In Conversation With: Simone Yasmin
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Hi everyone, and welcome to the very first installment of the "In conversation with black Britain" series. We'll be talking to people from across britain, making their mark in their own way.
This one is with Simone Yasmin, a spoken word poet from Leeds. We discussed growing up, going away to uni, her craft, food, and of course, what being black means to her. If you'd like to follow Simone and see her perform her poetry, head to her instagram @_etherealtruth. And if you'd like to be part of the conversation, visit our instagram and drop me a line, and then head here to book a time slot for us to talk.
Anyway, enough from me, let's get on with the chat.
IN CONVERSATION WITH BLACK BRITAIN: SIMONE YASMIN
Brianna (TBP) Hey how are you doing?
Simone I'm okay. Thanks, are you?
Brianna Yeah I'm good, can't complain. (Laughs).
Simone Your hair looks lovely. I need to plait mine.
Brianna Thank you! Honestly It was like getting such a nightmare to detangle that I was like, I'm not doing it the rest of the year. Just braid it out of the way!
Simone Thats what I need to do it’s so much effort.
Brianna And I feel like it takes longer in the winter just because I'm not in the mood to be doing it. So I get distracted by everything.
Simone I agree. I completely agree.
Brianna Okay. So it's gonna be super casual, I'm not gonna be like Trevor McDonald grilling you on life. It's super chill. So I sent you the questions yesterday. And that's kind of what I'm going to ask to everyone that does this, because I kind of want it to be like in conversation with Black Britain basically is what I want the series to be.
Simone Oh I like that.
Brianna I think it's very different, your experience based on where you are in the country, but like, we will have such similar shared experiences, too.
Simone Yeah, definitely.
Brianna So that actually leads quite nicely into the first question, which is where where abouts did you grow up and what was that like for you?
Simone So I grew up in Leeds, which is in the north. It's not really - well it is in the north, but it's not as north as some of the north. It's closer to the Midlands. It's in Yorkshire. So still very white. The area that I live, I live in Kirkstall, very predominantly white. The Primary school that I went to, I was the only black child until year two or year three I think? Two black children came over and they both come from places in Africa. It was quite nice to have obviously other black children in the class. Same for my high school, very predominantly white. So I've always grown up in white environments, white spaces, and I've kind of had to seek out black people and go to like certain events. And obviously in the city, I'm saying it's predominantly white, but there are black areas or black spaces within cities. There are different kind of pockets of the city. So I'd go to, I don't know, more parties that were in like areas called Tuckwell Town. I don't know where you're based, I don't know if this means anything to you.
Brianna I'm down Hastings way but I was actually born just outside Birmingham, so I know Yorkshire, the Midlands, that whole sort of northern area quite well.
Simone Yeah. So I try to seek out different cultures, different people, depending on kind of what I was doing. My grandma lived in Bradford, so I spent a lot of my childhood in Bradford. She still lives in Bradford and Bradford has a massive Asian community.
Brianna Yes for sure.
Simone Although I wasn't finding kind of more black people, I was finding a culture that wasn't white, which was quite comforting in a way, and I used to play out with lots of the Asian girls and we'd like skip in the back streets and stuff. (Laughs) So there's that side of it. I did actually see a lot of black people in Bradford, but not my age. They were like my grandmother's friends and people that she'd come over with. So it wasn't, not that I couldn't relate, but I was, what, five or something and a sixty year old. So not really relatable in that sense. (Laughs) And then I went to - not really grow up but - I went to Uni and did my undergrad in Newcastle. And that is like very North, so that's what I mean when I say Leeds isn't.
Brianna (Laughs) Oh that's proper North!
Simone (Laughs) Yeah, that's proper North. So that was, that was very white. It was like I mean, I didn't realise how diverse Leeds was until going to Newcastle. Like, yeah, I it was just it was very strange not seeing so much culture, so much diversity. And it was also kind of interesting seeing how people reacted to me like I've never really been anywhere where if I was walking, people crossed the street or raised their eyes, but they did that a lot.
Simone And I used to work at an after school club. And all the kids, well not all the kids, but some of the kids would be like, why are your lips like that? Why is your skin like that? Why is whatever. And when I started working there, there was a mixed race girl who worked there, and they'd get us confused all the time. They called me Naomi 24/7. Oh, they used to say, Oh my gosh, you look like Fleur East.
Simone I really don't. But it just showed that they weren't - And I couldn't blame them, they were kids - But it just showed that they weren't used to being around black people and weren't used to diversity at all. It wasn't something that was usual to them.
Brianna Yeah, of course. So how come you chose to go to Newcastle? Because I know a lot of people of colour, generally if they're not from quite a diverse area, will look at going maybe to like to London or maybe to Manchester, where there is a more diverse population at uni. How come Newcastle for you?
Simone Honestly for me, London was never really an option. Because as much as I say, it's predominantly white up here, I love the North. I love the close knit community. I love all the emphasis on the arts and just how interwoven everything is up here. I feel like there's a lot - in a weird way there is a lot of culture!
Simone Like the arts culture, that sort of culture. But honestly, for me, I didn't really pick Newcastle based on anything other than the course. I went and looked round different universities, so I went to Birmingham, which is obviously very diverse. But I really preferred the course at Newcastle. And It was a big thing for me, I was like ummm do I really want to go here, where I know its not going to be very diverse, and I will probably be one of the only black people on the course. Which I was I think! There was me, there was a black guy and there was two mixed race girls and there was an Asian guy, and the Asian guy dropped out! I was like don't leave us!
Brianna We're so small already! (Laughs)
Simone I know! (Laughs) But yes, it honestly was just the course. And as much as the course wasn't diverse, I learnt a lot about diversity there. So I did English literature and I chose a lot of the modules that were like US Caribbean Culture, I did contemporary cultures, I did Indian literature so even though the course itself wasn't diverse. I could see that the uni was trying to kind of diversify its curriculum, to make sure we were reading a range of authors, a range of narratives. So that really appealed to me. It wasn't just English literature in your sense of like Shakespeare and Keats. It was the curriculum was diverse, which I thought although the city may not be diverse, I'm going to uni to study, to do a course that I enjoy. So that's why I chose that.
Brianna That sounds amazing. That they really - they really did focus on diversifying what they were teaching people. I think education is the most important thing in changing minds.
Brianna That's what we really need to push for, is a change in the way people are thinking. And we can't do that without education.
Simone Definitely. So I've read so many books there that I probably wouldn't come across probably, I wouldn't have found them myself. So many books from different black authors, different narratives. We watched a lot of like, Spike Lee films. They really tried to be diverse.
Brianna So good to hear. So did you get into the spoken word poetry whilst you were at uni, or is that something that you were doing beforehand?
Simone Yes, it is. It's something that I was doing beforehand. But I honestly, I think if I'd have got into it at uni, I would have probably been put off it. I think a lot of the spaces where you do poetry in education, they're very much white spaces. You're looking at like Shakespeare and Keats and Shelley. They're not showing you diverse poets. I remember one really awkward time at uni when we - It was one of the poetry modules, and for our seminar our seminar leader said, like prepare a poem and come in and perform your poem to the group. So I'd written a poem. It was when I can't remember what year it was. It was when, like it was all going round on social media that Libya was hosting. Well, having those slave markets.
Simone I wrote a poem on that and there was a mixed race girl in my seminar and she wrote. I can't remember what hers was on, but hers was a racial poem. Everybody else in our seminar was white. So we went round the room and i people were reading poems about nature and about (Laughs) I don't even know, the weather! But it got to mine and I performed and everyone was like, wow, that was heavy. And then my friend was right after and it was like two racial ones in a row. And we were like "Oop, this is very tense!"
Simone But yeah, no, poetry is something that I got into - I went to my first poetry slam when I was 10 with my dad. I performed at it actually, which when I look back now,I don't know how I did that being so young.
Brianna That was very bold!
Simone I know (Laughs) I just think you don't have nerves when you're a child, you just don't! So yeah, that was actually for Black History Month. It was called rap poetry and that was in Bradford.
Simone My primary school teacher, to be honest, she just loved English. She really pushed me down that avenue, and told us to write poems. And then when I was in high school, I went to lots of performing arts groups. I went to groups that liked the theatre. In particular two poets actually, both based in Leeds. One Called Michelle Scally-Clark, and one called Paulette Morris. They both came in and did workshops with us and it was all about spoken word. And I remember Michelle saying, like, Tracy, this is Tracy paper. Tracy Paper is your best friend, like tell Tracy Paper everything you want, write it down, she won't tell anybody unless you want to. (Laughs) So that's always stuck with me. And I really got into it then, it was kind of seeing poets like me speaking about, sort of, stories that related to me and not just your kind of typical page poetry. So, yeah, I'd like I say, I think that if I got into it, in the educational format, I probably wouldn't have stuck to it because of the type of poetry we were being shown.
Brianna Yeah totally. So what when you were younger - other than those two women - influenced you? Was there a music genre that maybe influenced the type of poetry that you were into? Is it like your parents? What was it that got your brain going?
Simone Honestly, I think I just used to write about whatever was bothering me. I don't know why. I've always been like, something's bothering me. Write it down. Get it out on the page. It might have been the Tracy Paper thing! But yeah, there was I guess - I'm saying maybe not music, but I guess music influences everything. I love rap music, so. And obviously a lot of that is poetry. Like, I was listening to some of the - the name's completely gone, I want to say Def Poetry Jam? But it might not be.
Brianna I think yeah, that definitely rings a bell.
Simone Yeah. Yeah. Some of like Kanye West's old ones. And a lot of his songs now, he performed like 20 years ago as spoken word poems. So as much as I'm saying my influence might not be music. That's where that music has come from, so I guess it's all intertwined. I don't think you can separate like the rhythm from poetry or the music from spoken word. Yeah. What else would be my influences? I guess all my poetry is based on things that are happening in the world. So just see what's happening. Being so frustrated with it, really. That's where my inspirations always come from.
Brianna There's a lot of inspiration at the minute.
Simone Yeah. I've not been stuck for content!
Brianna No! So I suppose that's probably helped you keep your mind busy during lockdown. So much has gone on that you've kind of had a lot of content to work with.
Simone Yeah, definitely. So I think to be honest, I've not written as many as I could of because I was working on my dissertation.
Brianna Oh yeah! How did that go?
Simone It was okay. I think it went well. We don't get our results till November, so.
Both Fingers crossed!
Simone But yes, at the start of lockdown I wrote a poem about coronavirus and kind of how being indoors is allowing the world to refresh and revive, because obviously we were running out of time to cut back on our plastic usage and all the rest of it. So it's really given the world the time to reset. But I also think it gave us the time to reflect on ourselves. We got time to pause and think about what was important. Think about those we love, like when everything was stripped back and we couldn't go anywhere but our houses. It wasn't like going out that we were missing, it was people, and contact. I think that was really important. I wrote another piece called I am a key worker. I'm not a key worker, but it was about the key workers.And like all the clapping for the NHS and stuff I feel it was a lot of performatism happening.
Brianna So much performatism!
Simone Definitely. It was a nice sentiment and it was like, it was nice watching it on TV and seeing how many people had come out and joined ogether. But really they didn't want a clap, they wanted wages raising and all that stuff so.
Brianna Yeah exactly.
Simone So I wrote one on that. Then obbviously, since I always write racial poems anyway, so I was writing - like I wrote one on Meghan Markle when that happened earlier this year. But I've written two in response to like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and all those events that we've been seeing recently. And what's been quite interesting is seeing how many people, like I say that poem, about Meghan Markle, I wrote...I can't remember when but it was definitely last year - but kind of seeing how many people have gone back to it and liked it and commented on it is because it's kind of all now relevant or trending. But I've been saying this stuff for ages.
Brianna Yeah for sure! It's been a funny period because I think people haven't had the excuse of life to distract them from it. So they've been very focussed. It's also been interesting to see how quickly that sort of dropped off. Now that life is back up again.
Brianna It's definitely interesting to see, like, the businesses small and big that are actually still pushing for this now. It's like, OK, you can kind of tell where you want to put your money behind and who you want to put your money behind.
Simone Yeah, exactly. Because, you know, we really saw it as a trend. I've never seen so many people jump on something and then just... Not.
Brianna Exactly. I've definitely noticed it with the black project that people love to jump on, the ones where like black people are suffering, like they love to share that, but they don't love to share the stuff about, like, here's a really talented artist or here's a really great business you could support. They don't care so much about sharing that. It's more like. What does - what do I look like to other people when I share about suffering?
Simone I think - I want to say it was Munroe Bergdorf, but I don't know, she might have just posted it, I don't know if it was her quote. But I remember reading a quote on her profile, which said, basically, when people are doing what you're saying, it just tells us that you care more about black death than you do about black life. And it's so true because those images of police brutality and the videos, spread so much quicker than anything positive about black people.
Brianna It really does. I just hope that, like with people like what you were doing, with your spoken word, and the black project and all of these little things that are popping up, hopefully collectively we can change that narrative because there's so much excellence in black communities, not just here in the U.K., but globally.
Simone You're right.
Brianna There's no reason that it shouldn't be out there and celebrated.
Simone Definitely. Definitely. I mean, it's out there for everybody else and celebrated so!
Brianna Exactly! OK. So that's kind of like the heavy racial stuff out of the way. So more casual stuff. Have you discovered anything new during lockdown that you haven't done before? Maybe a new hobby or?
Simone Well (Laughs and turns camera to a corner filled with plants) I've become obsessed, as you see, with plants. I've got I think I've got 25 plants in my room, it's a bit ridiculous?
Brianna How do you keep them all alive!
Simone (Laughs) It's a struggle. Earlier this week, my cactus stunk and I was like, what is going on? And it had started rotting.
Brianna Oh no!
Simone I didn't even know cactus's could rot so! (Laughs) But I've become very obsessed with plants. What else? Honestly, I've been so immersed in my uni work. That's all I've really had time for. Yeah. Plants. I've been doing a lot of online classes, so I was doing a dance hall class, which was fun. I enjoyed that. Oh! I did hip hop yoga. That was really good.
Brianna How did that work?
Simone So it was like, it was kind of like soft hip hop. So it was nice and calm and then soothing to listen to whilst you were doing it.
Brianna That sounds so fun.
Simone Yeah. You just kind of did things to the beat of music. It was good. So that was an online class and, um, pilates. But I was doing Pilates anyway. So that was just one that I kind of carried over But I'm not a dancer so dance hall lessons were really fun. My memory is awful as well. So when it got to like actually - I'd be doing the routine and following the instructor and then when that stop and say, show me I'd forget.
Simone So one day I invented a trick, and I put my phone like underneath my laptop. And I filmed myself doing it. So then when they stepped away I pressed play and I just copied myself. (Laughs).
Brianna Oh my god that's so clever!
Brianna What did you write your dissertation on?
Simone So it was on - So mine was a project, you could either do kind of a long research piece or - it was still a long piece to be fair- or team up with a company and do some research for them rather than just I don't know, your own question. So I was doing it for a wealth management company whose audience or like, clientele is predominantly, eurocentric. All their clients are pretty much white, middle class, middle aged kind of men in suits, that sort of vibe. And they wanted to reach a diverse millennial market. So I was looking at basically whether they could reach them from their current brand, which I don't think they could. I think it was best for them to develop a subbrand that had a younger and more fresh image. So I was looking at like social media. I was looking at influencers that they could use. I was looking at revamping the website. All that sort of stuff. So, yeah, it was quite interesting!
Brianna Also really like relevant to the time as well. Did you start doing that, like did you pick that during lockdown and after George Floyd or did you pick that pre all of this?
Simone It was actually chosen pre, it was chosen maybe last Christmas. I set my topic and then didn't actually start - that kind of formal dissertation period started on the first of June. So it was I very much in the midst of everything. So I was quite grateful for that topic actually and I think it gave me a lot of content to use in my dissertation because I was saying, like, you want to make your changes but you don't want to look like you've kind of just jumped on the bandwagon, you don't want to look performative, and was using examples of like Amazon, for example, or Starbucks. Who then said their workers couldn't wear anything in support of the matter. So it did give me a lot to kind of, work from and it also, I guess, allowed the company to see based on other companies, what was working and what wasn't.
Brianna Yeah, for sure.
Simone And I think lockdown actually helped in a way because they were a company that was quite stubborn in using kind of online methods, quite a traditional company, essentially. But obviously lockdown forced everything online, so it just forced them to have an online presence. Yeah. It's kind of a balanced one lockdown helped and yes, everything that was happening made it - gave me a lot of content to use.
Brianna Cool. So it's sort of in relation to that. And, you know, them reaching out to diverse audiences. Since all of this happened I've sort of been questioning what does being black mean to me? I don't really know yet. I'm still sort of feeling it out. But I'm gonna ask you what what does it mean to you?
Simone So, I think I'm the same as you. I'm still feeling and I'm going to read you a poem actually that I started about this. It's only short but, I didn't finish it, and it's the same thing. I'm still kind of feeling it out. But my dad always says blackness isn't just the colour. It's the state of mind. Being black isn't just a colour it's a state of mind. And I completely agree with him. I do hink it is a state of mind. But then I also think I could be quite problematic because you can have say white people saying I identify as black, and not actually being black, because it's kind of allowing them to think it's just a state of mind.
Simone So it's.... I'm going to read you the poem. (Laughs) It's just a short one.
Simone So I put.
"Blackness carries years of struggle and hardship. Years of chains and iron branding. Slavery infiltrated black history, but it does not shape black history. With blackness comes struggle, oppression. But it is not only struggle. It is potential and soul. Heritage and spirit. Culture and solidarity. The black collective abolishes isolation. We are never alone. Everywhere we walk, we walk in solidarity. We stand proud with the hands of our ancestors firmly gripping and guiding our shoulders. Like steering wheels transporting our people to a destination of greatness. Whispering blessings softly and affirming àṣẹ in our ears.
Simone So that was kind of the start of what I felt blackness is. Because I don't think black, being black, or blackness is slavery. I think so many people brand it as that. But I do think it's important to recognise how many years that took up, how linked it is to us. he can't. It's not just blackness, but we also can't ignore our history and things that did happen. I think it's also important to recognise that black history didn't start there. There were things happening way before slavery started. We were living fine, so, yeah!
Brianna Well, thank you for sharing. I think I feel very much the same way as you do. I still don't really know where I'm going from that point.
Brianna But I know that I feel that, especially the collective aspect of it, because there is something beautiful about the fact that like, if I met a black person from Scotland and had had completely different life experiences, there would still be a connection there, which I don't think really happens outside of black culture or black people. It's a very unique thing to us.
Brianna And I think that's my favourite thing about it. But I still am not sure what that means or why that is or where that comes from. And that's kind of what I'm hoping to explore with this little question I'm going to ask everyone.
Simone Yeah, you're right. Because I guess whenever I go somewhere and I see a black person, I always smile. And you do like a little nod. It's like, hi!
Brianna Yeah It's like a sort of mutual excitement of like "Oh look! you're here too!".
Simone It is!
Brianna So the last thing I want to ask. I'm going to also do on the website a section for food, because I get really bored with English food, like really bored.
Brianna So I think it'd be great to have a selection of food that comes from black people across the whole country. Doesn't have to necessarily be from wherever your heritage comes from, just something that you really enjoy. So what's one recipe that you couldn't live without?
Simone I think I would have to say bakes. I guess it depends what people call them, bakes, johnny cakes, fried dumplings. I couldn't live without them. And my mum used to make them and she used to fry mackerel with like, tomatoes and onions and peppers and like, slice the dumplings and stuff it in. That was like, to die for, I couldn't live without that.
Simone So it's a very simple recipe. You only need flour, water and a bit of salt. And you literally put all the flour in the bowl. I can't really tell you measurements because I do feel like it's - black people don't really measure.
Brianna It's a feeling you just know!
Simone So you put the self raising flour in, and some people put a bit of oil in, and then you just stir it all in and make a dough with some water and then leave it to rise for a bit. Leave it covered over for maybe half an hour/ an hour. Leave it to rise and then roll them out into little balls. And then fill the pan. I guess it's good to use a big wok or a frying pan or something that's quite deep, not a shallow frying pan actually (Laughs) A deep bottomed pan and fill it maybe a quarter of the way, a third of the way with oil. Let the oil heat up but not too hot. Like test it. Break off a bit, don't put a full one in, break a bit off and drop it in and see if it goes brown too quickly or if it cooks nicely. Then drop them in. Don't drop them actually! (Laughs) Hot oil! Place them in. Then just turn them over, make sure they all get an even coating. Maybe take about 5 to 10 minutes to fry, depending on the heat of the oil. And then take them out, and when they're done, like I said, chop them and I wouldn't cut them all the way through, I'd chop them so they kind kinda like - well, I can't think of something that opens but not all the way.
Brianna Like a bun maybe? Like a baguette sort of bun?
Simone Yeah. Yeah. That sort of thing.
Simone And then, like I say, get some mackerel, some tinned mackerels fine, just the tomato one or the the sunflower oil one. Or saltfish, you can do it with saltfish. Put in your peppers, your onions, some green spinach actually is nice in there. With like a tomato based sauce. Fry it all together mix it up and then stuff each of the bakes with it and you get a really nice little snack.
Brianna That sounds absolutely divine. I can't wait to type that up and put it on the site and see what people make with it.
Simone It's so nice, honestly. I'll try to get some actual measurements and send them across to you.
Brianna Perfect. Well, thank you so much. It's been really nice to talk to you.
Simone Thank you. And you. Thanks for having me. It's been such a nice chat.
Brianna It's been lovely.
There you have it! The very first ICWBB. I hope you enjoyed. Hop on over to our instagram to let me know your thoughts.
Also, Simone did send over some proper measurements, and you can make her bakes by heading to the recipe page right here.
Thank you for reading, speak soon! x