In Denver, we raise poets. Toluwanimi Obiwole is one of them: As a member of Minor Disturbance youth slam poetry team, she took the Denver city slam and became a Brave New Voices international slam champion; now a student in architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, the Nigerian-born wordsmith was honored with the title of Denver’s first Youth Poet Laureate earlier this year and has moved on to Denver’s Slam Nuba adult team. What inspires and powers this bright rising star? Read her answers to the 100CC questionnaire.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Toluwanimi Obiwole: I would collaborate with Marie Antoinette, not just because of her style (although her aesthetic inspires my life a lot) but because she had the potential to do so much. I know I could have chosen someone a little edgier and who maybe lived in a more favorable era to my people, but honestly she is the most fascinating historical figure to me. She was just a girl who had no clue what to do with all the power she was handed. Her struggle was so common, being a girl trying to be independent of a womanhood that was determined for her and finding her own.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
I am inspired by and find so many people fascinating every day, but the constants who really drive me in so many areas of my life are Malala Yousafzai, Rihanna and Oroma Elewa.
Malala was brave enough to counter tradition in order to birth a new one. She just seems like one of those people who works not for recognition but with an urgency for her life and the lives of those she wants to see succeed. She could very well sit comfortably with her Nobel Prize and allow her important connections to continue her work for her, but she still works like it's the only thing she could ever do, and it inspires me to never get complacent and never be satisfied.
Oroma Elewa is a Nigerian style icon and ever-evolving pioneer in the world of modern African fashion and art. She is actually doing everything I aspire to one day. The same goes for Rihanna. There are a lot of people who trivialize her work as a pop artist, but her influence goes way beyond music performance — it’s how she reacts to the world. She knows she's a sex symbol and uses that not to create any sort of new beauty standard, but to express the freedom she feels in her body while celebrating everyone's right to do the same. One of her most perfect moments, in my opinion, was when she wore a dress to some fancy party that read, "You will never own me. I will never fear you.” Even though I do not and will never look like Rihanna, I pull from the power of a woman in a black body rejecting the notion that she inherently belongs to anyone.
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
Goodness gracious, art trends are so transient and each one has its own beauty. The ones that make me roll my eyes back into my soul (too many to count) usually have a shelf life and will die off in their time. However, in the search for "ancient wisdom,” "universal love” and "the dream of the ’90s,” cultural appropriation has gone live! It astonishes me how many artists feel the need to snag something sacred or popular within the Native American, African American, African, Asian or Asian American communities without asking and then "make it a trend.”
What's your day job?
As school and my art career get crazier, it's hard to hold a steady job. But my day (in the summer/break times) consists of: writing into whatever poetry projects I'm working on (right now — my books, commissioned poems, community projects/events and slam poetry team work); working on school work (I am forever in class, and graduation cannot come soon enough!); nannying whenever I can; and running errands for my family.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
Oh dear, what a blessing! (Can this be real, please?) I would create a list and pick a fight with all the injustices I could think of. I would work on my lifelong dream to eradicate slums in my home country and provide safe, beautiful, affordable housing for all. I’d pay off my student loans, fund post-secondary education for all, re-vamp neglected schools/districts and make poetry an available class for all primary and secondary schools.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
If Colorado could help make the arts a more widespread norm as opposed to being colonized by privileged millennials who want to keep the city “weird,” then more kids would not only have access to it, but they would know it was their right to express their own truths and create. There should be more art centers and after-school programs on the eastern plains and all around the often-forgotten areas of the state.
Amal Kassir is probably my favorite person doing important things creatively all over this city and even around the world! I love her dearly as a sister, and am endlessly inspired by her tireless efforts to bring relief and hope to Syrian refugees.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
This year is almost frighteningly beautiful because it marks the beginning of many things: my senior year of college, the publishing of my first book, editing poetry for my school's honors journal, working with Colorado's creative youth as a resource and exploring career options. I'm really excited!
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in 2015?
I'm as credible a source as anyone in that I know the work and kind of work that I'm looking forward to seeing this year. As far as poets go, there are quite a few who are coming out or have come out with books that I love — for instance, Paulie Lipman and Amal Kassir. In music, I'm very excited for Kayla Marque, SUR ELLZ (Khalil Aracdy), Kid Astronaut (former member of Air Dubai, Jon Shockness's new pursuit), Bianca Mikahn (she is a well-respected MC, but still deserves way more love for this year's endeavors) and Smileygatmouth (Eli Lynch).