Idrissa Simmonds, Mahogany L. Browne + Jamila Woods Talk ‘Black Girl Magic,’ Strength & Possibilty [Interview]
The editing trio behind The BreakBeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic share thoughts on the strength, creativity, and wonder of black girls and women.
With the empowering poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic out (released April 3) and available for reading and discussion, the editing trio of Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds and Jamila Woods have taken this project from a conversation about hip-hop’s evolution (see: The BreakBeats Poets Volume 1) to an enthralling, deep, beautiful and heartbreaking dive into the world of black women.
Created by-and-for black girls, women, mothers, aunties and sisters — Browne, Simmonds, and Woods worked alongside 60 poets to develop a black-girl-centric world of their own. The book includes a host of painful, sexy, introspective, revolutionary, fiery and flossy contributions and subject matter. From Roya Marsh’s “Ode to Fetty Wap,” which, as the writer admits, was written after venturing to the strip club to Crystal Valentine’s “A Brief History of Coconut Oil,” which tackles the ups, downs and exhilarating moments of every black woman’s favorite hair moisturizer — Black Girl Magic offers an insightful and necessary look at what it means to be black, resolute and have a platform to share it loud and proudly.
This book is as relevant as it is timely, which is why we here at Okayplayer were honored to sit down with the Black Girl Magic editors to talk about how they were able to create this awe-inspiring work of mojo, giving a voice to black girls and women everywhere and the future possibilities that black people can make for themselves and others.
Okayplayer: First things first, all three of you are poets in your own right, but what were the means and ways that brought you all on to become editors for Black Girl Magic? Can you also talk about how you feel this book ties itself into (if at all) Vol. 1?
Idrissa Simmonds: A core part of my poetic practice is to engage with the work of others – it’s particularly important for me to spend time with the work of other black women because too often we are not canonized, critiqued, or analyzed in thoughtful ways. This anthology was an opportunity to acknowledge and see the work of women-identified writers and poets. Mahogany and I have workshopped and written together; she was familiar with the ways in which black women are centralized in my work, and in how as a writer, I am first and foremost a black woman. I’m honored that she knew I would approach this task with love and deep appreciation for the writers gathered here. The three of us first connected via video conference three years ago now, and the work grew from there.
I am a little sister to hip-hop, in that my eldest sibling and big cousins were born in Brooklyn as hip-hop was born. This imprint is everywhere in my work. After my family moved to Canada and I was exposed to classic rock, grunge, and folk, I discovered just how influential and far-reaching hip-hop music and culture is. This is where I see the links between BreakBeat Poets volumes 1 and 2: the artists in both collections engage in dramatically different poetic forms, cut across generations, and encompass the black diaspora. For my generation, I’m not sure if it is possible to not credit some portion of hip-hop culture and identity to your art form, whether that be cadence or flow or the cipher or the body as a percussive instrument. And of course – black women have always been central to the cipher. This collection is a celebration of this reality.
Jamila Woods: Mo had a conversation with Kevin [Coval] about wanting to do an anthology, then they reached out to me to see if I would want to be involved. Mo connected us with Idrissa and got her on board. It worked really well to have our trio of editors from different regions of the country and who all had slightly different networks of poets and artists to reach out to.
The first anthology was a lot about looking at how hip-hop music and cultural practice have influenced the craft of poetry. There is a power in looking back at the last few generations of poets writing in the age of hip-hop and being able to define and name it “breakbeat poetry.” In a similar vein, the Black Girl Magic anthology is looking at black women and femmes within and beyond that tradition of hip-hop, through the lens of Black Girl Magic. To me, Black Girl Magic is a way of black women and femmes seeing each other and being made visible in a context where we are constantly misrepresented and erased.
OKP: These times feel tumultuous, terrific and terrifying all at once for people of color. From the continued assault from police and authority figures to the successes of our creativity in popular culture to challenging notions in protest and action — it seems like we are fighting a never-ending battle on all fronts. In Black Girl Magic, subjects such as identity, the white gaze, black beauty and fighting for one’s freedom are written with such vividness that you feel every letter course through your veins. What were some of the proses written that gave you that same feeling? And how has working on this book inspired your own future work that you might be producing?
Mahogany L. Browne: The forward by Patricia Smith really encompasses all the ways in which we seek to place ourselves, as black girls / black women / black mothers and sisters. In reading this collection of roughly 60 women who are sharing their stories, the dialect and regions may differ but the power of introspection of the black woman body remains.
IS: I’m leaning into the possibility and creating is where I feel most possible. I read this collection and think of my ten-month-old black daughter, and have the nerve to feel optimistic about the world she might inhabit. Working on this anthology coincided with her birth and there was definitely an inspirational element to spending the time with so many incredible black women writers as this new black girl was coming into creation.
When I read Aja Monet’s words in this collection that she is “a woman carrying other women in my mouth”; or Roya Marsh: “As we scream SWUAAADDDD! / The weight of that bass / Hits hard; or Yesenia Montilla: “That is to say, my mother’s face / is a red stone and I wanted to be a diamond-” I feel myself expand. Each piece does this for me in a different way. Each poem left me convinced that we can envision bold new futures for ourselves, to paraphrase Adrienne Maree Brown, that we don’t need to bend to a sense of fear and impossibility.
JW: One of the things that I’m most proud of about this book is the way it’s organized. Instead of listing the authors in alphabetical order or organizing the sections by specific themes, we titled each section with a quote by a legendary Black woman. This way readers are able to draw their own connections between pieces and have a more expansive notion of how the poems relate to each other and to the title quotes.
OKP: If there was one key takeaway (and there were many) from this past weekend’s March for Our Lives protest around the country — it is that our young black girls are no longer OK with leading silently. Ms. Mahogany Browne, you mention that statement in your introduction, and I wanted to ask if you see the transition happening between being a symbol of civility and now demonstrating to the world an explosive warcry of change.
MLB: I’m not sure I’ve seen a change from the responsibility that namely black women have held as community members, supporters, and matriarchs. But if there has been a notable change, it may be from those benefiting from our labor. It feels like we’re in a time where people are finally using their platforms to show gratitude and cite black women for their efforts, in turn — these small nods of appreciation and celebration only fortify a human being. Which allows the well to replenish and the marginalized body to feel seen. This seemingly small act is truly a butterfly effect. A well rested, fully actualized and respected individual is far more valuable in the activism of community and civic engagement; as well as youth empowerment.
OKP: Black womanhood has been one of the major reasons why a man like myself has been blessed and protected. Ms. Idrissa Simmonds, may you talk about the bonds forged by yourself, your fellow editors and the poets in Black Girl Magic. Also, can you talk about the larger bonds that black girls and women have with one another that aren’t talked about in grander circles?
IS: These bonds look different for every black girl and women. There are black women who grew up with a whole crew of black girlfriends; black women who were the only black person in their school or neighborhood; black women whose aesthetics have been deemed “unacceptable” for black womanhood. All these experiences live alongside one another in this anthology and I hope to do some work to counteract any myths of some monolithic experience of black womanhood. Black women have often found themselves historically and culturally cast into the role of caretakers and protectors, and what was beautiful about working with Mo and Jamila was us as black women coming together to protect, nurture and create space for ourselves.
OKP: To those who have read Vol. 1 and are now hoping to get their hands on Vol. 2, Ms. Jamila Woods, may you share with the reader a non-spoilerific explanation at how Black Girl Magic deepens the work of the first book while breaking the mythology of hip-hop as an all-boys club? Also, may you speak on your own personal favorite pieces that you might go back to refill your spirit or add a bit of inspiration to your own work?
JW: This book features some poems that deal explicitly with hip-hop artists, such as “Ode to Fetty Wap” by Roya Marsh and “Cardi B Tells Me About Myself” by Eboni Hogan. There are also rappers like Noname and Lin-Z that contributed to the anthology. There are also examples of hip-hop poetic practice throughout the book: poems that use sampling, allusions, and shout-outs, poems that talk about places and represent where the speaker comes from, poems of affirmation and ego trippin’.
In addition to utilizing these elements of what we call “breakbeat poetics,” this anthology also offers a way of shifting the way we view black women in hip-hop. Ava Duvernay said, “To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” This book presents an alternate view of hip-hop that places black women and femmes at the center of the cipher and allows readers a more expansive view of our contributions to hip-hop cultural practice. For very real reasons, the narrative is often that black women are on the margins, but if we dig deeper it’s clear that there is a legacy of black women writers and artists who paved the way for hip-hop to exist.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the tradition of black women quilting during slavery times, stitching together pieces of old cloth to create something new that served as a tool for liberation. I can’t really think of anything more hip-hop than that. Those kinds of practices were a precursor to hip-hop as we know it.
OKP: Bringing up the March for Our Lives again, I wanted to get everyone’s thoughts and initial reactions to hearing the speeches by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nine-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King. What was it about seeing those moments in such a historical context that might’ve given you hope for the future?
IS: The youth lead the way. I believe this. I see this every day as an educator and facilitator. Black girls are stepping into their power today in a way I definitely didn’t feel capable of as an 11-year-old. Naomi and Yolanda give me an incredible sense of possibility – as do the black girls I see walking to and from the bus stop celebrating one another in their own way, or the black girls unafraid to rock braids and afro puffs at their all-white schools, and so on. Loving and honoring all black girls is key to the future we want to see.
OKP: More than 60 black women creatives fuel this world of their own. What were some highlight moments you all discovered while editing the book? Also, did anyone have any favorite titles that piqued your interest off G.P. (general principle)…?
MLB: The freshness and variety of the voices made this collection sing. Whether reading the crisp realism in Eve Ewing’s work; the abstract detail of a black woman’s worth in Morgan Parker’s work; or the subtle diction of displacement in Hiwot Adilow and Ariana Brown, this text is communion.
IS: One highlight for me was our editor’s retreat in Brooklyn, which was the first and only time we came together in person outside of our video conference meetings. The retreat is where the anthology began to take real shape when we began to think about which quotes we would use, and which piece would go where. Each of us is very different as artists and as women, and how we worked together in this retreat mirrors the breadth of work and experience that lives together in this collection. Different, necessary, and complimentary.
OKP: Last question, for those who might not be familiar with the literary works of Zora Neale Hurston and the like — how would you hip them to Black Girl Magic and the work of these stellar poetic voices?
IS: This is part of why we wanted to pay tribute to some of the black women writers who walked before us. I hope this collection leads someone to spend time with Zora Neale Hurston or Jamaica Kincaid or June Jordan or Pat Parker or Sonia Sanchez. If a reader follows the threads in this collection, they’ll be opened to an entire universe of black women magic.
JW: By using quotes from writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Pat Parker I think this book provides a bridge across generations of readers. Some might pick it up because they see a poem about Cardi B or Serena Williams, and then through the process of reading they will be introduced to a larger canon of Black women writers, which is beautiful.