Empowerment through poetry

On September 5, 2013

Samira Obeid had seen clips of spoken word poetry, such as Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Poetry, on YouTube before.

But when a co-worker at USF World took Obeid, a graduate student in women’s and gender studies, to The Bunker in Ybor for an open mic night in 2011 that featured local spoken word poets from around the Tampa Bay area, she was shocked.

“I was like, ‘Damn! This is so good,’” Obeid, now an award-winning spoken word artist who will be performing on campus tonight, said. “I didn’t even think it could be local. I didn’t think this was something people were doing around me. I didn’t know I could just walk in to a coffee shop and it would be there.”

That night Obeid and her co-worker made a pact: both of them would write a poetry piece to be performed at the open mic night the following month.

***

Obeid has had plenty of sources to draw inspiration from.

Writing had always been her passion for as long back as she could remember. She began writing creatively in fifth grade when she wrote short stories for her school’s magazine.

“I’ve always written,” she said. “I’ve always considered myself a writer. What kind of writer, I’ve never specified. Whether I was doing journalism or writing essays or schoolwork, I knew my writing was up there. It’s always been something I was obnoxiously confident about.”

Obeid immigrated to the U.S. from India in 2007 at the age of 23 to study journalism at the University of Michigan.

But living in India, Obeid said it was difficult to live as a lesbian woman.

She spent much of her life hiding her sexual identity for fear of being jailed in a country in which homosexuality was illegal until 2009. Once, a police officer beat her face because she looked homosexual, she said.

When she moved to the U.S., the fear continued. She feared being shunned by the Indian community in America.

Until a few years ago, she was unable to identify herself publicly as being attracted to women.

“Obviously, all my friends knew, but we never had a single conversation about it,” Obeid said. “I can tell you for a fact that I talk about being gay on a regular basis now because it is just part of my identity, where as until 2009 or 2010 I couldn’t even say the word lesbian in association to my name. Anytime someone would ask me, I would say I was straight.”

After 11 months at the University of Michigan, however, she said she needed to move.

“I needed a place where I could succeed at things other than academics which Michigan, weather and all inclusive, did not provide,” Obeid said.

In 2008, Obeid made the decision to transfer to USF where she had previously been accepted to the multimedia journalism program.

That’s where Obeid met the co-worker who took her to the open mic night.

***

One month later, Obeid returned to The Bunker to perform a piece she had written called “Boxes.”

“I didn’t want to play anymore.

“The boxes I had as a child had friendly, happy sides on them. They said books, music, kitchen, puppy.

“But these boxes, they had names that sounded like the ones I gave to monsters under my bed.

“They said religion, race, gender, heterosexual. They said man, woman, hatred, oppression, war… I’ve spent all of my life running from boxes with ugly, black, permanent marker ink smudged across their distorted surfaces.”

Much of Obeid’s poetry deals with the prejudices she’s seen.

One of her early poems, “Smack,” references the encounter she had with the police officer.

“It’s not intended for people to say ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry,’” Obeid said. “The ending of the poem is basically ‘sticks and stones.’ You can beat me as many times as you want, but I’m still standing, I’m still breathing and guess who’s not going anywhere.”

***

Since her first performance, Obeid has gone on to perform at coffee shops and open mic nights in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

“That’s how it started,” she said. “I only did performances very sporadically after that like every four to six months. It was only until recently that I’ve really started producing and performing a lot.”

Last year, Obeid was selected to perform in a spoken word competition at the Fresh Fruits Art Festival in New York, where she won the Audience Award for Best Spoken Word Artists.

“The audience was so amazing,” she said. “The energy was just ... You could just feel it — it was relentless. It was as if they were saying ‘We will make a good poet out of you!’ It just felt so right. Like, in this moment, this is where the universe intended for me to be.”12

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