In the past, if she didn’t like what you were saying, Michelle Myers would knock the flavor out of your mouth, as she warned in her poem “I’m a Woman Not a Flava.”
However, it was a kinder, gentler Myers who appeared on Thursday, Nov. 17 as the keynote speaker for the Asian American Association’s (AAA) Experience Asia month. Once known for her angry performances as one-half of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, Myers explained how the group was formed, and shared poems from her favorite spoken word artists.
Yellow Rage was created in 2000 when Myers, now a professor at Temple and Rowan Universities, met Catzie Vilayphonh at a writing workshop. They began writing spoken word poetry together that addressed Asian culture, feminism and stereotypes. While struggling to create a name for their group, they decided on “Black Hair, Brown Eyes . Yellow Rage,” which was shortened to Yellow Rage.
On a whim, the group decided to enter a poetry slam contest in Philadelphia, which turned out to be Def Poetry Jam, a contest created by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.
“We were the only Asian-Americans there,” Myers said. “Since we were women, everyone expected us to perform some pretty, flowery poem.”
The group instead shocked audiences with their edgy, now legendary poems, “I’m a Woman Not a Flava,” which includes a chorus of “Fuck you and fuck you and fuck you, too” and “Listen, Asshole.” They later received a call informing them that they had moved on to the semifinals of the contest and were featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
“Although we got a lot of recognition, some people still didn’t get the whole ‘Asian woman’ message,” Myers said. “After a performance, someone once asked me if I was Native American.”
Although they have met celebrities like Dave Chappelle, Mos Def and Russell Simmons, the members of Yellow Rage decided to step out of the spotlight for a while after their quick shoot to fame in the world of spoken word poetry.
“We made a decision to remain independent artists,” Myers said. “We didn’t want anyone in control of our work and we didn’t want to be typed as the angry Asian women.”
Myers said the group focuses on personal experiences as inspiration for their poetry.
“We don’t write about things that we haven’t experienced or felt passionate about,” she said. “If we talk about sexism, that’s happened to us. If we talk about racism, that’s happened to us, too.”
She read poems from artists that inspired her, like fellow Asian American poets Beau Sia and Ishell Park. These poems included Sia’s “Howl,” which was based on his friendship with “Howl” poet Allen Ginsburg and Park’s “My Pussy.”
Myers also read several original poems. “Her N’s Run,” a poem about her eight-year-old daughter, examined Myer’s own past of sexual abuse and her often difficult relationship with her mother. “Tsunami Song,” was an answer to a Hot 97 radio station song that attracted controversy with its racist lyrics.
Although she was not planning on performing some of her well-known Yellow Rage pieces, preferring instead to read her quieter, lesser-known poems, Myers agreed to perform “I’m a Woman.” and “Listen, Asshole” after several audience requests.
Myers, who performed at the College last year with Yellow Rage, said she returned because “this wasn’t a performance, and I’m not asked to just talk very often.”
“When lecturing, I can answer commonly asked questions and have a chance to share the works of other authors,” she said.
Myers also said she enjoys the chance to meet aspiring student poets.
“It’s surprising when we hear young kids say ‘you’ve really inspired me to slam or perform.’ It really makes me feel good,” she said.
“AAA chose Myers … because we want to send the message to the campus that our mission is not isolated just to the Asian-American students on campus,” Jenny Shin, AAA’s vice president of Public Relations, said. “Myers’ message about challenging misconceptions and stereotypes should encourage all students to contend and work toward eliminating misconceptions in our society.”
“It was a unique experience,” Joyce Lee, freshman elementary education/English major, said. “How many Asian women will voice their opinion? Stereotypes exist for a reason and sometimes the idea of Asians being submissive is true. We need her to stand up for us.”
“I enjoyed sitting next to a girl during a reading of the ‘Pussy’ poem,” Chris Lee, junior computer science major, said. “It was – dare I say – fun?”