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Lee Mokobe: How Can We Make Sense Of Ourselves Through Poetry?

May 14, 2021
Originally published on May 25, 2021 7:56 am

Part 4 of TED Radio Hour Episode The Artist's Voice

How can art be a tool to better understand ourselves and the world around us? Poet Lee Mokobe shares what it was like to grow up trans in South Africa, and how language can be a tool for change.

About Lee Mokobe

Lee Mokobe is a slam poet based in South Africa. Their writing tackles social justice issues and explores LGBTQ identities through the lens of a Black transgender immigrant in America.

Mokobe is also the co-founder of the youth arts education group Vocal Revolutionaries, for which they received the inaugural Adobe Creative Catalyst Award and the Awesome Foundation Grantee. The volunteer-run organization holds poetry and art workshops and motivational talks for South African youths.

Mokobe has performed all over the world included at the Barclay's Center, The LGBT Center, LA YouTube Space and Vidcon. Their work has been featured by The Fader, Al Jazeera, New York Public Library, Philly.com, Soulpancake media, OkayAfrica and Leeway Foundation.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Diba Mohtasham and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Rachel Faulkner. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEE MOKOBE: I came from a background where you don't necessarily see representation of yourself unless it's negative.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

This is Lee Mokobe. They're from South Africa.

MOKOBE: Born and bred.

ZOMORODI: Lee's a poet and runs an arts education program in the townships surrounding Cape Town.

MOKOBE: Most of my work is rooted around writing and performing and creating work about social justices, whether it's LGBTQ rights, African rights, immigrant rights. I'm basically that person that makes difficult topics accessible to all.

ZOMORODI: Was there, like, a moment when you first began to see yourself as a poet?

MOKOBE: Yes. I grew up around a fierce family of matriarchs, really, and all of them during the apartheid era in South Africa used to have so many, like, bright stories. Whatever it was, it was sort of inspiring for me. And I remember when I got to the eighth grade, my mother got into a coma. She got into a car accident. And I saw this thing on TV called "Brave New Voices." And I said, wow, look at these American teenagers talking about, like, real deep issues, sharing and expressing their emotions, being vulnerable on stage. And they have a voice.

And suddenly, I started writing. I wrote a letter to my mom to plea with her to wake up from the coma. And I didn't, at the time, think it was poetry until the nurse was like, wow, you write poetry. I said, what? And from then on, sort of sparked this journey of just truly, like, self-expression and trying to relate not only to myself and heal myself but heal people who come from similar backgrounds to me.

ZOMORODI: What a story that the nurse had to tell you that you were a poet.

MOKOBE: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: I love that. That is great. OK, so in a minute, you are going to read us a poem about coming out as transgender to your family. But first, I just want to ask you, you know, what was your upbringing like, and what happened when you realized you were transgender?

MOKOBE: I think it's quite fascinating. So growing up, I sort of grew up where my expression was in the middle. So you didn't quite know. Is it a boy? Is it a girl? We really don't know, but cute kid, I guess.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, yeah.

MOKOBE: But I didn't struggle. I think I've always had an understanding of what it is, but it was fascinating navigating a world where, in my native languages, there are no pronouns for people. People in my community don't understand or even know of the word transgender. I had to go all the way to America to, even for myself, know that what I am or the language or the title or the word for it is transgender. And I think that's been, like, the fascinating journey of, like, having gone overseas to know and learn about myself in depth and come back with the language to say this is what I am.

ZOMORODI: And so what language is that?

MOKOBE: That isiXhosa and isiZulu.

ZOMORODI: Zulu, OK.

MOKOBE: So for example, everyone is their name. Or if people are really being insistent, they will give you a title out of respect. So, for example, if you see an older woman, perhaps then they would address them as mama or ugogo, which means old lady or grandmother, and that's applied to everyone. So when it's like that, everyone's gender is always assumed. So some days, I'm read as, yo, sisi, which means sister or, like, young woman. Or some days, I'm read as bhuti, which is brother or young man. And those are the only sort of titles or pronouns they have because they don't have she or he, which has been really fascinating for me to also, like, sort of navigate.

ZOMORODI: Hmm, yeah, I can only imagine. I do want to ask you also about the work that you do to help other young people navigate their issues. You run a nonprofit. And what are some of the problems that you're helping them with?

MOKOBE: So first and foremost, the grievances that come most from these young kids is the one of coming from poverty, of where everything that is measured with success, including education, has a monetary value added to it. And most of the time, if you're earning less than $200 for an entire family, it's not going to make ends meet.

ZOMORODI: No.

MOKOBE: And so those are some of the issues that I have to help them through. So some of the students I've had, one of which is an incredible success story - he started in the program that I created when he was 16. And he's right now at Cambridge University studying for a Ph.D. And he came from a one-woman working household. He lived in a shack. It was just a situation where every statistic says he would not make it. So to see him, through poetry, speaking about the things and issues that plague him, being able to write and articulate himself beyond his situation is something that we really aimed to do. So it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like shooting in the dark, but it's those, like, little bright lights that we get and the representation that really matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So we're about to listen to your TED talk/TED poem, I guess. What should we know before we hear it?

MOKOBE: First, what's fascinating about it is when I wrote it, I was with my mother, and I hadn't come out to her. I hadn't come out to a lot of people. So when I wrote that, I was, like - coming out in South Africa is pretty violent with its physical, sexual, emotional, financial - like, it's a lot of violence that we deal with. And so when I wrote it, I was in America. I was so young. And I was like, I just found out I am trans. Hm, I don't know how to come out to anyone. And I was like, OK, here's a great way to make my entire family mad.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MOKOBE: I'm just going to come out on a TED Talk. I think it's a great way to just let everyone know so that people aren't just coming to me and overwhelming me. I was just like, it's like a mass broadcasting message. I was like...

ZOMORODI: Yes. Not subtle, Lee. Not subtle at all.

(LAUGHTER)

MOKOBE: So I think I knew what the risk was, but I needed to do it for myself and all the other Lees that were in South Africa at the time.

ZOMORODI: I think at this point, we should listen to your poem. It's called "On Coming Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOKOBE: The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral. I was kneeling long after the congregation was on its feet, dipped both hands into holy water, traced 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 light - 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 childbearing. 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 will turn into what-a-shame conversations at the bus stop. She claims I have turned myself into a mausoleum, that I am walking casket. News headlines have turned my identity into a spectacle 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 their girl 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. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's Lee Mokobe. They're a slam poet and the co-founder of the youth arts education group Vocal Revolutionaries. You can see Lee's full poem at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for joining us for this hour on The Artist's Voice. To learn more about the talks on today's show, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier, Janet Woojeong Lee and Fiona Geiran, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.