Meet Christelle Pierre, a dynamic performer from the United States. This 18 year old future Black female comes from Del Ray, Florida. Although relatively new to active participation in the art, her talent and passion has propelled her onto one of the biggest stages in the spoken word arena. “I use spoken word as a way to speak about my experiences,” says Christelle who explains that the arts have always been an influential aspect in society, especially for Black women in the United States.
For Christelle, writing has always been something she saw herself gravitating towards as it helped her deal with situations and negative experiences in her life. She’s been writing since 4th grade, but it was during her sophomore year in high school that she decided to take the leap. She explains, “[Spoken word is] more my style than basketball or chess. I always thought that spoken word and slam poetry was cool!” While it may have just started as a simple hobby it soon became an avenue for self-expression and social activism.
Christelle’s English teacher, Ms G, is one of her biggest inspirations in life. She describes her teacher as a driving force in developing her performance skills outside of the classroom. “She was brilliant in general! She was talented in writing, literature; and pushed us to work on performance and expression. She made us the kind of performers that would force people to listen to us.”
Christelle mainly uses spoken word to speak of her own experiences. From developing her own identity and her father’s cigarette addiction. These personal experiences are expressed in one of her favourite pieces:
To my least favorite parent
Or at least what I can remember of you
I can remember fragments of skin, a nose, a pair of eyes and a mouth that could only speak with venom
I can remember the faint smell of cigarette smoke and the layer of ash covering your house You always said you would quit
Instead of realizing it was the cigarettes killing you, you thought it was your children attacking your lungs
We were the reason you gasp for air at night We were the ones poisoning your insides
You decided to quit being a father before you quit smoking, how does that work?
Do you hallucinate cigarettes as erasers?and use them to remove me from your life Do you use the filter to sift out my report cards and baby pictures?
Does the smoke fog up every memory you have of me? Have you forgotten the color of my eyes yet?
Do you know my favorite color, the name of my best friend, my best subject, where I spend my 16th birthday, do you know I write poetry?
Do you even know that I’m here tonight?
You’ve probably cut me out of our pictures and stuck a pack of newport’s in the frame I bet you inhale my name and exhale another excuse not to visit me
I bet you get a buzz out of that too.
I bet you get high off my absence and honestly I think you’re addicted to how your life looks when I’m not in it
Was it the money, dad?
Let’s see, 6.16 per pack, 1 pack a day, times 7 days a week, times 4 weeks a month, times 12 months a year, times four years you haven’t seen me
That’s 8,992 dollars you’ve spent on something you throw away
and how much do you spend on someone that you’ve thrown away? Absolutely nothing
Maybe if I taped tobacco to my skin and wrapped myself in paper you’d consider me more than just second hand smoke
I thought I was more important than the Newports in your nail beds and the Marlboro on your mind
But I guess it’s take a drag over talk to your daughter, huh? Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever hear you say you love me again
And I wonder if the next time we meet It’ll be in your hospital room when your cigarettes turn your lungs into an ashtray
You can smoke away all your problems but death doesn’t mind the smell of cigarettes So you can’t blow smoke in the face of lung cancer
You can’t burn away the diagnosis
So as you breath your last breath and after you’ve taken your last drag
I hope you’ll regret it and realize what you’ve lost
because you can’t put nicotine patch on our relationship and consider yourself free
Christelle recounts the writing process saying, “It was a little intimidating to write about it at first because it was such a vulnerable topic for me. But once I got up and performed it, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.” Her favourite poem is a piece written by Kevin W. Burke: When Asked Why I Listen To Music Where ‘They Scream So Much’. Burke’s poem tells the traumatic story of sexual abuse and how music allows the emotions that have been bottled in to escape and be his voice. Such expressive pieces have helped in modelling Christelle’s own performance, skill, and technique.
Being a young Black woman, Christelle’s faced her own share of negative experiences in society and recounts how that’s impacted her life. “I once had a girl chastise me for not standing up for the pledge of allegiance. She told me, 'You’re not a slave, get up!' I went to administration about it and nothing was done. It was really frustrating having to go through that and knowing that she wouldn’t receive any consequences for what she said.”
Living such experiences and facing difficult emotions encourages Christelle to speak her truth. She uses the platform to share her experiences, both good and bad, as a way to inspire and encourage other young people.
This year Christelle performed at Brave New Voices, one of the world’s largest, intercontinental slam poetry festivals and competitions. Along with her team and teacher, they added their experiences and ideas to the dialogue. However, it was also a learning experience as well. Christelle described it as an opportunity to, “Figure out what motivates you and what works for the audience. It was also a chance for networking through interactions with persons who had different styles, focuses and various skills.” Having previously competed in a more community-based spoken word competition Louder Than A Bomb (L.T.A.B). Christelle narrates the experience as contrasting the less competitive space. Though she hasn’t placed in a competition it’s always a learning experience for the young artist. L.T.A.B was a reassuring experience she describes as an introduction to a community of people who do the same thing she does and love it the same way too.
One of Christelle’s most memorable experiences performing was witnessing a judge crying. “I was glad the poem really connected with them and resonated with them.” She recounts the experience as shocking but also a humbling one, knowing that her message resonated with at least one person. “While having someone cry isn’t the goal, it’s something that had me speechless but it stimulated my passion even more.”
As a young Black woman, Christelle continues to make strides and build her own legacy as a performer. It’s an art form that she uses for activism, expression and self-reflection. While it may seem extremely difficult and requiring immense skill, she promises it isn’t. “GO FOR IT! Be as loud as you want, write as long as you need to. Simply pour your all into it! That’s what people respond to… and that’s how your work gives meaning. Put your all into it, don't be afraid, don't hold back, don’t doubt yourself.”