Assistant A&F Editor
Excited chatter and laughter bounced off the Highsmith Grotto’s walls before going silent just as poet FreeQuency opened her mouth and let out her words of power.
Mwende Katwiwa, better known as FreeQuency, is a 26-year-old queer Kenyan immigrant, who is also a speaker, performer and poet. Her work deals with social justice topics such as reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ advocacy and Black Lives Matter. She ranked third in the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam and in 2017 was also a TEDWomen speaker.
Katwiwa emphasizes the point of her writing and performing seeks to get her message across and to start a conversation based on truth.
“I’m trying to think what came first, the poetry or the activism? And I think the activism came first,” Katwiwa said.“Poetry for me has never been like art for art’s sake, about like, you know, the sky is blue and the trees are green. We can say, OK, I know that, but what else out there needs to be named?” Katwiwa said.
One piece that Katwiwa performed, titled “The Joys of Motherhood,” gave a glimpse into the harsh reality of being an African-American mother and the fear of bringing a child into this world — a child who will constantly be discriminated against for the color of their skin.
In this piece, Katwiwa discussed police brutality and referenced Trayvon Martin, as well as how most African-American women who were either murdered by police or unjustly tried are often never even discussed in the media.
“I have written too many poems about dead, black children to be naive about the fact that there could one day be a poem written about my kids, but I do not want to be a mother that gave birth to poems, I do not want a stanza for a son nor a line for a little girl, I do not want children who will live forever in the pages of poetry yet can’t seem to outlive me,” Katwiwa ended the piece with a final line, leaving the audience in stunned silence.
Julia Quigley, a sophomore new media major, was part of the team who helped bring Katwiwa to UNC Asheville’s campus through a program called National Association for Campus Activities.
Quigley and others traveled to a conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee where there were different performers showcased. Here they chose who they wanted to come to UNCA and they decided on FreeQuency.
“We just got chills from her performance. She had the audience in tears,” Quigley said.
Quigley said the team felt FreeQuency’s content would be appreciated by many students on campus and would also be supportive to many of the population who go unnoticed at the university.
One of the many people in attendance at this event was junior photography student Hannah Locklear. This was her first time attending a slam poetry event.
“She’s really powerful. I think the piece that got me most was the one about how she started to doubt her faith, because I relate to that,” Locklear said. “I was raised in a strict Christian household and the moment that I started to doubt what I was taught was a really big one. And her quote, she said, ‘Once the seed of doubt is planted in turn, always thirsty,’ really stuck also.”
After this event, Locklear said she plans on attending more events like this and would even possibly consider getting up and performing a piece one day.
On top of being a performer, Katwiwa also has her hand in many other projects, one including the New Orleans Youth Open Mic.
Created four years ago, Katwiwa and several other poets put a show together using different resources, networks and contacts.
“That was a labor of love that myself and some other poets do because we don’t really have an active youth scene right now, even though a good number of us came from youth poetry scenes. We know the value of it. We know how important it is for young people’s development in terms of their writing voice and their writing practice,” Katwiwa said.
Katwiwa also works for Women With a Vision, a community-based social justice non-profit organization. Created by and for African-American women 30 years ago, the organization exists in response to the spread of HIV and AIDS in minority communities.
The issues they are currently tackling include sex worker rights, drug policy reform, HIV positive women’s advocacy and reproductive justice outreach.
“I run a program there, social justice education and leadership and development and sisterhood. Redefinition for black girls in New Orleans, it’s just called young living,” Katwiwa said.
Back in the Grotto, Katwiwa opened the floor for a Q&A. During this portion of the show, she expressed how there was really no such thing as a slam poet and how slam was really only the name of a competition for poetry. So anyone starting off should not call themselves a slam poet since that is not what they are — they are a poet.
“My advice for beginners is that you should just work on really cultivating and finding your own voice and not getting caught up in what you think people want to hear. Just staying true to what you know as your truth,” Katwiwa said.
UNCA is just one of many stops for Katwiwa’s current tour, which includes several other college campuses. Some of her previous tours included traveling to places such as South Africa and Tanzania, where she shared her messages through poetry.
“I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. When I think about what my role is, what feels most right or what feels most impactful, it feels like I can reach other folks,” Katwiwa said.