How should I piece these ideas together?
By the end of their session, I could tell that Oompa, like all great leaders, cares deeply about helping others unlock and share their own voices. As we talked, she gave me a deeper insight to her life, how she plans to bring about change, and why Boston needs to begin recognizing its people.
Can you tell me a bit about your life? Did you grow up locally?
Yeah, I’m from Roxbury. I grew up in Academy Homes. I spent a lot of my childhood there and then when the side of Academy Homes that I lived on was knocked down, I moved into Dorchester and then back into Roxbury over on what people call the “H Block” area. Then when they rebuilt them, I moved back to Academy and I was there for a large part of my life.
I went to high school at East Boston High, so I used to take that train over and get away a little bit. Then I ended up being a Posse Scholar, which gives a full tuition leadership scholarship. They send kids to liberal arts schools — they try to send you as far as possible, really. I went to Bucknell in Pennsylvania, so I spent five years over there. I had a lot of family shift. My mother passed away, I had a sister that passed away some years before that, had some housing stuff. Just a bunch of different stuff came crashing down.
Was this after graduating college?
No, this was in my freshman year. So, I had to take some time off. I came back home and was trying to make it work. I had to raise my younger sister. I got into a lot of trouble just trying to make it happen and I had to reground myself and figure out what I wanted.
I didn’t want an early grave and I tried hard to get back to Bucknell. They gave me some hell and then I got back there, I graduated, and I came back to Boston and was working for a non-profit college access program for some time.
But I can’t do the 9-5 thing. I was teaching till last June and I have come to realize that I hate institutions, particularly ones that purport to be institutions of higher learning. I don’t like that the people who they claim to serve are people like me: you know, the black and brown and queer, poor kids. But they’re always run by upper-middle class white folks. And some people are well-intended, and then some people aren’t, they just have the privilege to own an organization. They just miss the mark; they stop listening and kids aren’t served and they’re not the priority. So, I just couldn’t contribute to that anymore. I realized that I wanted to be an artist. So, I left in June and I’m talking to you now as an artist.
How long have you been with the Haley House?
My affiliation with the Haley House started with the House Slam. At the end of 2015 I came for the first time. I watched for a long time after that. I went out for the team in 2016. And I’ve been Co-Slam Master for about a year now.
How dare I have the privilege to find the microphone or to have a thing that I’m passionate about and not say it, you know?
When’s the first time you did slam poetry?
When I was going out for the team. I was watching for a long time and then I was like, “Okay, I think I’ve got something.” I was writing some poems, but I never shared them. I was doing open mic stuff here and there and then I was like, “You know what? Maybe I can slam. Maybe I have the confidence to do this thing.”
And I tried it and I don’t think I won the first one, but I came back and landed the qualifier, made it to semis, went through semis, went to finals and then I was a part of the team.
Why do you create poetry?
From a craft perspective, it’s really cool to think about how creative you can be in saying one particular thing. I’m interested in a set number of things that I talk about in poetry and music and it’s mostly about my life, my experience, and who I am. And helping other people to see themselves where they wouldn’t otherwise see themselves.
I also feel like it’s urgent, not just a luxury; I feel like I have to say something. There’s some people right now who want to say what I’m saying but they can’t say it for whatever reason, whether it’s their own trauma or they’re too afraid or there’s so many roadblocks between them and a microphone. How dare I have the privilege to find the microphone or to have a thing that I’m passionate about and not say it, you know?
Is this part of why you lead poetry slam workshops? You want other people to be able to find their voice?
For sure. I think we all have privileges. As a person with a voice, and as an able-bodied person, and as a person who has won in slam I think I should afford people the opportunity to learn what I’ve learned so they can go win things and beat me.
How often do you lead these workshops?
The workshops happen every month at minimum. Today I ended up doing a workshop because the slam season is upon us. A lot of qualifiers are happening so a lot of people are going out for the team or are trying to be representatives at the Women of the World Poetry Slam. Those are happening locally now.
Are you constantly writing?
When I’m in good spaces, yeah. Ideally, I’m always writing. I need to re-ground myself every so often to remember what I want to say, and who I am.
What’s the best way to ground yourself?
I try and take the pressure off myself. I just take a breathe and stop for a moment; to remember to take care of myself and remember that I have family and people around me and things to be mindful of other than producing.
What is your best slam moment?
At Women of the World Poetry Slam 2017, I wasn’t prepared. I was writing poems from the time I knew I was in, to literally the final stage. I was just like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m good enough for this.”
I get through prelims and was like, “Wow, okay. Your girl’s going to finals.” I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion that someone valued what I was saying enough to push me through. So I wrote a poem to what started me. It was an ode to House Slam because it symbolizes so much, you know?
House Slam was started by two black queer women after they were ostracized by their former poetry community. I was half way through the poem and I broke down in the middle of it. Then I heard my competitor’s poem and the scores, and I thought for sure she had beat me and I was devastated. But it turns out I had the math wrong and we tied. We decided to share the win instead of going head to head. It was such a beautiful moment.
Which of your own poems is your favorite?
The poem that did the most justice for me during this season was a very vulnerable poem. It was “Space Time Continuum.” It’s about mental health and collapsing and being swallowed by the bad energy that followed my mother and sister. It was also about a forgiveness to my mom. I was so angry growing up with not knowing her and it helped me find some nuance in the story to think about what happened to her. I’m tired of it now but I was the most connected to that poem. I also never got below a 29.5 with that poem.
What about a non-original poem that inspired you along the way?
One of the first poems I saw was Porsha’s (co-founder of Haley House). She’s a performance poetry hero in a lot of ways. She holds this community and I’m grateful to be in a space with her. Before we became friends, I would watch her on YouTube. She has this poem called Water. It’s about the relationship between black people and water and how it traces back. It’s so beautiful. I’m friends with all the people I’m fans of. But that poem did it.
I’m looking on YouTube and there’s a lot of views for some of these videos. Was it strange when so many people started watching this very personal material of yours?
When Simon Says started to circulate I learned that people were using it in classrooms, and using it in orientations, and to talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. That felt like we had done something important. Slam poetry is bigger than elitist understanding of writing. It is important to communities and people.
On your bio it says that you are an organizer, mentor, educator, coach etc. Can you elaborate on those roles you play in the community?
Usually I try to coach a youth slam team, and I’m coaching the Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for House Slam. This year I’m co-organized the House Slam and other adjacent events with Porsha. I also started a rap slam in Boston because I’m a hip-hop artist primarily. I was thinking about all the ways we build community and challenge ourselves to be better artists through slam poetry. I want to do that with music.
Gentrification is not a conversation about not wanting to see white people or middle-class people in the area. It’s that now somebody cares enough to make it safe for them.
How are you giving back to your community?
I think I’m making decent strides as a musician particularly. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be in spaces I didn’t have access to growing up. Just from being a musician and doing well and hustling in that way, I feel like having those connections, I can plug people into spaces who otherwise wouldn’t have access.
And just speaking up for people who are being bullied by the world — that’s what I’ve been able to contribute. Also working with young people. I think that’s how I say, “Here’s what I have and I’m here to offer that to you.” The hope is that I get to a place in my career that will allow me to go as far as buying spaces and buying back some of the community from gentrification. That’s the hope.
Gentrification must be extremely hard for you to watch.
It breaks my heart every time I drive through Roxbury. I see the people I grew up with who deserve space and who deserve a place to call their own. They deserve to not be bulldozed out and I keep seeing it happen. One place where there used to be a housing development there’s an empty lot that’s about to be a high-rise luxury apartment.
I tried to move back to Roxbury over in what people are calling Fort Hill and I can’t afford the rent there. No one wanted to live in Roxbury before. You wouldn’t drive through Roxbury. Here’s the thing: gentrification is not a conversation about not wanting to see white people or middle-class people in the area. It’s that now somebody cares enough to make it safe for them, that their existence drives the price up for everybody else because now it’s valued.
Does gentrification feel like a giant unstoppable beast to you?
It feels like unless you’re a play-maker you can’t stop it. So I’m trying to be a play-maker.
What do you mean by that?
My career goal is to be a hip-hop artist on the large level. And hip-hop artists and athletes are on the same level in some ways with politicians. Who has the bank and power and the clout and the people listening?
Jay Z! Right? Chance the Rapper. That’s a dude who can mobilize his community, right? I want to do that. I want to be a play-maker and I want to say “Look, I got the money, I got the power, I got the clout, you can’t come in here and take these people out! You can’t do that!” My hope is that it happens before it’s too late, before Roxbury is unidentifiable.
Is there something that you would tell Boston if you could?
I think Boston needs to know that there are people under the buildings. This is more than zoning; this is more than a Starbucks and how much money that makes; this is more than how many tourists love Boston and how many technology guys are driving the economy.
The people who are pro-gentrification are the people who are already winning. There are people in these hoods who die for Boston. I know a lot of them. They die because they love their city and they won’t let anyone come in and do that. You got real soldiers for Boston. If the city doesn’t respect those people, it’s doing a huge disservice and it’s monstrous. Like, what even is a Seaport?
Do you slam about this?
I have a poem I’m working on now. It’s about the increasing invisibility of the people who are still here. I’ve realized that I can only do what I do best and use my privilege to leverage and hope that everybody else will do the same.
Check out Oompa’s website, where you will find other original poems and her debut record, November 3.