[Re-Up] Let Her Tell It: Poet, Gina Loring On Racial Identity, the Gift of Poetry & Self-Acceptance
*This piece was written and a few years ago when I first began blogging. I was hungry for the stories of inspiring Black women with passion for their crafts and a glow in their eyes. I'm re-posting this, though it is years old, for the knowledge Ms. Loring so willingly shared and the pearls of wisdom that remain relevant though time has marched on and she has continued in her path of success.*
One independent album. Features at such acclaimed poetry venues as Russell Simmons’s “Def Poetry Jam”, BET’s “Lyric Café”, and TVOne’s new “Verses and Flow”. A guest poet of the American Embassy. Degrees from Spelman and Antioch University. This list is only a small column on the resume of the incomparable poet, Gina Loring. You may have seen the Youtube video of her performing her hit poem “You Move Me”, a piece well over five years old that has received over 300,000 views. You might have caught one of her many shows at colleges, universities, poetry slams and night spots along the West Coast. If you have, you understand that her passion for the spoken word is palpable and the sentiment of her message is emotional, giving a little something to think about to each person under the sound of her voice. She unknowingly began cultivating her craft as a young girl and has been flowing ever since, washing over her listeners with messages of love, hope and social justice.
I was able to catch up with the hardworking veteran poet and grab some amazing gems of knowledge and revelation:
HS: Where did this start? The singing, the poetry, the activism? Did they all sprout from the same seed or were they individually planted at different times in your life?
GL: “I've been singing since I could talk. As a little girl, I was always singing into a hair brush in the mirror pretending to be Whitney Houston or Tina Tuner. As I got older, I naturally gravitated towards singing in school bands, talent shows, and eventually writing my own songs.
Poetry came a little later-- when I was in high school I started journaling my thoughts and ideas, and it just came out with a certain cadence. I had no idea that what I was doing was considered free verse poetry until a teacher asked me to read something I had written for the whole school. Throughout the rest of high school and college, I continued to express myself through poetry, but didn't really start reading at open mics and getting into the spoken word scene until I graduated from college.
As far as activism, my mother was active in the civil rights movement, and I was raised to have an awareness of social justice from a very young age. My poetry and music directly reflects my feelings and thoughts, and that includes my opinions about social issues. I think artists have an opportunity to use our work as a platform--- if you have people's attention, why not use that moment to say something significant?”
HS: Who/what has had the most influence over your artistry/career? How?
GL: There are many artists who have inspired and influenced me. Billie Holiday always comes to mind first. I discovered her when I was fourteen, and connected with how she expressed her pain, heartache, and grief through music. I had never heard someone share themselves so authentically and vulnerably-- it introduced me to using creative expression as an outlet. I also love Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley---classic artists who have had a huge impact on me, and on the world itself.
HS: One struggle that many young women face is finding themselves and their passion/purpose as opposed to blindly following the imposed will of others. What did “finding yourself” look like for you? Were you supported by your family and friends?
GL: Learning and growing is a continuous journey--- I think we are discovering ourselves right up until the day we die. And maybe that's the purpose of life-- to explore, to endure, to open ourselves to the full continuum of what the human experience is – which is not to say it is an easy experience.
My teenage years were particularly challenging in terms of identity. Thankfully, I was able to write about it, and get some of that angst out in poetry. It was a challenging time, but one that I had to go through as part of my personal journey. I was in a lot of pain, feeling judged by how I was perceived based on something I had no control over-- my complexion. As a black woman, it is very difficult to be on either end of the spectrum--either very dark-skinned or very light-skinned, and it's something we as a community still need to work on and heal.
I have always felt very uncomfortable with the assumptions people make surrounding being light-complected, but I also absolutely recognize the privilege it comes with as a direct result of Eurocentric, post-colonial brainwashing. At the end of the day, I've discovered it's about prioritizing spirit first, and not letting ego or insecurities dominate your consciousness.
HS: I’ve followed your work for some time now and the solid and common threads that run through the tapestry of your work and travel are love and diversity. Is that accurate? If so, what is it about those two elements that drive you?
GL: My poetry is a direct reflection of my lived experience. Whether it's personal relationships, family, racial issues, social commentary, love--I use poetry as a canvas to illustrate the thoughts and emotions happening inside me. I have dealt with heartache around love, family issues, and challenges around race, and thankfully poetry has been a place for me to process and channel those issues.
HS: If there is one piece of advice you could give to an aspiring poet, what would it be?
GL: Read poetry. It is imperative that young poets study the work of established poets---Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Ellen Bass, Natasha Trethewey, Nikki Giovanni, Suheir Hammad, Kevin Young--these are a few of the poets I have learned a great deal from.
HS: Being multiracial, how has that lent itself to your artistry? Has it ever caused internal conflict? If so, how did you overcome that time?
GL: I am proud of my heritage, and feel strengthened knowing I come from such resilient and rich cultures: African American, Eastern European Jewish, Creek Native American. That being said, being racially ambiguous can be a pain in the ass! If I had two dollars for every time I've been asked about my background, or what ethnicity I am, I would be a multi-millionaire. My background has definitely informed my work, and has served as a narrative for my experiences. The hurdle is really just being at peace with yourself, and not internalizing the noise and clutter of other people's issues. To paraphrase Lenny Kravitz, "I didn't know there was an issue with my parents being different ethnicities until other people started telling me."
HS: What words of encouragement could you give to young bi/multi-racial women who feel displaced and between two worlds? Where/How do they find their true selves?
GL: I believe we are all here on the planet for a purpose-- to learn, grow, teach. And truly, there is only one race--the human race. We are taught to divide ourselves and focus on the differences, but really, we are all far more alike than not. That is the first thing to be clear on. Furthermore, EVERYONE is mixed. Someone who has one parent who is French Canadian, and another parent who is Italian, has different cultures, languages, and histories in their background too-- even though in our society, they would just be classified as "white." So don't believe the hype that somehow having a black parent and a white parent makes you "different."
In terms of coming into a place of self-acceptance, I know that reaching back has been helpful for me. Looking at significant people with whom I share similar backgrounds-- from Frederick Douglas to Bob Marley to Etta James to Eartha Kitt to Lenny Kravitz, I feel inspired and embrace being part of a powerful tribe.
HS: You were very involved with Norman Lear’s “Declare Yourself” campaign in 2008. How did that campaign enlighten you? What political ventures are you adamant about now? Why?
GL: Using poetry as a platform to get people out to vote was a great concept, and I was proud to be part of that. However, I would not consider myself to be particularly political-- I believe in equality, justice, and peace-- and I get a little underwhelmed with how lacking those basic concepts seem to be in the political forum. However, specifically as people of color, and as women, I think it is important that we use our right to vote--not only to make our voices heard, but also to honor the many people who fought and died for us to have that right.
HS: Of all the poems you’ve performed, songs you’ve recorded, stages you’ve graced – both theatrically and musically, what experience has meant the most to you?
GL: I've had some amazing experiences performing internationally. Whether in Kuwait, Russia, West Africa, Turkey, Greece, Ireland, England, Denmark---I've had moments when I just stop and feel tremendous gratitude. It's kind of amazing that poetry has taken me--a black, jewish, single-parent-home kid from West LA-- to all corners of the planet. On another note, I would say that being able to share my poetry with my brother, and feel how proud he was of me, is something I will always carry with me. His death in 2005 was extremely hard for me, but knowing that he believed in me and my work means more to me than anything.
HS: Do you have any upcoming projects? Where should we look to see you next?
GL: I am currently in the studio recording new songs, and writing new poems is also an ongoing process. Keep up with me at www.ginaloring.com. Check in for when new music is released on iTunes, and when I'll be performing in your town. I truly appreciate the support.