We’re all artists at heart and at one time or another it’s likely we’ve used either writing, music, art or dance as a form of self-expression. One rising artist taking her writing to the next level is poet Sophia Thakur. Having just graduated from university this summer Sophia is looking forward to a new chapter in her life and the prospect of doing her artistry full-time – an art-form which she has been immersed in since her early teens.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to explain what spoken word is. You come into my household and you mention poetry…(laughs). Having to bring my parents around to help them understand what performance poetry was – they just didn’t get it. I’ve thrown myself and the people around me into this poetry world. But, it’s really easy to ignore because it’s not mainstream or as in your face as music or dancing is.”
Although it still isn’t as mainstream as other forms of self-expression, poetry, or spoken word as it is often referred to, is still growing rapidly. And, as a result there is the opportunity to experiment. Something which Sophia has been exploring – particularly with music. “I [released] an EP but it was just three poems. In fact, I even called it a 3P. I was working with two producers on that. One of them is the number 1 freestyler in the UK now. We worked to poetry and music. Both of my brothers are musicians as well. So, a lot of the time we infuse things. When I’m performing sometimes I have instruments behind me but I still prefer just me and the microphone.
I’ve always said my favourite part of performing is hearing the silence after a line break or a verse break. You’re literally hearing nothing but the sound of people listening to you. And that, to me is just ‘…wow, you’re listening to me’.”
Historically Spoken Word is a form of poetry that came out of the civil rights movement in America during the 1960s. 30 years on Chicago poet Marc Kelly Smith spearheaded the movement of open-mic style poetry sessions and slam poetry was born. In 1990 Smith pulled off the first ever National Poetry Slam and the rest, as they say, is history. Music mogul, Russell Simmons eventually capitalised on this exciting, fresh art-form and Def Poetry Jam was born. Def Poetry Jam ran from 2002 until 2007 and it was through this show that Sophia got her first taste for spoken word. She revealed,
“I remember the first spoken word I heard. [It was] Shihan from Def Poetry Jam ‘This Type Love’. I remember thinking I want to do that. He was so good and he had so much charisma. And, it was the first time I’d seen poetry brought to life – off the page. “
It was however her love of hip hop that initially fuelled her passion for storytelling. Rappers such as Nas and Cyhi the Prynce inspired the then-teenager to begin writing herself, “I listened to a Cyhi the Prynce song ‘Hear Me Out’. He just told a whole story and I remember thinking I want to write a story.” Her first few attempts didn’t go that well, “…it was really, really, bad. I still remember it (laughs). Because, I was so used to listening to these hip hop artists I just assumed that when you’re writing this is what you talk about. So, for my first verse I was talking about brothers in the hood. I live in the suburbs! (laughs)”
By now the seed was sown and as Sophia’s confidence grew she was able to tap into external sources of inspiration. “There are a few poems that I’ve got out now like ‘Beat Box’ and ‘Drunk’ that aren’t necessarily about myself. ‘Beat Box’ is about a girl who is abused by her father. And ‘Drunk’ is about a girl that gets drunk and ends up pregnant. It’s not as crude as I’ve just said (laughs). It is actually quite beautiful to listen to it (laughs). It’s quite poetic. I remember when I first started writing [it]. I always explain it as an orgasmic feeling. ‘With ‘Beat Box’ it starts off with me beatboxing into a microphone and I remember – this is going to be a bit unbecoming, but I was sitting in my bathroom and I remember saying [to myself] that I want to beat box in a poem.
Then the first line came to me and I ran – obviously I washed my hands (laughs) – and I ran into my room and I just could not stop writing. I could not take the pen off the paper. I don’t think I stopped. I was telling the story of a girl who is in love with music. And, music is her distraction from her father. And her father comes in and he’s like DMX. He’s really angry so she confides in Wu Tang, Prodigy and Havoc. It’s all just hip hop. It ends with a short verse where I’m basically saying she’s like a drum – the harder you hit her the louder she is going to sound. Or like a guitar, the more you run your fingers through her the more experienced she’s forced to become. So, it’s essentially linking the passion and pain that goes into music and the pain that she went through. I literally put myself in her shoes. I didn’t even know anyone with that story at the time. Something took over me and I got to the end of the poem and it was very much a (exhales deeply). I’ve written loads of poems but I’ve got about seven or eight poems that the writing experience has been like that.”
At the time of our interview Sophia is days away from a solo performance at Glastonbury Festival. Whilst she is understandably nervous she is much more self-assured and is no longer afraid of the artist she has become. Which, is a far cry from how she felt about a year ago. However, an invitation to host a TED Talk a few days before her 20th birthday presented the opportunity to give Sophia the release and confidence as an artist that she was looking for. “It was me basically saying this is who I am and this is all real to me. And, I’m not a contradiction. Obviously I’m not talking about being vegan, I’m not talking about being vegetarian – I’m not talking about any of that. But I’m assumed to be all these things. It was a positive moment for me.” It was then that she realised that the main thing that was holding her back was not actually the expectations of others, but her guilt for not conforming to these stereotypes. “When I embraced the whole of Sophia – writing was great. Writing was enjoyable after that.”