Former Foyle Young Poet Ruby Mason interviews poet, grime MC, rapper, and academic Melz, whose work aims to decolonise the British curriculum. They talk about up-and-coming British poets, the role of art in politics, and her experiences as a student and Leeds’ Education Officer.
You have been described as a rapper, a grime artist, and a poet. How would you define your work?
As feeling. I write what I feel and how I feel. Whether it’s to a beat or the perfect sound of silence, my work is borne out of feelings of happiness, sorrow, anger, frustration, pain, loss, regret, lows – and highs.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
The people around me and all they teach me about love, my life, the world around us and the impact we can have on it. Even if they’re not “creative” themselves, it’s important to recognise creativity comes in so many forms. It takes creativity for a lot of people to simply survive and get by – this is the form of creativity that inspires me the most. The black women that raised me are experts in this kind of creativity and I learn from them every day.
What are you reading and listening to at the moment?
Well, I’ve just started my PhD so a lot of the things I’m reading are academic articles. My thesis looks at how colonisation continues to affect black British mental health, and the way black British people have developed survival methods in opposition to this – so I’ve been immersing myself in literature around those issues. In my masters I explored some really fascinating ideas around the concept of modernity, Afrocentrism, precolonial spirituality and Afrofuturism.
I recently read Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle after receiving it in the post as a surprise from an anonymous person – so if you’re reading this – thank you! I’ve just started reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi which is incredible so far.
Music-wise J Hus’ Common Sense album is an absolute masterpiece and I’ve had it on repeat ever since he dropped it. I’m also really feeling Noname, Hardy Caprio, Chance the Rapper, 67, Kehlani, Young T & Bugsy and Ray BLK. Jhene Aiko’s new album, Trip, and Jamila Woods’ HEAVN are both beyond beautiful.
Definitely! Living in Leeds has taught me the Northern scene is slyly poppin’. My bro Ogun is an up and coming Leeds poet who writes such powerful pieces on topics like black masculinity, love and race. You should check him out here.
You do a lot of freestyling. How do you manage to produce such long and intricate raps in one take?
Work on your craft and you will eventually perfect it. I’m very far from perfection but I appreciate rap and spitting as a beautiful craft and treat my praxis of it as such, and this helps me massively as an artist.
Your Stormzy-inspired campaign video for the Leeds University Education Officer position went viral, and foreshadowed the prominent role that grime and grime artists played in the recent general election. What place do you think poetry and music have in politics?
I like this question, and the idea of foreshadowing, I hadn’t even thought about it in that way. The role of poetry and music in politics is crucial. We have seen through Grime4Corbyn the political power that can be cultivated through the arts in an election. A lot of people would have thought that grime artists were some of the most unsuspecting political activists, but Grime4Corbyn was almost inevitable. Grime was borne out of the struggle and lifestyle of some of the most deprived communities in London. It makes sense that grime claims a greater stage nationally, grime artists begin speaking out against the government that continues to disenfranchise our communities. Dave, a UK rapper, released an incredible song called Question Time recently, calling out the government on a number of issues from Grenfell to Palestine. There is so much more to come. Young black British people are sick of the Tory government and have no qualms about saying it. The role of music and poetry in politics is only going to grow and intensify. We are yet to witness just how influential this political lobby is.
As Education Officer, you headed the campaign ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ which aimed to tackle the blind spots and biases in UK education curriculums. What problems do you see in our curriculums, and what can be done to alleviate them?
There are innumerable problems in the curriculum and University spaces – and there is no silver bullet that will deal with it unfortunately. We all just need to engage in the collective struggle to challenge colonial narratives everywhere we see them.
You recently released a track about an often-overlooked historical figure, Olive Morris. Who was she and what compelled you to write about her?
She was a Brixton Black Panther and activist, amongst a number of things. I wrote about her because black British history is so overlooked and erased. I hope to write more songs about the more intricate parts of our history as I learn more about it.
What are the most important things that you have learnt at university, and outside it, during your time as a student?
You can do anything. You can impact the curriculum of an entire university. You can challenge mind-sets. Black women and non-binary people are amazing. They will be your support, your refuge and your teachers. You will always be overworked. Exhaustion will be a familiar friend. Never forget where you came from or why you are doing what you are doing. Take the opportunities that come your way. But remember to protect your energy. Your mental health will be tried and tested. Take time out. You owe no one more than you owe yourself. Take care of yourself. Never lose your creativity as it is your most important release. The friends that remain close are your family. Take care of them. Let them take care of you. Take care of your family. Love.
Melz is a grime MC, poet, rapper and academic. She is passionate about decolonising knowledge and spaces and writes extensively about this in her music and poetry. She has worked with platforms such as TEDx and The Huffington Post where she offers poetic and musical responses to some of the most critical issues facing our society and political system. Melz is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Leeds in which she is exploring the ways colonisation continues to affect black British mental health. Follow Melz on Twitter @MelzDot and like her Facebook page for updates about her music, poetry, and academic work.
Ruby is a former Foyle Young Poet and former intern at the Poetry Society. She grew up in England, and currently lives in Berlin, splitting her time between two magazines: contemporary art publication frieze, and SAND, a Berlin-based international literary journal.