Rhyme and Rhythm



A registered pharmacist who once helped heal people's bodies, Iyeoka Okoawo found her life's work in music and poetry slamming, where she's enriching people's spirits. On Wednesday, March 10, she will perform at MCLA Presents! "Sekou Sundiata Evening of Poetry and the Spoken Word," at 7:30 p.m., in MCLA Gallery 51.

Growing up in Boston as the child of Nigerian parents, Okoawo has been involved with the arts, music, and writing since she was very young. Although she initially chose pharmacy as her career path, she never stopped writing poetry and was an active participant in choir and music.

However, a few "landmark experiences" gave her the courage to make a shift.

"I was in an airplane that was struck by lightning and going down," Okoawo recalls. "I had my whole life flash before my eyes. I knew I just needed to try to do what I'm really passionate about, which is poetry.

"Pharmacy is such an old, old amazing tradition. There's no roadmap for poetry, but I didn't see that as a reason why I couldn't pursue it. So, I'm making my own roadmap," she adds.

What's more, she's preparing a roadmap for others who may wish to follow in her footsteps by writing a book on how to become a slam poet.

"I'm realizing there's even more I can do to help this genre of art. It's important," Okoawo explains. "There's this element of empowerment for such a variety of different people who end up getting into it. It's kind of like the inside scoop to being creative. You learn to use your voice. You learn to use gestures to bring your words to life. You're able to experience the process of writing and tap into those moments of our lives that have shifted us at some point - for the good or the bad."

The length of her set at Wednesday's show, she says, will allow her to involve the audience and allow them to "become a part of the moment."

"Expect that you will be experiencing the call and response of the spoken word. I believe that everyone can be a poet. I know that's a bold statement to make, but I've interacted with way too many adults and youth to know that there's so many closet poets," says Okoawo. "All they need is an opportunity to shine. In my shows, I give everyone an opportunity to express. Sometimes, I invite people to sing with me as well. People take the opportunity and it's really empowering for me to watch an audience transform like that."

Her MCLA Gallery 51 performance will be a combination of poetry and music. The lead singer of The Rock by Funk Tribe, she will be joined by a member of that band, composer and multi-instrumentalist Akili Jamal Haynes, a member of the woodwinds and brass faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Also a singer/songwriter, her newest single "The Yellow Brick Road Song," recently was featured in the third episode of HBO's newest series "How to Make it in America."

Music, she says, is "basically just another form of poetry for me."

"I've always gravitated toward songs that were empowering, inspiring, and that made me move, whether it was a slow song or an upbeat song. Those are the songs that I'm writing. As a poet, I want to be able to encourage people to think about writing songs that really are disciplined in the lyrical content - that can potentially read as poems if you didn't have the musical to back them up."

Tickets are $12 for general admission, $8 for MCLA faculty and staff, and free to MCLA students and members of MCLA Presents! For tickets, call (413) 662-5204. For general information, call (413) 664-8718 or go to presents.