by Samira Sawlani

“Hype your writers like you do your rappers”, says JJ Bola. If ever there was a writer who deserved that hype, it’s Bola himself.

This Kinshasa born, London raised poet, educator and speaker arrived in the UK at 7 with his family as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As he settled into his new life, his passion for basketball, music, poetry and politics continued to grow. It is these, along with the experience of becoming a migrant, always between two homes, which are central themes in his poetry.

I have been familiar with Bola’s work through social media, his website and spoken word events he had performed at. He has previously published two books, Elevate and Daughter of the Sun, and is renowned on the poetry scene, appearing at a variety of festivals and events including Tongue-Fu and Vocals & Verses.

In fact, many consider Bola as one of the most important artists around due to his ability to express the injustices that mar our world today – be it racism or conflict – through the medium of poetry.

When compiling the list of Top Ten Poets of Colour 2014 there was no doubt in my mind that Bola deserved to be on it. Yet nothing prepared me for the hauntingly expressive work that features in his latest collection of poetry WORD.

In the tradition of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, political undertones run throughout WORD, while poems like “Refuge” and “Do I scare you are reminiscent of another legend, Benjamin Zephaniah, whose poems such as We Refugees” and “Neighbours” explore similar themes like race.

Like other contemporary poets of colour, such as Warsan Shire and Safia Elhillo, Bola weaves into his work the stories of his parents generation,  eloquently expressing the diaspora experience, and the love affair many have with distant homes.  Those struck by Warsan Shire’s “Conversations About Home” and Safia Elhillo’s Aghani will no doubt love Bola’s work.

In the poem “word to the reader”,  Bola reflects that writers “write because there is a relentless fire; a kind of perpetual burning or a harrowing heat ravishing them from the inside out”. Throughout the book the flames can be felt in every word and sentence. Each poem tells a story, the story of the diaspora, of the young black man, of the person left to grieve a loved one who is not just a statistic.

More tender still are the poems about mental health, patriarchy and societal pressures. In Missing Peace” he writes: “that you walk on road and play Russian roulette with your life, but the only reason you screw up your face and stare is because you want someone to notice you are alive”.

While “Looking for God” is a blissful piece of writing about resilience, courage and the beauty which lies within each of us, the poem ends with “when you understand that love is not something that you fall in, it is something that you become. It is what you are. It is what you do. That’s when you would have found God. That’s when you would have found you.”

There was one poem that brought out in me a medley of emotions, which has remained weeks after completing the book. “Refuge” is a piece of writing for those of us who left home, chased out by war or circumstance, arriving on snow filled streets with only memories and a feeling of being unwanted enveloping us, can relate to. The opening line was like a punch in the stomach:

“Imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. To have your grip ripped. Loosened from your fingertips somethings you so dearly held on to. Like a lover’s hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.”

Encapsulated in the poem is the burden of not belonging: “they called us refugees so we hid ourselves in their language until we sounded just like them.”

The burden of longing: “and know that deep inside the hearts of each and every one of us we are all always reaching for a place that we can call home.”

The burden of the father who speaks of home: “reaching. Speaking of familiar faces. Girl next door who would eventually grow up to be my mother. The fruit seller at the market.”

WORD encapsulates history, geography, psychology, philosophy, music and art, yet simultaneously it is memory, touch, consciousness and storytelling. While one cannot recover from the sheer torture of reading “Where Black bodies die (and the world doesn’t seem to care)” as it lyrically brings to light the tales of black lives reaching premature ends on the streets of America and the mines in the Congo, these are poems that uplift and empower, reminding the reader of their worth.

In the poem, “To those with wings for feet who keep on running”, he writes: “Fly like it was your 12th birthday and you just made the biggest wish and blew out a candle with a flame the size of the sun.” It was lines like that, which left the most impact on me and I soon realised this was because Bola’s writing articulates what so many of us feel as we watch the world go by, entrapped in our own thoughts and the greater injustices surrounding us.

In many ways WORD is not just poetry, it is a collage depicting much of what is going on in the world today, not as the newsreaders tell it, but how we as people experience it.  As Bola himself writes in “word”, “Writing is resistance. Literature is liberation. We write to remember; we write to never forget.” These words not only epitomize the entire book, but also leave the reader feeling just that; liberated, alive, powerful, holding in their hands a volume of poetry that once read, will never be forgotten.

Purchase WORD here.

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Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani


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