August 13, 2002
When Meliza Bañales is introduced at Ladyfest Bay Area, the emcee pronounces her name wrong. So, when Meliza gets onstage she gives the crowd a quick lesson in Spanish pronunciation. "Come on crowd, repeat after me," she says, "May-lee-za Bon-yah-lez."
From that moment on, Meliza is in command of the audience. Her strong voice and captivating presence transports onlookers to the moments that she is describing. She makes her audience feel as if they are right there with her.
In one poem called "Do the Math," Meliza, who is Mexican and White, talks about growing up in LA. She talks about having to watch her father work in degrading jobs just because of his Mexican background and his strong accent. As a young woman, this self-described "blanca" admits that she was happy to have a lighter skin tone than her three other siblings, because she didn't want to embrace her Mexican roots. In another poem, she talks about developing breasts at an early age. In the piece, she speaks honestly about despising her big breasts, about how she was teased and received negative attention from others.
Meliza, who is 24-years-old, is originally from Los Angeles, where she got her start in spoken word in 1995. She left to attend UC Santa Cruz, where she received a Bachelor's degree in Literature and Creative Writing. In Santa Cruz, she started doing slam poetry and was on two slam teams there in 1998 and 1999.
Since then, Meliza has read her poems in a number of places and for a variety of people. She has performed on the streets, in bars and in restaurants all over the country, as well as in Cuba and even at Harvard University. She is the 2002 Oakland Slam Champion, and she recently won the People Before Profits Poetry Prize by Burning Bush Press.
Currently, Meliza lives in Oakland and is attending graduate school at San Francisco State University. At SFSU, she is studying to get her MFA in Writing and is teaching. Her job list doesn't end there, though. She also works as a nanny and in a bakery. Because Meliza grew up in a working class family, she has always worked several jobs at once. "I grew up with this idea that you work and you are defined by how good of a worker you are," she says. "If you work well and you take care of your family, then you're a good person."
As a result, Meliza writes about working class ethics, political struggles and family -- her parents in particular. Her heritage and identity play a big role in her art as well. "Most of my work centers around those situations. Most of my pieces are definitely political but with a personal twist -- it's like trying to reach a political goal through understanding my personal experiences and relating that to justice and understanding how that's all connected," she says.
Meliza describes herself as "a spoken word artist, a writer, a slam poet." In addition to poems, she also writes fiction and essays. But she loves being up on stage because she feels her spoken word performances reach larger audiences than the writing that she does on paper. "There is something about having a mic and being in front of an audience and relaying a message," she says, "that's completely different than expecting people to pick up a book -- it's a lot less elite."
"You're saying to the audience 'I don't expect you to know anything about poetry -- this is what I have to offer," she says, "if you walk away with something, that's great. And if you don't, that's okay, it doesn't mean you're stupid. And if you don't like it, that's even better because it's tells me that you're paying attention.'"
Meliza is a person who loves to laugh and make others laugh. She also likes to make people think. Meliza says that she has the same personality both on and off stage.
"I am not one of those performers who is terribly shy, personally, and then I get up there and I do all these crazy poems. I am not like that. I am pretty much the same person," she says.
Meliza wants to achieve two things through her art. "I wanna feel good about what I am writing and I wanna feel proud of what I am writing about," she says.
Meliza recently released a chap book of slam poems called "And I've Been Fighting Ever Since," which she published on her very Chula Press. The book's title is a line from a Charles Bukowski poem called "The Loser." Meliza feels that the title is appropriate because in the poems she feels like she is "constantly fighting to make a difference and fighting to expand my writing. I am fighting not only to do social change, but to change myself as a writer."
Meliza also feels that the title explains some things about her Mexican heritage. Her grandfather is indigenous Mexican and she comes from a family of farm workers and union organizers. Fighting has been an important part of her family's history. "I feel like I come from a long line of fighters," she says. "There's always that idea of fighting to survive, and fighting for people that you care about, your family and for everyday people who don't have a voice." She chose to put a picture of Emiliano Zapata on the cover of book because, she says, "he is one of the original indigenous people of Mexico that fought against the government for the right to their land and to practice their culture and beliefs."
When Meliza gets onstage, her fighting spirit comes across loud and clear. She has been doing slam for five years, and seems to enjoy the fact that it involves competion. In most slams, audience members are picked to judge the performers and rate them on a scale of one to 10. "There's this whole idea that people have a say in poetry," she says. "When you are at a slam, you know exactly how people feel about your work -- not just from the judges but from the audience."
This is when the connection to hip-hop and rap come in. Both are based on a process called battling, in which people freestyle competitively in front of an audience. This is what may attract a lot of hip hop listeners to spoken word and slam. Today Meliza says "some of the forms meld."
"You have a lot of early hip-hop artists that sound like spoken word artists," she says. She thinks that for instance, NWA, a West Coast rap group that was popular in the late 80s, had lyrics that sounded a lot like slam poetry. "They discuss a lot of the same issues, but they just do it in different ways," she says.
Russell Simmons also sees a connection. The CEO of Def Jam Records recently introduced spoken word to the country with Def Poetry Jam, a live performance series that is taped and broadcast on HBO. Meliza says she has mixed feelings about Def Poetry Jam.
She is happy that it is exposing people to poetry who have never known much about it. "I think the biggest problem with poetry is that people don't feel like they can be a part of it, they feel like they have to have some kind of education or background to understand it- and that's not the way it's supposed to be," she says. "I don't want them to have to just stand there and not know what to do with it or feel like they don't understand it or feel stupid."
She also thinks that poetry and spoken word may be on the road to becoming a big business. "It's now where people think 'oh you can become a superstar by doing spoken word,'" she says. "This is a way for everyday people to do something that they really care about and become really good at it. It's always this toss up. Local scenes can get lost in that whole fervor." She is afraid that it may stop being about small local poets.
But Meliza thinks that it's important to use mainstream outlets, like Def Poetry Jam, to get the original messages out. "We want people to listen, and we want to start utilizing those tools of oppression [but]...let's use mainstream outlets and do very controversial, fun, honest work," she says. "Let's show people that the mainstream doesn't have to be so bad. I think it's kind of a means to an end." Meliza says that one of the reasons that people are so attracted to spoken word and slam poetry is "because it's very honest."
"You can go and hear about your life spoken through somebody else, and you can feel like these people are real, everyday people," she says.
That's why even though Meliza would like to be able to make a living off of doing only spoken word, it's more important for her to reach her audience. "I am not doing this just to get paid, I am doing it because I care about it," she says. "That for me is the ultimate goal, and if I have to keep working through two or three jobs to keep doing it, I will."
WireTap summer fellow, Tamara Crockett, will be returning to Florida A & M this fall to finish her degree in Magazine Production and Graphic Design.
The photos of Meliza were used compliments of poeticdream.com