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19-Year-Old South African Slam Poet Lee Mokobe Delivers A Powerful Poem On Being Trans

19-year-old South African slam poet Lee Mokobe delivers a powerful poem on being transgender at the TEDWomen 2015 conference.


Lee Mokobe speaking at TEDWomen2015. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

Last month, South African slam poet and the youngest TED2015 Fellow Lee Mokobe was invited to give a talk as part of the TEDWomen conference in Monterey, California. During the event, the 19-year old poet and activist, whose work deals with social injustice and gender identity issues, delivered a stirring autobiographical poem in which he came out as transgender. "I was the mystery of an anatomy, a question asked but not answered, tightroping between awkward boy and apologetic girl, and when I turned 12, the boy phase wasn't deemed cute anymore," the Cape Town-born founder of South African youth poetry slam team Vocal Revolutionaries said.

Watch Lee Mokobe address the history of his gender expression, suicide rates among trans youth, and the recent media focus on Caitlyn Jenner in the video below. For more, revisit our interview with the rising poet. Mokobe is currently raising funds to attend his final Brave New Voices International Youth Slam Poetry Festival in Atlanta next month.

"The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral.

I was kneeling long after the congregation was on its feet,

dip both hands into holy water,

trace the trinity across my chest,

my tiny body drooping like a question mark

all over the wooden pew.

I asked Jesus to fix me,

and when he did not answer

I befriended silence in the hopes that my sin would burn

and salve my mouth would dissolve like sugar on tongue,

but shame lingered as an aftertaste.

And in an attempt to reintroduce me to sanctity,

my mother told me of the miracle I was,

said I could grow up to be anything I want.

I decided to be a boy.

It was cute.

I had snapback, toothless grin,

used skinned knees as street cred,

played hide and seek with what was left of my goal.

I was it.

The winner to a game the other kids couldn't play,

I was the mystery of an anatomy,

a question asked but not answered,

tightroping between awkward boy and apologetic girl,

and when I turned 12, the boy phase wasn't deemed cute anymore.

It was met with nostalgic aunts who missed seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts,

who reminded me that my kind of attitude would never bring a husband home,

that I exist for heterosexual marriage and child-bearing.

And I swallowed their insults along with their slurs.

Naturally, I did not come out of the closet.

The kids at my school opened it without my permission.

Called me by a name I did not recognize,

said "lesbian,"

but I was more boy than girl, more Ken than Barbie.

It had nothing to do with hating my body,

I just love it enough to let it go,

I treat it like a house,

and when your house is falling apart,

you do not evacuate,

you make it comfortable enough to house all your insides,

you make it pretty enough to invite guests over,

you make the floorboards strong enough to stand on.

My mother fears I have named myself after fading things.

As she counts the echoes left behind by Mya Hall, Leelah Alcorn, Blake Brockington.

She fears that I'll die without a whisper,

that I'll turn into "what a shame" conversations at the bus stop.

She claims I have turned myself into a mausoleum,

that I am a walking casket,

news headlines have turned my identity into a spectacle,

Bruce Jenner on everyone's lips while the brutality of living in this body

becomes an asterisk at the bottom of equality pages.

No one ever thinks of us as human

because we are more ghost than flesh,

because people fear that my gender expression is a trick,

that it exists to be perverse,

that it ensnares them without their consent,

that my body is a feast for their eyes and hands

and once they have fed off my queer,

they'll regurgitate all the parts they did not like.

They'll put me back into the closet, hang me with all the other skeletons.

I will be the best attraction.

Can you see how easy it is to talk people into coffins,

to misspell their names on gravestones.

And people still wonder why there are boys rotting,

they go away in high school hallways

they are afraid of becoming another hashtag in a second

afraid of classroom discussions becoming like judgment day

and now oncoming traffic is embracing more transgender children than parents.

I wonder how long it will be

before the trans suicide notes start to feel redundant,

before we realize that our bodies become lessons about sin

way before we learn how to love them.

Like God didn't save all this breath and mercy,

like my blood is not the wine that washed over Jesus' feet.

My prayers are now getting stuck in my throat.

Maybe I am finally fixed,

maybe I just don't care,

maybe God finally listened to my prayers."

Interview

Interview: The Awakening of Bas

We talk to Bas about The Messenger, Bobi Wine, Sudan, and the globalized body of Black pain.

The first thing you notice when you begin to listen to The Messenger—the new investigative documentary podcast following the rise of Ugandan singer, businessman and revolutionary political figure Bobi Wine—is Bas' rich, paced, and deeply-affecting storytelling voice.

Whether he is talking about Uganda's political landscape, painting a picture of Bobi Wine's childhood, or drawing parallels between the violence Black bodies face in America and the structural oppression Africans on the continent continue to endure at the hands of corrupt government administrations, there is no doubt that Bas (real name Abbas Hamad) has an intimate understanding of what he's talking about.

We speak via Zoom, myself in Lagos, and him in his home studio in Los Angeles where he spends most of his time writing as he cools off from recording the last episode of The Messenger. It's evident that the subject matter means a great deal to the 33-year-old Sudanese-American rapper, both as a Black man living in America and one with an African heritage he continues to maintain deep ties with. The conversation around Black bodies enduring various levels of violence is too urgent and present to ignore and this is why The Messenger is a timely and necessary cultural work.

Below, we talk with Bas aboutThe Messenger podcast, Black activism, growing up with parents who helped shape his political consciousness and the globalized body of Black pain.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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