This article originally appeared on Hunger TV.
On a sticky evening this summer Nego True scuffed the grainy polished marble floor of the Duveen galleries, an enclave buried deep in the confines of the Tate Britain. Fiddling with a cordless mic and dressed in dark blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a grey flat cap, he readied to open yet another evening of poetry. Nego, who is in his early twenties, plays co-host (and poet) at Poetry Luv, a segment in the Tate’s bi monthly live art showcase, Late at Tate. The gig is yet another milestone for True (whose inaugural solo show will arrive later this month); the latest in an emergent trail of spoken word artists surfacing from the English capital. We sat down with East Londoner to talk Britain’s spoken word scene, his debut EP Black Suit and frank nature of his work.
MANY OF YOUR POEMS COVER VERY PERSONAL ISSUES; DO YOU FIND IT HARD BEING SO OPEN WITH YOUR FANS?
The thing with being a poet is that a lot of it is written in the confinement of your own household without the thought of an audience. So when I write I never usually think about how people are going to take it. I genuinely write my poems in the form of a conversation, for example ‘Letter to My little Sister’ was a direct letter to my little sister. I’ve never made a piece with the intention of showing my heart to the world. Personally I’m not really a talker in one on one conversations, especially private stuff, so I guess poetry is my outlet.
FOLLOWING ON FROM THAT, AS YOU INCREASE IN POPULARITY, ARE YOU CONSCIOUS OF THE SPECTATORS WHEN WRITING WITHIN THE CONFOUNDS OF YOUR OWN HOUSEHOLD?
I think one of the most dangerous things in poetry or any sort of art is that it happens naturally. It is that natural thought, a natural instinct. If I feel strongly about a topic but it offends certain people I may take it out for my target audience. Naturally I think every artist may struggle with that, I think the only artists that dealt with that were Eminem or Amy Winehouse. They were upfront about their problems and that was without worrying about who is looking up to them or being a role model. They were considered controversial.
MANY OF BRITAIN’S SPOKEN WORD ARTISTS BEGAN AS RAPPERS, WAS IT THE SAME FOR YOU?
It was an accident, I delved into both rap and poetry and I found the beauty in both of them. When I was doing poetry, it wasn’t with the intention to become a poet, I was writing it more with the intention of documenting my thought process, but people began telling me I was good, so rather than me reaching out for the title of a poet I allowed it to reach out to me.
SPEAKING OF THE BRITISH SPOKEN WORD SCENE, IT SEEMS EXCITING AT THE MOMENT, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?
It’s a beautiful time but at the same time it’s people with the bravery to speak out about what most people cant. It’s interesting though. For example I made the poem ‘Daddy Are You proud of Me?’ and personally I don’t think it should get as much credit as it does. We come from a fatherless generation in the sense in the UK, everyone’s got issues with father but you’re telling me that this one kid who is a year into poetry and wrote a piece about fathers is seen as revolutionary. You’re telling me that everyone else is writing and nobody has delved into such a topic?
I think it’s quite amazing because growing up I didn’t know much about poetry. I didn’t really do to well in English; it’s funny now because I get called back into my old school to teach poetry. America’s always had Def Poetry Jam and the advantage of all of these things. In Britain we’ve come from an undeveloped scene. Any art form when you put it around other forms of art it stands out. You have George, you have Suli Breaks, you have myself who are mainly around rappers.
SO ARE YOU ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT WHAT’S TO COME IN THE FUTURE THEN?
Definitely, because I feel like we’re building a culture. I feel like what’s happening is that a new generation of us are coming along. Hopefully I can do something to improve the culture also, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a position where people listen to us. So I’m definitely excited for the next five, ten years.
YOUR DEBUT EP ‘BLACK SUIT’ IS NOW OUT. IS THERE A STORY BEHIND THE TITLE?
What nobody knows is that this time last year I was planning to quit poetry and music. I was going through a couple of real life situations, I just graduated from university, I had to; as they say, step up and be the man. So I decided that I was going to quit. The poetry was getting a great reception and I was enjoying it but it wasn’t paying the bills. I had things to look after my sister, my brother and my Mum to look after.
I planned to end 2013 with an EP called Black Suit and without telling everyone I was going to disappear, leaving everybody with that as my token. But then I ended up making ‘Daddy Are You Proud of Me?’ and with that I genuinely forgot to quit, it was taking me around the world, places I’d never been before. It was just expanding. The name Black Suit came after a funeral for one of my friend’s. The same suit I’m wearing to a funeral is the same I wear to an interview, to all of these different occasions. Black Suit represented something you could take to all of these different occasions.
THE SONG TITLES ON THE EP SEEN VERY SPECIFIC, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
I remember looking at tiles by Suli Breaks and other poems thinking these are sentences, ‘I will not let an exam result decide my fate,’ these were actual sentences. Then I made ‘Daddy Are You Proud of Me?’ and gave it the whole sentence. With regards to the project when you see poems like ‘Don’t lose her trying to keep her,’ I’m trying to summarise the poem in one line for you to be able to make a decision about if you want to listen to it or not. I have faith in a poem but I want you to understand what it’s all about. I’ve got a faith in a poem but I want you to understand what it’s about so a lot of the poems spoke for themselves in terms of title.
YOU TALKED ABOUT PERFORMING. WITH POETRY THERE IS RARELY ANY MUSIC TO HIDE BEHIND, DOES THAT MAKE LIVE SHOWS EVEN MORE NERVE WRACKING THAN THEY ALREADY ARE?
I’ve always said from the beginning that I get nervous just before I go on any stage. It could be three people, it could be five hundred, it could be three thousand. I look out into the crowd and they are making noise and I think they aren’t going to be quiet for me; they aren’t going to respect by the fact that I’m a poet. But for some reason from when I’ve said the first word I forget that I’m nervous, it puts me in a position where I’m having a conversation with the crowd. It feels like I’m here to talk to you, like a casual conversation, it’s a beautiful feeling. The moment you look out and see one or two people responding with facial expressions, I feel like I’m blessed to be able to do it.
HAVE YOU PERSONALLY GOT A LONG-TERM VISION?
You have to take consideration in any art form is that some of the greats are more selfish than we give them credit for. I genuinely believe that, life is about development rather than repetition, so when you hold on to the past, that’s repetition. When people say things like ‘you should do this or you should do poetry like this,’ what you do is you have another set of years of repetition rather than progress and when you look at some of the greats, they took what had come before them to another level.
With regards to myself I aim to be selfish but not in the sense of not helping but that was what I was born and raised doing. I guess that you can only set the road if you walk it first, so rather than me just staying here my whole career and talking about these situations, I’d rather be an example. I really want to take it to a position of expression and a platform that people can walk through it and get on, I’ve always said that people are quick to say why doesn’t the real stuff get publicised, why is it the silly stuff. I would never blame pop music or pop culture for it.
HAVE YOU HAD ANYBODY APPROACH YOU AND THANK YOU FOR THE IMPACT OF ONE OF YOUR PIECES?
It was actually yesterday, which makes the question a bit scary [laughs]. I usually get it face to face but this one was over Twitter, relating to ‘Daddy Are You Proud of Me?’ That poem was about five different kind of father figures, I try not to get specific about which one relates to myself. This guy said ‘I remember tweeting you a year ago about the poem and how much one of the first examples touched me but three days ago my Dad just died and now it feels weird because I can relate to all five and I want to say thank you because you’re helping me get through it.’
Things like that is not why I made the poem but it’s everything to me. To me that’s bigger than what I’m writing and I do have times when I’m just walking down the street and somebody genuinely thanks me. It’s something that helps me keep going. When you’re touching somebody else’s life, it’s the little things that always sort of keep you going.