My insides are beginning to feel more like factory than womb
See, my foremothers all birthed targets
And who am I to breed flesh and bone
To burden anyone with black
In a world already so dark
Tassiana Willis’ journey as a spoken word artist began with a need to be more visible in a world where she felt marginalized. The above verse from the poem, “Ode to the Almost,” is the 22-year-old’s response to others who question if she wants to be a mother someday. Her poem “I Am” touches on growing up without a father, and she challenges being the forgotten fat girl in the back of the classroom with “Size Doesn’t Matter.”
“I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m queer. I’m an intersectional being. And it’s time for me to tell my story,” says the San Francisco artist, who last year landed an inaugural two-year Emerging Arts Fellowship with Youth Speaks. The new fellowship is designed to support talented alumni of the Bay Area-based spoken word performance, education, and youth development organization.
Willis was 12 when she burst onto the teen poet slam scene, and in 2013 she was a Grand Slam finalist. She represented the Bay Area at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival, and performed in This is Home, an Off/Page Theater production with Richmond’s RAW Talent, based on an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting into conditions in Richmond’s notorious Hacienda public housing project.
In her first year as Youth Speaks’ Emerging Arts Fellow, Willis has continued to stretch herself, working as a facilitator in Anna Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field at Berkeley Repertory Theater, and performing in Babylon is Burning, a performance piece inspired by Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, staged at Z-Space earlier this year. She is also a co-curator and performer of SF Public Canvas, a large-scale, multimedia vertical dance collaboration happening in San Francisco’s Tenderloin this week, July 16 – 19. BANDALOOP is one of the producers of the event, which aims to spark dialogue about changes in the city’s Central Market-Tenderloin neighborhood.
“I’ve watched Tassiana expand to become an artist whose work is broader than her personal story,” says Hodari Davis, National Program Director of Youth Speaks. “And we want to continue to support her to become a transformational artist.”
Youth Speaks has influenced many Bay Area artists who have achieved national acclaim, from rapper Daveed Diggs, who won a Tony this week for his performance in Hamilton, to poet Chinaka Hodge, and musician and artist George Watsky. In the past, the mentorship that Youth Speaks offered such alumni was informal and relationship-based. The Emerging Arts Fellowship is an effort to formalize that support with training and an annual stipend of up to $34,000 and health care benefits.
“When we knew Daveed Diggs at 14, we never imagined he would go on to get a Tony,” adds Davis. “We’re engaged in a process to help Tassi accomplish things that we can’t even imagine for her in the future. I wish more institutions would invest in our young people’s potential.” — Text by Kelly Whalen