On June 21st 2014 something interesting happened to me. I had been flown out to the South of France to perform at a 50th birthday party, when my voice disappeared. This had never happened before, and for some hours I remained confident that the issue would resolve itself in time. I gargled medicine, stopped talking, drank lemon and honey - all the routine stuff - yet my voice seemed to deteriorate faster and faster.
The party was at a beautiful chateau in Nîce. As soon as I got there, I found the hosts and explained the situation in what sounded like a sick impression of a horse. They were surprisingly cool for two people receiving the worst possible news from one of the only acts of the night. They insisted that everything was fine and that I should do whatever I felt comfortable doing - including not performing at all. Come to think of it, there’s a good chance they were tacitly pleading with me not to perform because I sounded crap.
Humbled, though I was, by their consideration, I couldn’t accept what felt like a cop-out. I had taken pride in being the youngest attendee present on business, not least after socialising at pre-drinks the previous night. This was an intimate reunion of long-time friends from a range of professions, all apparently very successful. And then there was me with my baby-face, possibly the only 23 year-old and definitely the only black guy. Somehow I worked myself into social comfort. I felt appropriate, and ready to impress with my poetry at the big celebration of the following night.
So the following night, it was the big celebration. I had seen many of these faces at pre-drinks and I liked them all. We’d spoken about their kids my age (significantly absent), my journey to Cambridge, and how great my mum is. There I found everyone from the night before - everyone except my damn voice.
It had never occurred to me that my voice was an independent entity; I can physically be wherever I want, but if my voice decides it’s not involved, I’m on my own. This is particularly strange in the age of social media, wherein we can have not just a constant voice, but parallel voices, ranging from public (Twitter) to private (WhatsApp). Has it ever occurred to you that your live feed is one big erratic conversation that exists in complete silence? I think this goes unnoticed because social media is for personal use. And if you’re like me, having come of age in this world, you think this is normal.
It’s not normal. There’s something darkly narcissistic about customised communication, considering communication is, by definition, a multiplayer game. Social media is the twenty-first century radio; only, instead of channelling voices and music, it channels thoughts and experiences. Many (arguably all) media do this ultimately, but social media does it literally, because you’re hearing things that are not making sounds (audios and videos notwithstanding), and you’re seeing things that are not in front of you. You’re accessing bits of life, channelled through pieces of aluminium that you carry around. Every social medium is a set of headphones connected to users’ brains. You can tune in and have it as loud or as quiet as you want. If you don’t like what you hear, you can switch stations. Unlike radio, however, social media creates ambience out of people’s lives, not songs.
One comparison I can draw from recent history is the evolution of the coffee house. Like Twitter and WhatsApp, coffee houses were spaces for people to meet and to share - vessels of communication. Another word for “vessel” is “medium”, therefore coffee houses were “social media”. Unlike Twitter and WhatsApp, however, coffee houses required sharing to occur face-to-face. The modern elimination of this physical aspect is both a gift and a curse. I live in a generation that has more access to information than ever, but struggles with eye contact.
Which brings me back to my voice. Compared to social media, a voice has a more specified function; it is a medium of ideas. It’s the sonic manifestation of thought, and all this online stuff is supposed to amplify it, not substitute it. Isn’t it strange that you can hear yourself think, when your thoughts don’t make a sound? Doesn’t that make you a mind-reader? Isn’t it even stranger that everyone else can hear their internal voice as clearly as you can yours, but none of us can hear each other’s?
So the following night it was the big celebration, and I had no voice. I’d never been so cut-up about general chit chat. Such a rare occasion, so many connections to make, and no medium for making them. I stepped away from the main proceedings because I kept being drawn into conversation, which antagonised my throat. During my seclusion I practised poems (useless), pleaded with God, then sulked. While muttering to myself, I noticed I could whisper perfectly fine, then I got an idea.
The Ying Yang Twins made a whole song in whisper - why don’t I whisper some poetry? Many problems. Sound wouldn’t carry (small PA system in a big garden), novelty would wear off quickly (20-minute set), piano would drown me out (they flew a pianist out for me), old people might miss everything, the list goes on. But what if my poem was a “performance” piece about voicelessness?
Kinda depressing for a birthday.
But it’s real.
But it’s not all about me I gotta meet them halfway.
Cool, end on a positive. Brainstorm positives: I genuinely like these people…lucky to be here…good vibes…
Cool, link to voicelessness.
The good vibes are testament to the birthday girl’s effect on people; my voice is my medium for affecting people.
Need to be clearer.
I took for granted that my voice would be here with me, losing it has reminded me how much it helps me reach people; that’s why I had to perform, if even a whisper. So tonight let’s celebrate in the understanding that nothing is guaranteed, and we are all lucky to be able to meet and to share.
Once I’d outlined the message, I wrote the poem within 20 minutes. While I was writing it, the hosts took turns in checking up on me and offering reassurance that there was no pressure on me to perform. Through a barely intelligible rasp, I reassured them in return that I had a plan. Half an hour later, I went on stage and half-whispered, half-croaked the whole thing.
The audience was silent and respectful. My heart was heavy while I delivered the poem, because part of me couldn’t let go of how much I missed my voice. I’d flown all the way out here, told all my people, even brought my youngest brother with me, only to deliver a fraction of what I had planned. I told the audience
"I’m in a bit of a predicament.
My predicament is that I’m fine.
I’m able-bodied and of sound mind.
I didn’t miss my flight, had a great time last night
…I even got here on time.
I can do anything I want to do.
Except the one thing I’ve come to do.
And I envisioned something much more impressive than
Standing here grunting in front of you.”
They laughed politely and listened intently. When I got to the end of the poem I was met with warm applause, and handed over to the lovely Eliza Doolittle, who sang beautifully.
Bottom line is shit happens! In delivering that poem, I reaffirmed some things I already knew and learned something completely new. I already knew that solutions are better than excuses; I knew that you only lose when you give up; and I knew that where there’s a will there’s a way. I didn’t know my voice was not necessarily mine. I now appreciate the true meaning of spoken word - empowerment. My Rasta friend explained it to me a few months ago in his genius Rasta philosophy: word, sound, power. Words occur in your head, or maybe even on paper, but they are given a new energy through sound, which grants them power.
When I lost my voice I realised something: as a poet, I have a job that can’t be delegated. You guys might not have to stand on stage and declare your thoughts to complete strangers, but you are who you are for a reason. Please use your voice deliberately and purposefully, and don’t let social media trick you into thinking your saying things just because you’re typing things. Thank you to Leigh and Brian Message, my amazing hosts. And thanks to life for the lesson!