When Dean Atta first wrote his groundbreaking poem, "I am Nobody's Nigger", it sparked a much-needed debate about the use of the term whether it was in hip-hop songs or on the streets. Atta's thesis was succinct. The N-word had too much dirt under its nails, and was not in any way a positive affirmation of blackness as some cultural critics have argued over the years. The poem, which had a rigorous, anthemic quality quickly went viral and Dean Atta, a performance poet with a controlled, charismatic presence, had found his home within the digital afrosphere and beyond it.
He soon published a collection of poetry, also called "I am Nobody's Nigger", which garnered much critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. When asked about the genesis of the poem, Atta elegantly breaks it down:
"I feel like that poem wrote itself. It only took me half an hour to put it to paper and edit it. I had no idea at the time what a stir it would cause online or what a coup it would be for my career. At the time I was angry about racism in the UK but the poem came out as something a lot more universal, as I found out when invited to perform in America, South Africa and the Caribbean because people there had heard my poem and agreed with its sentiments."
What inspired him to pursue poetry as a career?
"It was simply invitations to perform places and offers of commissioned work. Had I faced a lot of resistance and rejection when starting out I doubt I would have continued. I did lots of acting as a child and teenager and the rejection you face in that industry was never something I enjoyed. Whereas with poetry you are in control for longer, you usually write alone and rehearse alone and only when you feel ready do you perform or publish. This definitely suited me better."
Does he feel that there's a long way to go in terms of the mainstream acceptance and appreciation of black literature in the UK?
"Yes but that's just a reflection of the position of black people in British society. Institutional racism exists in the publishing and entertainment industries just as it does in the media, schools and police."
With regards to whether he feels that there are certain expectations of him as a prominent black, gay poet that might not be applied to a straight, white, male poet, Atta says:
"For a writer I'm still pretty young, so I have a lot of freedom to experiment with my style and subject matter and audiences. Being a performance poet means I can test out my new poems at open mic nights whenever I feel like it. This way I know if what I've written feels right when I read it to a room of strangers and can roughly gage if it's been received the way I intended it to be."
Dean Atta is a poet who's gifted, politically engaged and rigorous in his approach to his work. This is a potent mix and an appealing one at that. I ask him what advice he would give to his thirteen-year-old self and his response is wise and winningly direct:
"I wouldn't tell him anything, he was blissfully innocent and ignorant about so many things. I think most thirteen-year-olds these days don't have that kind of shield from the horrors of the world."
Dean Atta's "I am Nobody's Nigger" (The Westbourne Press) is out now.