Last Wednesday, Orange Peel in central Hong Kong was packed for a night of poetry. The occasion was an event by Peel Street Poetry, to honour poets of the African diaspora. “This is the third time we’ve organised this,” says co-organiser and friend of Third Culture Akin Jeje. “The first edition happened in 2015, as part of a larger effort to celebrate Black History.” His wife and co-organiser of the event Jayne Jeje: “It’s a perfect way to draw attention to notable works of people of the African Diaspora in a place where knowledge of that is relatively low.”
The theme of the night was “What’s Going On” – the question on everyone’s mind, and references to current events were rarely ambiguous.
For the first part of the night, local poets performed classic and controversial work by the likes of Maya Angelou and Paul Laurence Dunbar – the latter brought by Brit Angus Gallagher with his impressive take on African American slang. Akin Jeje delivered a chilling poem by The Last Poets, containing “more N-words than a Klan picnic, or a Trump meeting, but only when Jeff is in session;” after which he apologised to his mother.
Betty Bownath brought work by June Jordan, Carribean-American poet and activist. The poem – Apologies to All the People in Lebanon – remains extremely relevant, and, as Betty put it, “is an answer to the sadness that watching TV has become.”
Jayne Jeje read the famous lines by Warsan Shire: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” It was an obvious choice for Jayne: “Never has a poem so eloquently and vividly described the root of why people flee from their homelands. After I read it, it gripped my heart and squeezed it. This was the emotion I wanted to share.”
After a short break some poets of the African diaspora brought their own work. Topics ranged from feminism – “are we bitches for disappointing the judges?” by Betty Bownath – to nostalgia, as first-timer Nina Atimah spelled out: “if you don’t know what plantaine is, you need to go educate your tastebuds.” Non-black poets also brought relevant work, like regular Peel Street poet Blair Reeve, who read out a brutally honest reaction to the sniping of several policemen in Dallas last year. Kate Rogers – also a regular – brought a poem written from the viewpoint of a woman encountering famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
“if you don’t know what plantaine is, you need to go educate your tastebuds.”
The night ended with live music (an excellent version of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit) and the usual open mic. At the end of the evening, the audience had collected a large sum for the charity Room To Read. Tijana Zderic, Development Manager for Hong Kong, says: “We were extremely grateful for the opportunity to be selected as the charity partner for the evening. With everyone’s generous support and contribution, we managed to make learning possible for eight children through our Literacy Program.”
We’re looking forward to next year’s event!