Interview with Bassey Ikpi, The Writer, The Poet, The advocate
NYONO MMABASSEY IKPI
At Murtala Mohammed International Airport Lagos, I stood at the exit anxiously and eagerly awaiting the arrival of this woman. It felt like I had stood there for hours before I saw her make her way out. I called out her name and she turned towards me. She was smaller than I thought. The first thing she said as she walked towards me was “oh my God” and she hugged me very tightly, her eyes welling up with tears. I had just met Bassey Ikpi.
I learned about Bassey about five years ago when a friend of mine who is a DJ in the states introduced us on facebook. He sent me a link to her poem ‘Homeward’ because he thought I’d find her interesting. That was easily the understatement of that year. I found her (and still find her) electrifying.
When asked, Bassey introduces herself as “a writer, a poet and a mental health advocate” and had it always been the intention that this would be her chosen path? “Absolutely not.” She said emphatically “I didn’t think it was a career. I wrote and performed because I liked it. I moved to New York because all of my favorite artists and writers had spent some time in New York and I wanted to be part of that energy if briefly. I had no idea that it would become what it has become. 12 years later and I’m still shocked that this is my life.”
As a writer, Bassey is a Huff Po (Huffington Post) blogger and also a freelance writer for Ebony, Essensce.com, XO Jane.com and TheRoot.com. Her writing started at age 8 and it came naturally from a love for reading. At age 4, Bassey moved to the States from Ugep, Cross-River State Nigeria where she was born. She spoke ‘Yakurr’ her local dialect and had to learn to speak English and read simultaneously. She became fascinated by words; the similes and metaphors, and how they could be arranged to tell a story.
Bassey wrote her poems but had never thought they could be performed until she was 18 when in college, she saw people performing their poetry. When she realized she could actually perform her poetry, a whole new world was opened for her.
In 2001, while Bassey was working as a writer and content editor for an online entertainment company, a friend asked her to accompany him to enter for a spoken word competition. On getting there, they realized that it was not an open audition and she had to enter for it to go in and support her friend. She ended up winning the whole competition and that was when Russell Simmons took notice of her.
Her life from then on became a whirlwind of activities, she opened for such acclaimed artists as Luther Vandross, world renowned writer, Sonia Sanchez, International recording group, Les Nubians, and Motown artist India Arie, just to name a few. She joined the cast of the National touring company of the Tony award winning Broadway show, Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam, and has since gone on to perform at events like the NAACP image awards as part of a tribute to Venus and Serena Williams, earning her a standing ovation. She has also featured in Johannesburg’s annual arts festival ‘Joburg Arts Alive’ and at the United Nations Annual.
During the summer of 2010 Bassey embarked on a 3 city tour, appropriately called “BasseyworldLive”, which infused poetry and interactive panel discussions on everything from politics to pop culture – with a huge emphasis on mental health issues. Not only did she headline each show, but she also moderated the panel discussions, which included special invited guests from various industries such as art, film and journalism.
Bassey’s writings are deeply insightful and real. Her poetry performances draw the audience in and most people see themselves in a line or two of every poem. Bassey calls it writing for the ‘me too’ “I’m writing to see if someone else shares or has shared the same experience.” It may be just a line that someone in the audience connects to, but there is that need to feel that someone has connected.
With all these achievements, one wonders how deeply Bassey’s writings and poetry is affected by her “Nigerian-ness.” “I think the rhythms I hit are reminiscent of the musicality of the language here.” She says. “Nigerian languages are so musical. And there’s a pattern that I think I adopt when writing and to a lesser extent when I’m performing.”
Anybody who spends as much as 5 minutes with Bassey comes to learn that she has a great love for Nigeria. During her performances, Bassey makes sure she is introduced as Nigerian from Cross River state and during the performance of her poem ‘Homeward’ on the Def Poetry Jam, she wears a ‘Leboku’ tattoo from the New Yam Festival celebrated in Calabar every year.
But even with this great love, Bassey had not come home for over 18 years and I had to ask her some tough questions.
You’ve not been home in over 18 years? Wetin happen? We dey fight? “Nothing dey happen.” Bassey answers with an infectious laugh that can only be described as boisterous, genuine and coming from somewhere very deep inside as she attempts to speak pidgin (that, ‘I dey,’ ‘I full ground’ and ‘na wa oh’ are the only things she can say in pidgin- if I might add here) “I was busy. When I had the money, I didn’t have the time. When I didn’t have the time, I wanted to be available in case work came. I didn’t realize how much time had passed really. I’m still surprised.”
So why have you come home now? “To reconnect. To remember. To be part of this life and world again. I’ve always held Nigeria in my heart. I tell people I’m Nigerian first before anything else and I wanted to be here and feel home. Also, as I get older, my hope is to build a life here for myself and for my son. Split time between the US and in Nigeria. I also have some plans for work. They are top secret.”
Is the need to be closer to home a general feeling that Nigerians in Diaspora have? “I don’t think it’s a general feeling. Some couldn’t care less. One of my best friends is Nigerian and has absolutely zero desire to return, while I have others who want to be able to have a touchstone. Everyone wants to feel like they have a home.”
Poetry and Bassey’s experience as a performing artist, has shaped her life in so many ways, and has taught her a lot of things about herself. “It has taught me who I am, what I want, how to get it, and most importantly, what I don’t want” she says. “It taught me that I am way stronger than I think I am.
In 2004, after having a breakdown during the Def Poetry Jam tour, Bassey was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a medical condition that is categorized by extreme highs and lows. “The highs are called hypomania, it means that I’m hyper and unable to sleep or eat and talk too fast and my brain is racing.” Bassey explains. “It starts out great. I get a lot of work done and I’m a lot of fun to be around but after awhile, it gets scary and difficult. It’s physically uncomfortable at times. Then there’s the depression which is soul aching emptiness and despair. It’s awful”
Mental health is like a taboo in Nigeria and you’re very open about having bipolar disorder, how do Nigerians react to that information? “They react really well. I think that people want to talk about it. They want to be heard. They want to get help. They just let the few voices that are against it speak up. My goal is always to be the loudest voice in the room and my voice will encourage you to see treatment and management and to tend to your mental health. There will always be naysayers; I plan on drowning them out.”
How does mental health affect your art? “It used to feel like the only reason I had an art. But medication and treatment have taught me that the art comes from me not the illness. What it does do is allow me to find humanity and vulnerability in the writing. I can find something that shows us that we’re all connected by something regardless of whether or not we have an illness or a particular heartbreak. We all feel the same way, in the same capacity. I want my work to reflect that and my illness allows me to tap into that.”
In 2011, after the suicide of a young friend, Bassey started the Siwe Project. “I started The Siwe Project to help spread the word about mental health awareness. It was named for Siwe Monsanto a 15 year old who killed herself in June of 2011. I realized that I could do more than just write a few articles. I wanted to help more Siwes and do more.
On July 2nd 2012, The Siwe Project had their first initiative called No Shame Day. It was a day when everyone was allowed to talk about their issues, and their pain, and hopes and fears concerning mental health. It was meant not only for people who have mental health disorders, but also for their families and friends to express, and to understand where they had not before. It was a day when NO ONE was allowed to judge, so they spoke freely, with No Shame. It was also create the awareness, and change the face of mental health. “It was huge.” Bassey says. It just solidified my belief that people DO want to talk about it. They just need the space.” No Shame Day had over 90, 000 participants talking, blogging, tweeting, and face booking… it was the No 3 trending topic on twitter for almost the entire day!
What plans does Siwe Project have as pertaining to mental health awareness here in Nigeria? “There needs to be a conversation started. I find that Nigerians are resistant to the conversation so I have to start in a different place. I have to talk about it and literally be the new face of mental illness so that people can see what treatment and management looks like rather than the typical “mad man or woman” cliché.”
Coming back home has been emotionally overwhelming for Bassey “It has been Magical. Beautiful. Wonderful and there are so many changes” she gushes “18 years ago internet and cell-phones were unheard of! When we came we had to go use a neighbour’s phone to call and now everyone in the village has a phone. It is amazing!”
Bassey has graced the pages of such notable publications as Nylon, Marie Claire, Glamour and Bust. She has also written a book which she didn’t publish titled “Blame my Teflon heart-Poetry, Prose and Post its for boys who didn’t write back.” she’s currently working on a memoir which she says will never be published
The future is looking very bright for Bassey. She hopes to grow The Siwe Project into an international NGO synonymous with mental health awareness. “I’m also working on a TV show that will help highlight and showcase spoken word artists in the diaspora. There’s also some theatre that I’m working on. There’s a lot going on and I’m excited about the future. I’ll be back in December working with the government of Cross River State. She reveals. “I’m so happy that I came and I’m overwhelmed by the love and the support. It’s been tough at times but it’s always been worth it.”
Does Bassey’s future include a lot of Nigeria?
“Of course it does!” She answers, “Now that I’m back, you will never get rid of me!”
(I have to tell this story, and I know Bassey will kill me but I have to tell it)
So we were in traffic one afternoon and Bee Azubike (PR Person extraordinaire) wanted some plantain chips. The cars started moving and naturally (as we have grown accustomed to seeing in Lagos traffic) the boy had to run to get his money. Bee and I were not ready for Bassey’s reaction.
“Lyd! Oh my God, he’s running! Oh my God Lyd can you pause!?” Bassey sounded really frantic so I slowed down a bit more till the young boy got to us. Bassey’s next statement was “I can’t eat this! I feel like this was ill gotten.” We all burst into laughter (because if you know Bassey you’ll know that her sense of humour is sharp and on point) and all was well, for some minutes.
5 minutes later, Bassey was crying terribly and didn’t speak the rest of the way home.
This is Bassey Ikpi. Emotional, Sensitive, Brilliant. Beautiful.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
I’d be a WAG (Wife and girlfriend) of a Chelsea Footballer.
Do you have any ‘hidden’ talent?
I can wiggle my right ear and I’m actually a really good dancer. Also, I’m a fount of useless knowledge.
How would you describe yourself?
Compassionate, sensitive, not really working up to my full potential, lazy, funny… short.
How do people describe you?
Incredibly hard on myself, sweet, funny, thoughtful, empathetic, sensitive
What is the one talent you wish you had?
I wish I could sing. If I could sing, I wouldn’t talk. It would just be an opera every day.
Greatest lesson learned-
Tell your own story, be authentic. Being authentic is better than being honest.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten-
As a writer “you can’t become a good writer until you become a reader, and you’re never going to be a good writer, till you become an editor.
Advice to yourself
Never apologise for how you choose to take care of yourself.
Story – Lydia Idakula Sobogun
Photography – Idowu Asumah
Assistants – BabsBamiro, Chini Odogwu
Location – Wellbrook Studios VI, Lagos
Outfits – Zebra living
Make up – Tobi (Le Boudoir)