Myesha Jenkins: poet of jazz and freedom

Jenkins was many things: a spoken-word performer devoted to jazz and its human rights ethos, a networker and mentor. She shared her knowledge and love even as she suffered from cancer.

Poet, feminist cultural activist and jazzwomxn Myesha Jenkins died on Saturday 5 September. San Francisco-born Myesha had lived in Johannesburg since she moved here from California in 1993. She was not just an observer but an integral part of our jazz scene: her instrument, rather than some machine-made construct of metal, valves and reeds, was the word.

The sounds of playing, the players and the particularity of the South African scene were all magicked into life from type on a flat page through her words, as in this vignette, Jazz Club, of the elders of the genre:

On Sunday afternoons
Old men sit under a tree
Listening to their music
Laughing loudly
Sipping brandy of coke
Tapping their two-toned shoes
Remembering dreams of
Red dresses and flying brown legs

“Magicked”, though, is the wrong word: like every good writer, Myesha worked damn hard at her craft. Having been writing for years, she found in South Africa the supportive company of other poets. With two others she met at a 2002 Port Elizabeth writers’ workshop, Napo Masheane and Ntsiki Mazwai, she formed the Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective. “Men so dominated that space,” she said, “that when we got home we said: ‘we have to do something about this.’ We phoned around again and again to get others to join us. Lebo [Mashile] was the one who turned up” and Feelah Sistah became Myesha plus three, regularly augmented by the most interesting of other poetic guests.

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The mission of Feelah Sistah was the same one that Myesha lived on other stages and in other arenas too: “We want to claim a stage where women who are poets can speak to and move other men and women. We’re tired of ‘…and now the ladies are gonna come up’ – as though we are different to other poets,” she said at the time.

Her love of jazz had started early. “I’ve been a lover of jazz for over 50 years,” she wrote in 2017. “It started in college and saw me through my studies, marriage, divorce, travel and relocation halfway around the world. I was a waitress at a jazz club for several years, which gave me repeated exposure to the different varieties of that music as well as the men (mostly) and women who make it. It was urban Black classical music that reflected migration, urbanisation, anger, resistance, freedom. That was jazz to me.”

Resistance to racism, oppression, ageism and misogyny infused Myesha’s texts and the praxis of her life. Sometimes it was a subtle undertext; the freedom of jazz metonymic for greater freedoms; sometimes front and centre, as in In The Night:

Women are out in the night.

They are cleaning streets
some are walking streets
coming home from work
others are working
answering a call
rushing to the hospital
to bail someone out of jail
getting the forgotten loaf of bread
running from here to there
going to hang with the girls
enjoying the freedom of the club
relaxing from a hard day
of taking orders
sunny-side up by tomorrow in stilettos
dressed to kill with glistening lips
looking for kissers.

And some are just alone again in the dark
actually enjoying the moon.

What are you doing out so late, ma?
Being a woman, officer,
being a woman.

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Myesha published two collections of her own work, Breaking the Surface, in 2005, and Dreams of Flight, in 2011, and also featured in various anthologies. In 2017, she united her passion for jazz and writing as shaping spirit behind the collection To Breathe Into Another Voice, an anthology of South African jazz poetry. In 2013, Myesha was awarded the Mbokodo Award for women in arts/poetry.

She brought poetry to the airwaves between 2011 and 2016 through the annual SAFM Women’s Month series Poetry in the Air, and more recently, even while struggling with the debilitating effects of cancer treatment, in the Kaya FM podcast series Myesha’s Memoirs, Living with Jazz and Poetry. She brought poetry to the live stage through the monthly Out There jazz and poetry sessions she hosted at the Orbit Jazz Club. And she brought poetry into countless classrooms and workshops, including through her work with visual artists on the Arts for Humanity project. Having seen her teach, her “playing with words” teaching approach was unique and uniquely effective, meriting far wider recognition. In just an hour, she got a roomful of hesitant women juggling language with freedom and delight. Again, it was serious magic: she worked hard to make sure her teaching served the collective of learners and worked hard to shape spaces where new poets could speak and create.

When we get back to the jazz clubs again, it will be impossible not to see that empty seat, close to the stage, where Myesha ought to be – listening intently, head tilted, half-smiling, eyes closed; sometimes, when the spirit of the sounds moved her, boubou-clad shoulders dancing.

Flying was a recurring metaphor in Myesha’s poetry: flying in the joy of physical ecstasy; flying on the wings of a transcendent solo; flying in shared freedom; flying always towards something better… It seems fitting to end with her own words, invoking all those kinds of flight, Endless Highway. Hamba Kahle.

You can take me for a ride
anytime, day or night
let’s get out of here
ride into the heavens.
We’re bumping across the mountains of the moon
passing planets where the oxygen is thin
gliding onto Saturn’s rings
listening to the tinkle of twinkling stars.
Yeah, take me for a ride
across galaxies
into another universe
discovering a new sky
Surrounded by nothing we’ve ever known
Clear open road.

Yeah, take me for a ride.

This tribute was first published by sisgwenjazz. It is republished here with permission.

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