Sonya Renee
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Sonya Renee

Band Spoken Word


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"Into The Thick Of It"

Into the thick of it
Part of the fifth annual When Sisters Speak spoken-word concert with d'bi young, Jemeni, Camesha Cox, Mahogany Browne, more. Sat, Jan 15, 9pm. The St Lawrence Centre for the Arts. 27 Front E. $25 from 416-366-7723.
"Your weight, shape's not what I date / It's you / My crew don't mind it thick / Every woman ain't a video chick or runway model anorexic."
In their 2001 single "Baby Phat," De La Soul bravely and brilliantly conveyed a sentiment not often heard in hip-hop (at least not since the days of Sir Mix-a-Lot) -- a love of big girls. The jam was catchy, cute and resonated loudly with a large portion of hip-hop's female constituency.
In my first column for this paper three years back, Queen Sheba, a poet from North Carolina who performed at the second edition of When Sisters Speak, told me, "I have to admit that at one point I found myself looking at these videos and saying, 'Oh, god! I got to lose weight.' It's amazing -- you try to not let it affect you, but it really does. And now, De La Soul has this song called 'Baby Phat,' which is saying, 'It's OK to be heavy,' and you're looking at this video and saying, 'It's all right, I can keep these 10 pounds.'"
Make no mistake -- as evidenced by your average hip-hop video, that one song hasn't sparked a revolution in the way most rap artists and their video directors view women. Songs like "Baby Phat" come at us with less frequency than songs like 50 Cent's hateful "Fat Bitch," so we should celebrate them as loudly as we can.
Things are different in the world of black spoken word, rap's estranged cousin. There's far more reality in one poem by Toronto's Camesha Cox than in 10 albums by hip-hop artists claiming they're keeping it real. Dropping a verse like those heard on "Baby Phat" at a slam isn't as radical as De La doing what they did.
No surprise then that a composition titled "Thick" helped Washington DC's Sonya Renee bag the National Poetry Slam competition last year. Renee also won the 2004 CITE Poetry Slam and the 2004 Southern Fried Poetry Slam.
"My CD [Thick Girl] is named after that piece but it's also an embrace of the whole woman I am," Renee says in a recent interview. "It is a combination of loving my body while at the same time telling the world that regardless of their opinion about my size as a positive or negative attribute there is so much more to me.
"I don't have to go to bed or wake up with anyone but me and I need to know that my self image is rooted in the reality of my life," she says. "As a woman, I'm dedicated to reclaiming beauty on my own terms and I wish that for all women."
"Thick" is one of several of Renee's "Reality Rub" songs, a phrase she's coined to describe her poetry.
"Reality Rub poetry simply means I tell the truth, and I recognize that my truth is not universal. I just hope that by sharing my reality I strip some of the stigma away from situations in others' lives," she says. "Reality Rubs may be shocking, uncomfortable, even awkward but they're always real."
Interestingly, this ferocious talent only took her words to the people 20 months back. Although Renee began writing at age seven, she debuted on the DC poetry scene in April, 2003. She calls her journey into performing in public a selfish act.
"I was encouraged to read at an open mic event by my employer at HIPS [Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, a non-profit that promotes HIV prevention in DC]," Renee says. "As someone who's trained in theatre, I've always loved the stage and combining poetry with stage performance was home for me. I was nervous initially and fearful that people wouldn't like my poetry and consequently they wouldn't like me. I've realized since then that people can like me and not like my poetry and vice versa, and that's OK. Just being able to share my art and not feel tied to the judgments people pass on it was a liberating experience."
Renee sees a similarity between her activism and her poetry.
"I've seen people gain skills and change their lives because someone took the time to provide them with options and new perspectives," she says. "That's what I try to do with my poetry, offer different perspectives on issues. In the end, I'm rewarded with knowing that I was heard and that's more than enough."
- Errol Nazareth


"Sonya Renee speaks for people on the margins and she does it by her own damn bootstraps. I admire her smarts, her sass, her lungpower and her willpower…
… young poets should be steered in her direction, and you yourself should sit right down for a hot minute. Watch this woman. Listen to this person. Sonya Renee will win you over!"

- National Poetry Slam Champion, HBO Def Poetry Jam Tour

"Gayle Danley"

“Sonya Renee is the REAL DEAL. RAW, ORIGINAL, SENSITIVE. So many of her poems tell my story and maybe yours too. SHE'S SIMPLY BEAUTIFUL!” - National Poet & Educator

"Omekongo Dibinga"

“[She is] the Sonia Sanchez of our generation!” - International Spoken Word Artist, Activist and Educator

"Charles Ellik"

“She's a force of Nature on stage, often funny, and
even when she's raging against injustice, there's
always a wink in the corner of her eye..”
- Host and Curator of Berkeley Slam Norcal Poetry Organizer

"Charneice Fox"

"Sonya Renee is - What!!???!! No words to describe her but this "tree has deeper roots"... You will never hear all of what she has to say - "like the 30 poems that will never scores 10's"! That's real and so is she." - Artist Director, Genesis Poets

"Chris August"

"Sonya Renee has that rare ability, in her both her poetry and in her performance, to connect so deeply with her audience that it is almost impossible to walk away feeling as though you don't know her personally. In a scene overrun by ego and pretension, her humility, humor and genuine passion are a much needed breath of fresh air. - 3x member, DC/Baltimore National Poetry Slam Team

"Delrica Andrew"

“Sonya Renee is an exquisite sight to experience. Her charisma, humility, & blatant honesty will pull you into her world and you will find yourself never wanting to leave once you get there. Expect great things from this stellar representative of the newest generation of griots and poets. Sonya Renee is indeed phenomenal!” - DC/Baltimore Slam Master, PSI, inc. Executive Counsel


Yes, thick girls do have more fun. Just ask Baltimore-based spoken word diva Sonya Renee. Winning the individual crown at the 2004 National Poetry Slam in St. Louis, Mo. with her large-and-in-charge ode "Thick Girl," she's busted through the glass ceiling of what was once a male-dominated competition.
"I know that people call me the 'Big Girl Poet' and I'm OK with that," she says, phoning from her home near Washington D.C. "It could be worse."
With her spitfire stage presence and odd ability to creatively cuss out people with a toothy grin, the 28-year-old champion knocked all those skinny fellas on their rears at the National Slam. And she did it with what she calls her "big black girl sass."
"I wouldn't want to be known as the 'Booty Shaking Poet,'" she says with a finger-snapping sincerity. "But, I would like to be the Madonna of poetry and reinvent myself along the way."
Renee is the first African-American female to slam-dunk the competition in five years. And, she did it with little to no open-mic experience.
"I was working for a non profit and my boss asked me if I could read one of my poems at a benefit," she explains, talking about a craft she conquered in less than a year. "I performed and just fell in love with the whole thing."
But, how did she dominate the spoken word scene in such a short time? "Random alignment of stars," Renee jokes. "I was lucky in some ways. But, I was also in the right place at the right time. I write material that connects with the audience and I explore universal themes that touch a lot of people. The content of my material has taken me a long way."
Renee, headlining the Poets of the Fifth Element Love Jones Valentines Show at Sluggo's on Sunday, Feb. 13, pontificates about the virtues of being a "Thick" sista, the secret formula of writing a Slam-winning poem and her uncanny ability to infuse a body-positive message within her award-winning work.
IN: How personal do you get in your poetry?

RENEE: When I started writing, it definitely was very personal and based on my own life experience. As I became more comfortable, I would explore other people's voices. I tend to write in first person. And I would approach a character's story as if it were my own. I have a theatre background, so every poem I write feels like a monologue. I try to explore universal themes so I talk about social issues, relationship issues, fears we have within ourselves.

IN: What was the inspiration for 'Thick Girl'?

RENEE: I told a friend that I thought there was a formula to writing a slam poem. I went home and structured 'Thick' with all of the things I've seen work on stage. It was definitely cocky. And somehow I figured out the winning formula. It worked.

IN: Was 'Thick Girl,' in a way, a satire on the whole Poetry Slam phenomenon?

RENEE: 'Thick' wasn't making fun of slams. But, it was very intentional. I knew what worked and I stretched it out on stage.

IN: OK, what is a 'Reality Rub'?

RENEE: It means that I tell the truth. I tell my truth. People who live in la-la land don't always want to hear what's real. And it's awkward to them when I'm honest and up-front about things. So, I 'rub' them with my honesty.

IN: Sort of like what you do in 'Thick Girl'?

RENEE: It's funny, but I retired 'Thick' recently but it's become what I'm known for. And people request it. It's not my favorite poem at all. Nor do I consider it my best. But, it allowed me to get my foot in the door. 'Thick' for me is a fluke. While it talks a lot about who I am, a lot of my poetry explores who I am and how I see the world. 'Thick' is an aspect of me. But, it's not all of me.

IN: 'Thick' is important because it explores weight and body image. Are you using the stage for advocacy?

RENEE: Yes, absolutely. I worked for a non-profit HIV-prevention center before going into slams and I have strong views on many social issues. Poetry allows me to discuss these things I feel so strongly about.

IN: What about pop culture's obsession with skinny white chicks?

RENEE: I don't think about it much. Pop culture isn't representative of the real world. I figured that out a long time ago. I also realize that we don't see too many minorities in pop culture unless they're being stereotyped. And I recognize that ain't the truth and I don't allow that to impact my psyche.

IN: So, do thick girls have more fun?

RENEE: (Laughs) I think they can. It's all about loving yourself, ultimately. If you can find what makes you fabulous, then 'yes.' Thick girls can have more fun.
- by Sam Baltrusis

"Taylor Mali"

“And then there is Sonya Renee. What can you say about this woman who consummately marries performance and content other than "Wow!" Quite simply, she is one of the very best of the best.”
~Taylor Mali, -4x National Poetry slam Champion

- taylor mali


Still working on that hot first release.



Lecture Option 1
The Body is Not An Apology 60-90minutes

In a culture that bombards us with unattainable images of body perfection based imaginary standards there seems to be a war on everything except the media’s war on us. This activity and participation based lecture uses popular education, performance poetry and media examples to introduce participants to the concepts of Body Terrorism and Radical Self Love. Participants will explore the ways in which we are regularly asked to apologize for the bodies we inhabit based on size, race, gender, sexuality or ability. Sharing the stories of countless people who have joined the Unapologetic Posse and sharing her own unique journey to fearless love of her flesh, Performance Poet, Activist and Transformational Leader Sonya Renee will help you uncover your own road to Radical Self Love and body empowerment.

Lecture Option 2
Where’d I Put That Box (Unhiding Our Hurts) - 120 minutes
(suggested as an introductory workshop to RUHCUS Workshop)

Have you ever been furiously looking for your glasses, only for someone to point out that they have been sitting on top of your head the whole time? We have all learned to hide our pains in gorgeously obvious places as a necessity of functioning in a world filled with challenges and pains. This workshop and lecture is designed to help us identify those things that we have hidden even from ourselves so that we might begin the process of accessing true freedom from shame. Using activities, anecdotes and experiential discussion Performance Poet, Activist and Transformational Leader Sonya Renee will guide your group in the first step to radical healing which is to find the hurt.

Lecture Option 3
RUHCUS (Radically Unapologetic Healing Challenge 4 Us) – Part 1 2.5 hr Part 2 2.5 hour

In the summer of 2011 after years of secret shame and trauma about her hair which was damaged since childhood, Performance Poet, Activist and Transformational Leader Sonya Renee decided to do something RADICAL to deal with it. It is from this the desire to be free of the bondage of hiding her hair that RUHCUS was born. This 2 part workshop walks participants through Sonya’s unique and powerful experience with taking drastic steps to heal her own historical shames. Part 2 of this workshop teaches participants how to use this 3 step, 30 day challenge to begin the journey of RADICAL HEALING over pain, shame, trauma and fear in their lives.