Wednesday, September 10, 2008

INTERVIEW: Oni The Haitian Sensation

Interview by Tony Martins
Photography by Aaron McKenzie Fraser

To begin, some interesting facts about Oni the Haitian Sensation: She reveals her legal name only when filing an income tax return. She speaks four languages: English, French, Creole, and Spanish. She is a single mother who takes her three young sons—aged 8, 9, and 12—to parent-child yoga classes. Her first published collection of spoken word poetry, Ghettostocracy, was named a Globe and Mail book of the year in 2006. Her parents are Haitian, but she was born in Montreal and has never been to Haiti. She won a badminton scholarship to Seneca College in Toronto. She recently performed in a local production of The Vagina Monologues. She will be the subject of an upcoming National Film Board documentary. She almost certainly knows more about Canadian history than you do.

And this little factoid barrage is really only the beginning. Oni is never at a loss for biographical items of interest.

For instance, when Guerilla asked her if she would reveal her age, Oni offered much more in typical bombastic fashion: “I am a good-looking 34-year-old foxy mommah, born November 7th, 1972—a Scorpio—in the Year of the Rat and the last wonder year in the Nixon reign.”

Oni, you see, is not hiding from anybody. She is committed to celebrating herself and her hard-edged yet smoothly flowing rhymes. Though she’s been doing her thing for years as a major figure in Ottawa’s (and Canada’s) spoken word scene, her Ghettostocracy book has exploded and she is more than enjoying the ride.

One more fact: Oni has a brain, a body, a pair of lungs, and a set of typing fingers that rarely sit still. Conducting the Q&A session that follows was the easy part. Editing it down to a manageable size was another matter.
Ghettostocracy was published by Toronto’s McGilligan Books and launched in November of 2006? When did you start writing it? How did you get hooked up with the publisher?

Oni: Some of the poems in Ghettostocracy were written as far back as high school. I kept on writing until the editor said "STOP," which was in August of 2006.

I hooked up with the publisher when I got scouted at the Dub Poetry Festival in Toronto in 2005. Plus, I threw a tantrum—it got me noticed—because I sat in the audience of a publishing panel which discussed how hard it was for poets to get published. I felt that they were preaching to the choir. I was annoyed. I asked the panel who was going to publish my book and voilà, here I am, as an author!
I got 13 rejections the year before. I have no issue with rejection. I say: "Oohhh baby your lips say ‘no’ but your eyes say ‘yesss... oh, yesss Oni Oni yesss.’”

I found your poem "Have you ever walked in these shoes?" particularly affecting. It seems both highly personal and symptomatic of the human condition. I'm intrigued at the number of questions you pose to the reader. Is this to pull he or she into your experiences—or is there another reason?

I am asking people to look deep within themselves and question their well being. Are you happy? Are you doing what makes you happy in love, in life, etc.?

You see, being me is not e-z. I had to sacrifice so much to be where I am today. I had my children young—no time for play—my career in the arts began early—then I had to quit performing for eight years to take care of the boys. I was in bad relationships, poor and homeless at one time.

I am often debating between paying rent and buying  groceries—in Canada, land of abundance!—doing what I do, and doing it well, and managing to make ends meet and take care of my children.
In the poem, "I am not afraid to say I am in pain" you take a harsh look at police brutality and their lack of morality, but I get the feeling that you are not literally blaming the "pigs" for the fact that "the race is dying." Am I right?

You are right. The police is part of the problem. Politicians and people in power let this abuse go on. One of the compliments I got for Ghettostocracy is that I “use words the way that police use bullets to shoot and kill Black people."

In the poem "I knead your nuts" you do some hilarious ball-busting in an extended commentary on both the pleasure and pain associated with men's nuts. Can you talk more about your love/hate relationship with these potent little nuggets?

I love my "cashews" roasted over my open fire. "Pecans" made my belly big. Pecans, they almost made me choke when they tried to make my life a joke. I sucked the chocolate off your nuts, let them melt in my mouth, in my hands, all over my body. Nuts love me. I'm the nut cracker. I treat em' right, they treat me bad. I knead my nuts... and nuts love me.

In "The World is Yours" you offer a powerful antidote to Ghettostocracy by drawing upon your wellspring of optimism. How difficult is if for the average ghetto-ized individual to be similarly optimistic? And how important is it?

Change begins with you. We always bitch about the world, thinking that others don’t have to do what we want done. You want change? Make change happen or shut the fuck up. No one wants to take accountability. Arrrgh, change is not easy. That poem is for my youth; being an individual is key.
You recently read from Ghettostocracy in Halifax. How did those performances go?

I flew through a blizzard, got off the plane and landed on stage. The first performance was so intense—amazing—I was covered in sweat and I had to lose a layer of clothing. The following day I performed at Dalhousie University and caused a ruckus when I told my new friends that they go to "Gangsta U."
”Why?” they asked. I told them that Lord Dalhousie was the Governor General of Canada who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal. Early in the War of 1812, an expedition under Lord Dalhousie left Halifax to capture the area of Castine, Maine, which they held for the entirety of the war. The revenues from this invasion were used to found Dalhousie University.

You have met the Governor General Michaëlle Jean—another Haitian sensation—but you have not yet performed at any of her functions. What's the story there?

I met the GG at an event at the Congress Centre in 2006. It was cool. Senator Nancy Ruth connected me with the GG, who spoke to me in Kreyol for about 15 minutes. I was in awe! Never in my life did I think that I would be chatting in Kreyol with a Canadian GG! When she asked me about my work, I briefly discussed the issues I address with my poetry. When I told her that I was a single parent of three she told me "God Bless You" and she invited  me to  visit her at Rideau Hall to find out more about my work.

Michaëlle Jean is one of my heroes! I'm so proud of her!  When I got my review copies of Ghettostocracy, I sent one to the GG because I show her much much love, props, and admiration. When I called in Februrary to see if she had seen it, it was not there: "quel mystère et boule de gomme! " Still she has not heard of Ghettostocracy. I would love to perform my poetry for her at Rideau Hall!

Haiti could be described as a "ghetto" that our federal government is very keen to aid and support (the only country we do more development work in right now is Afghanistan). But many people are critical of this kind of aid, saying it doesn't have enough impact. What's your position on this complex issue?

Our government has a serious misdiagnosed imperialism complex. When they were in Haiti "keeping the peace" they were sun tanning on Haiti's beautiful beaches while Haiti has been raped by the mercantile interests of Canada and other nations.

Canada has no interest in saving the invaluable Black lives in Haiti—but it will keep on extracting Haitian resources. Haiti was called the Pearl of the Antilles—it was France's wealthiest colony and the most "African island" in the Caribbean.

I see photos of Haiti all of the time. The land of my ancestors is gorgeous, yet if you go to a travel agency in Ottawa, Haiti will never be a travel destination. The world keeps Haiti unruly and inaccessible to most since Haiti butts Cuba—and a drug triangle-shaped like... a "pentagon."
Do you think Ottawa has a ghetto?

Ottawa has many ghettos, poverty stricken urban areas. This is an important question since there are ghettos all over the world, even in wealthy nations. These nations offer bilateral aid to other nations that most definitely need it, but they ignore their own poor. That shit ain't right.

Are you planning any major projects for the future? New books? Reality TV show? World tours?

I have seven manuscripts ready to be published. I need to make Ghettostocracy into a CD, I need to make my Bedside Booty Book CD into a book. I'm working on a documentary on HIV-Aids in Ottawa we hope to have it done this Fall. I'm getting back into visual arts. I would love to go on Oprah, break into acting—I want to take the world by storm!

Think you could you whup my ass at badminton?

Hell yeah! When do you want to play?
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For more on Ghettostocracy, visit the publisher's website.

Oni's makeup by Margaret Deneumoustier,  MAC St. Laurent

Source: GetGuerilla

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