Poet Badu Mays Dishes on the Power of Words

Arts & Culture

At 10 years old, Badu Mays already knew she wanted to be a poet. That she made her decision fresh off of a victory in her elementary school’s poetry competition certainly helped sway her decision, but it was about more than just a trophy. “The poem was about love, which of course I knew nothing about at that age,” she says, “but when I saw the way people reacted to me on stage, it pretty much became my thing.”

Now 27, the Bradenton native’s work has evolved both in purpose and process, though she still leaves plenty of room for childlike creativity. “Sometimes I’ll have a word in my head and just go with it,” she says, “or I’ll just write whatever happens to come to mind.” In these cases, poetry is an unplanned manifestation of the creative spark, a feeling she writes out without fighting it. But when she takes to writing something with which she has no direct experience, she shows just how far she’s come since her poem about love 17 years ago. 

“I wrote a poem a few months ago about a young woman that was raped,” says Mays, “and she wanted to talk about it but because she was scared.” Mays sat down with the young woman to listen to her story, a difficult task even for a trained mental health counselor. “It’s hard putting yourself in someone’s shoes like that,” she says, “but everytime I perform that poem, so many women come up to me and tell me they’re glad I said it.” 

And on the eve of what was supposed to be a big Juneteenth performance for Mays—whose baby decided to arrive a little earlier than anticipated—she was set to also be the voice for the Black community. “I wrote a poem about police brutality called ‘I Could Never Imagine,’” says Mays, “and I wrote it kind of like a conversation I would imagine having with a Caucasian friend about the struggles of being Black.”  

Even though she won’t get a chance to perform the poem in front of the Newtown audience attending the Juneteenth celebration, Mays still has a lot to be hopeful for. “A lot of people don’t understand that my ancestors weren’t free until June 19th, 1865,” she says, “but in 2021, so many conversations have been started about the history of African Americans and I think more people are finally starting to understand what the day means to us.” 

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives established Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The same bill was approved on Tuesday by a unanimous Senate vote.

Tomorrow’s Juneteenth celebration begins at 11am and includes food from Black-owned vendors, musical guests and other spoken word artists. The event’s festivities will be taking place up and down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Photo courtesy of Juneteenth Celebration. Learn more here.

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