Poets Slam Down on Social Issues Through Verse

Kevin Kantor and Queen Sheba explore identity, sexual assault, and love through slam poetry.

By Brooke Nagler

Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault

“When they tell you that your love is just a phase, tell them that you do not like the word just, that you are not just anything,” Kevin Kantor said in the quiet buzz of Hallowed Grounds on Thursday night.

These words were part of an evening of slam poetry on campus that featured two highly recognized performing artists. Kantor, a poet, teaching artist, and—as they say in their online bio—“queer agent of social change,” spoke first. They were followed by Queen Sheba, a poetry slam champion and Grammy-nominated artist. Both poets set their experiences to rhythm, composing a symphony of words as they delved into their struggles with homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, sexism, and racism. 

Conceived by students, the event was a collaboration between Lion & the Slam, a poetry RSO on campus, and Student Government’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Protection Committee (SAAP). The event aimed to support students in marginalized groups and survivors of sexual assault through artistic collaboration.

SAAP has been finding creative ways to spread their message of support for sexual assault survivors. In the fall, they engineered a photo campaign, taking pictures of about 200 students holding messages expressing solidarity with sexual assault victims. In the upcoming months, they plan to collaborate with Kitchen Sink, a visual arts RSO.

Kosi Achife, a first-year and member of SAAP, explained how the groups chose the two speakers for the evening. In selecting two queer artists—one of whom is a queer person of color—she said that Kantor and Queen Sheba “really encapsulate the intersectional approach that we are going for.”

The event certainly met its intended goal to be, in Achife’s words, a space that was diverse and inclusive. As the speakers filled the room with powerful words, the audience of about 25 was silent and captivated, as if every member could relate to the stories in some way.

Kantor went into detail regarding their experience with sexual assault through “People You May Know,” a poem they wrote about the time they found their rapist on Facebook. In the poem, they described how clicking through their rapist’s pictures online brought back traumatic scenes from the incident.

“It felt like the closest to revisiting a crime scene that I’ve ever been, that is if you do not count the clockwork murder that I make of my own memory every time that I drive down Colfax Avenue,” they said.

When Kantor shared their poem with the world, it circulated widely on the internet. They explained that while the work was lauded as a piece on male survivorship, it was also met with criticism; many people, like journalists, doubted their story and asked them to provide more substantial evidence.

“No one comes running for boys who cry rape. When I told my brother, he also asked me why I didn’t fight back. Adam, I am. Right now. I promise.”

Despite identifying as gender-queer, Kantor also talked about how their male privilege factored into the discussion surrounding their poem. They are constantly misgendered, even when wearing the shirt that they proudly displayed at the event—a white tee with their pronouns written boldly on the chest. “Just search ‘they/them rose,’” Kantor replied when an audience member asked them how to find it online.

Kantor ended their recitation with a poem they created as a response to a message they received on Tumblr. The message was from a young person whose grandmother refused to believe that they were gay. Kantor told them: “If anyone ever tries to tell you that you love wrong… tell them that you are sorry that they would rather live in darkness than learn to love your light.” At the end, they added “P.S. We hear you, loud and clear.”

After Kantor’s moving performance, Queen Sheba took the stage, with a presentation mirroring the grace with which Kantor divulged their difficult personal struggles.

Sheba started by saying that Kantor’s words about phases of attraction, along with caffeine, prompted her to compose a tweet, which she read to us in real time: “If I’ve been gay since fourth grade with S.D. when she slept over and taught me how to explore, at nine-years-old…were men ‘the phase’?’”

Sheba’s dialogue with Kantor, who then went into the audience, continued throughout the night, a testament to the interactive and collaborative environment of slam poetry. At one point, Sheba solicited the audience for questions, claiming she could solve our life’s problems. “I can’t do that,” Kantor comically interjected from the audience. Nevertheless, both were able to give helpful advice throughout the evening.

Sheba addressed a variety of people with her poems. She wrote a poem to her son and his grandmother, called “You Told My Son I Was Going to Hell Because I Have a Girlfriend.” She also discussed how difficult it is to be in public with her girlfriend—the stares, the taunts, and the gossip are reactions for which she would never have asked.

 “We are perfectly dysfunctional like any normal couple, but we’re not allowed to hold hands,” she said. “And if I get sick, her insurance doesn’t cover me—on paper, I’m her niece.”

She delves further, exploring the male gaze on her relationship. “Men don’t bother to whisper. ‘What a waste,’ they always say. ‘But you’re so pretty’ always follows.”        

At the end of the poem, Sheba admitted to us, “That was scary to read in front of y’all.” She finds intimate audiences more intimidating than big crowds, because the former are all watching and paying attention. If that’s the case, her performance belied her fear: She looked brave, bold, and eager to speak her mind as her poems confidently streamed from her lips, booming and reverberating.

She talked about her childhood, explaining that she was adopted by two white parents at an early age. “Adopting me, they said, was their effort to try to save the world. Good thing for them, their color would fade.”

Along with accounts of her childhood experiences, Sheba called on collective identities. In “We Are Warriors First,” she urged women struggling around the world to fight against sexism and refuse to stay silent. “This is about way more than taking back the night—it’s about taking back our lives.”

But while she spoke with fierce language of the universal nature of hardship, she also peppered the conversation with lightheartedness. She asked us about our favorite artists and our Chicago crushes. We argued over our opinions of Future, and she admitted her celebrity crush is Tracee Ellis Ross.

Sheba’s fiancée, an artist known as DJ Knodat, sat at the turntables on the side of the stage during Sheba’s performance. “Going through this relationship… exposes a lot of me that [I was concealing] for so long…I’ve been Queen Sheba for so long. That’s all I knew how to be.” 

With this confession, she offered us advice. She urged us to remember that we are all putting on facades to become the characters we want to be. In order to really know someone, you have to make a concerted effort.

“Give people a chance, and then give them a second chance,” she said.