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Sarah O’Neal ‘radically re-imagines’ the world through spoken word

Sarah O'Neal has performed her award winning poetry throughout the Bay Area and across the nation. (Photo courtesy of Youth Speaks)
Sarah O’Neal has performed her award winning poetry throughout the Bay Area and across the nation. (Photo courtesy of Youth Speaks)

“Ask us to be polite, to stay calm, to voice grief with respect while our brothers’ bodies are laid out on the streets, sounding the alarm. Our bodies are threats well before they are human, and you still want to know the source of our rage?” These are the words from Sarah O’Neal’s poem “An Overreaction,” featured Jan. 31 by UpWorthy.

Upworthy’s article on O’Neal was one of many recent recognitions for her spoken word. In August 2014, O’Neal was selected as a winner of the Raise Up Project’s hip hop and spoken word competition. She was awarded a scholarship and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

On Jan. 23, O’Neal came in first at the Mills College Poetry Slam. As a result, this March she will be at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) in Richmond, Va. 

O’Neal is an active member of the community both at Mills and in the Bay Area.

Q: How do you see yourself in the Oakland community?

A: I’m an artist, I’m a student, I’m an organizer, I’m an activist. There’s a lot of different roles that I play, and I’m involved in a lot of different spaces outside of Mills, for sure. I think that my role is sort of just being present, stepping in and adding to some of the work that’s already been done here for years.

Q: What has it been like to be featured by Upworthy?

A: It means a lot to me because it can reach more people … For a lot of people, hearing that piece is affirmation that they are not alone in what they are thinking, that they aren’t alone in the pain and the rage and the hurt and the trauma. Also, to reiterate to folks who are constantly dismissing it, dismissing us. It’s a larger platform that I didn’t have access to, and now I have access to.

O'Neal will perform with the Mills College Slam Poetry Team March 12 before competing in CUPSI. (Photo courtesy of Youth Speaks)
O’Neal will perform with the Mills College Slam Poetry Team March 12 before competing in CUPSI. (Photo courtesy of Youth Speaks)

Q: How did you find out you had been featured?

A: My friend messaged me the link on Facebook and was like, ‘Hey, by the way if you haven’t seen this you’re on Upworthy.’ 

Q: What was it like to open for Cornel West and Mann Jones on Jan. 15? 

A: It was probably one of my most prideful moments this year. [West] is really brilliant and talks about a lot of different things, from the prison industrial complex to the current state of race related issues in the United States. It was really really powerful to be able to actually meet him and sit down and talk with him. I don’t like idolizing people, but he’s definitely someone I looked up to from when I was really young.

Q: What was it like to be a winner of Raise Up’s hip hop and spoken word competition?

A: It was actually really funny. I wrote the poem, then maybe a month and a half later one of my mentors was like, ‘Hey, Raise Up has been in the works and they’re putting up a call for people to submit poems. You should definitely submit your piece.’

Q: How long did it take for you to find out you had won?

A: It was, like, all summer. Simultaneously I was competing in Brave New Voices with the Bay Area Youth Team. So I submitted the poem and then during that time I was rehearsing, practicing and writing, getting ready for the slam in Philadelphia. I wasn’t really thinking about it to be honest.

Q: How did you first get into spoken word?

A: I was 13, I was at a protest. It was during operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, when the state of Israel was bombarding Gaza, they were basically bombing them. I was getting more involved with political organizing, and I met my best friend at that protest. She was a spoken word artist and she was like, ‘Hey, I know you really care about all this, I want you to write a poem and come share it at the next march.’ I had never been exposed to poetry that interested me … now poetry is such a vital part of my being.

Q: Do you consider yourself an artist?

A: I have struggled a lot with defining myself that way, but lately I’ve been thinking, you know, I make a lot of art. A lot of what grounds me in this work around liberation and justice is the idea of radically re-imagining the world we live in and envisioning something, not buying into the fact that this is the way the world has to function. That is inherently artistic, in my opinion, and inherently creative, is seeing the world in a different way than it is currently functioning. So yeah, I would consider myself an artist.

Q: Do you differentiate between art and activism?

A: No. Mostly because — and I think it was Audre Lorde who said this — the personal is political for me.

The Mills College Slam Poetry Team will hold a send off show March 12 before leaving for CUPSI. For more information about spoken word and slam poetry on campus, visit the Mills College Student Activities page or the Mills College Poetry Slam page on Facebook.