CityLife Arts

Tribute to a feminist poet with a big heart, Myesha Jenkins

29 July 1948 – 5 September 2020

By Edward Tsumele

Well known Joburg based, US born feminist poet, and human rights activist  Myesha Jenkins has left a solid foot print on the South African contemporary poetry scene and activism. A versatile poet who could easily work with young poets, young enough to be her grand children, Myesha who died on Saturday, September 5 in Johannesburg, ‘peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by love’ was especially respected for embracing young poets, and working with them harmoniously as If they belonged to the same generation, and yet they were worlds apart in terms of both age and experiences.

Having relocated from the US where she was born and made South Africa her home many years ago, witnessing the country become a fully-fledged democracy, those close to her will attest to the fact that she had a big heart. Myesha seemed to have gone beyond being a bitter person dealing with societal problems such as misogyny,  patriarchy and the sickness of Gender Based Violence (GBV),to a human being who understood the purpose of life fully, and she always gave a hearty laugh and a wide smile, making it easy for even strangers to warm up to her.

She will always be remembered together with fellow poets Napo Masheane, Ntsiki Mazwai and Lebo Mashile for putting together a sleek poetry outfit known Feel A Sistah, a feminism inspired group that made watching, performing and listening to poetry sexy and a pleasurable experience in the country. The group  amassed many a mainstream audience that went beyond the often exclusionist and elitist poetry confines. The group had their act so well together that even a die-hard patriarch got to appreciate this act that made poetry waves in the mid 2000s before it inexplicably and prematurely folded.

 It is not for me to go into the details of what really happened, but what I know and several other people who followed the contemporary entertainment scene of the time will perhaps remember, is the fact that Feel A Sistah, was a revelation to watch on stage. Till this day many a female poet gets inspiration from these four sistahs.

Likewise, many a contemporary arts observer today will tell you that the country has not produced an equally formidable group of a single-minded poetry outfit since the unfortunate demise of Feel A Sistah. This is an outfit that even the often conservative government officials warmed up to them, feeling a sistahs’ power and therefore booked them at high profile government events and paid them well.

It is therefore understandable why many a contemporary poetry follower was disappointed when seemingly from nowhere, the outfit disintegrated, reportedly partly as a result of tensions that developed among members, and partly due to the fact that some members felt they were big enough to go on their own.

Myesha herself once confided in me and a friend one night in Makhanda (then Grahamstown) at the National Festival, that things were not as smooth sailing among the group members as the facade of public unity the group projected. That was in the mid 2000s when Feel A Sistah was a proper definition of what contemporary poetry was supposed to be in South Africa, especially when it came to mainstreaming the genre.

But this does not take away the fact that Myesha and her colleagues once put together a poetry outfit in the country that took poetry mainstream, performing alongside other mainstream art forms such as musical acts at concerts and festivals.

And therefore, it did not come as a surprise to many when in recent years, especially at the now defunct The Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein, Myesha performed her poetry with jazz bands regularly, a courageous experimental endeavour that promised to break new rules and create a new genre called poetry-jazz on the local contemporary arts scene.  Myesha was indeed a revolutionary woman as her close friends describe her, yearning to find a new voice through which she could  be heard  and space to express herself within the clutter of the entertainment industry of the time.

But of course we will never see that come to fruition because nature intervened and took Myesha into the World beyond the one we live in.

However there is another contribution that Myesha made, not only to the contemporary South African culture that she immersed herself in since she came to these shores, hailing from her native America. And that is her contribution to conscientising, especially young women in the circles that she moved in, to the idea of feminism in the face of well entrenched patriarchal practices in South African society. Though she was not loud about it, preferring to play a behind-the scenes, but hugely influential role, guiding and encouraging her young mentees to stand up and speak out on gender issues and the general marginalization of women’s voices and presences in many spaces in contemporary South Africa, her influence was ever there but nuanced.

In fact one would suggest and further argue strongly that Myesha’s influence radicalized the feminist movement in South Africa in those early years, particularly among the young crop of feminists that moved within her circles.

The very positioning of the poetry outfit Feel A Sistah was predicated in feminism and Myesha’s influence in that cannot be lost. For example, all the other three members of this poetry outfit are today well known feminist activities in their artistic practices and in civil society.

Mazwai uses her voice to fight what she considers to be a rape culture allegedly involving male celebrities that she claims went unpunished for years in the entertainment sector, and recently got into trouble with the law for claiming that celebrated and much admired radioman DJ Fresh fits the generation of men who abused women. The Dj has since gone to court to stop her from spreading what he says are false claims about him. The court granted him his wish.

Masheane, another former member of Feel A Sistah, represents her feminist voice through both theatre and poetry, with My Bum is Genetic, Deal with It, a theatre masterpiece, a good example of that activism.

Mashile’s voice on what she claims are the sexual indiscretions of powerful male producers on TV and film, the so called couch casting, Harvey Weinstein-style, is the stuff of legends of the local entertainment scene. Couch casting is a euphemism when powerful  TV, Film or theatre producers  ask for sexual favours from  those they cast in their productions.

And so, If there is another contribution that Myesha made on the local cultural scene in her life time, it is that of an influential matriarchy who quietly cultivated feminist activism among especially young black artists that she worked with.  And therefore Myesha’s legacy in feminist activism will live through the many young women, particularly artists that she influenced to take a stand against ills in society such as misogyny, patriarchy and the marginalization of women, especially the erasure of their voices and presences in different spaces dominated by men.

May her soul rest in peace.

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