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Dean Atta interview – 'poetry can be life changing'

Dean Atta tackles the touchy subjects of homophobia in hip hop and the ‘reclaiming’ of the ‘N’ word

He’s been described as ‘one of the leading lights in London’s poetry scene’ and ‘the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation.’ He’s young, gifted and black. And gay. He’s not afraid to tackle touchy subjects like homophobia in hip hop or the ‘reclaiming’ of the ‘N’ word. His debut poetry collection is called ‘I Am Nobody’s Nigger’ – after a controversial poem he wrote commemorating Stephen Lawrence, which went viral on YouTube. Dean Atta doesn’t mince his words.

Can terms of abuse like the N-word ever be reclaimed?
‘The N-word was one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard before he was murdered in that attack. Some black people may use it as a term of endearment, but many also use it as a way of describing a certain type of black person who has more of a ghetto or criminal mentality. I’d prefer it if no one used that word to describe me.’

How do you feel about the word ‘queer’? Some gay people dislike it for similar reasons.
‘Earlier this year I took my mum to an LGBT History Month event where I was performing. The host used the word “queer” to describe one of the other acts and Mum asked me, “Isn’t ‘queer’ a bad word?” I didn’t think it was. I grew up with “Queer as Folk” on TV, so that word has always meant something positive to me. When I came out, the word “queer” was never used in a negative way towards me. Sadly, the words I heard were Jamaican-influenced words like “battyman” and “chi chi man” – quoted from dancehall lyrics.’ 

You tackled homophobia in hip hop in the BBC radio programme ‘No Homo: Hip Hop’s Last Taboo’. Are things improving?
‘Although Frank Ocean is an R&B singer and not a hip hop artist, the positive response to his coming out was really important. To see straight hip hop artists stand by him made a strong statement to homophobes in the community.’ 

This year saw UK Black Pride join forces with London Pride. What can gay politics learn from black politics?
‘If gay politics does not consider black politics or vice versa, not only do they deny a section of their own community, they fail to understand the meaning of equality. Unless there’s equality for everyone, there’s no equality at all. I think both groups could learn most from feminism because women’s voices are often marginalised in both black and gay politics.’ 

Can poetry change the world?

‘I believe it can – whether it’s one person picking up a poetry book or a video that goes viral on YouTube. Poetry can be life changing.’ 

‘I Am Nobody’s Nigger’ is published by The Westbourne Press.

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