20-Year-Old Poet Sheri Booker Drops Spirit, Rhythm, and Revolution in Her Debut Book One Woman, One Hustle
"I like to write in quiet spaces," says 20-year-old poet Sheri Booker, who has worked at the mortuary as an administrative assistant for the past six years.
Booker's recently self-published literary debut, a collection of poetry and prose that is as uplifting as it is entrenched in the realities of the streets, announces a startling new talent. The book, One Woman, One Hustle, is aptly titled, though Booker really seems to have many hustles. For starters, she's a political science major at the College of Notre Dome and the assistant to a pastor at one of the fastest-growing African Methodist Episcopal congregations in Baltimore, in addition to working at the funeral parlor in the evenings. When, you may ask, does she find time to write?
"Sometimes I write my stories and poems in class," says the honey-colored Booker, who sits perfectly poised in one of the funeral parlor's conference-room chairs. "And sometimes I write in church, too, when I should be paying attention."
But even a sideways glance at her writing makes it clear that Booker pays keen attention to everything she hears, in class, at church, on the streets, and on the radio. Her poems read like lost chapters of history books, while spirituality flows through her work freely, without welling up on self-righteousness. Her agenda is one of documenting culture, speaking to injustice, and offering realistic resolutions, she says. What's more, she writes with an edge that rebirths hip-hop's early social angst, but voices it in the language of today's more polished and broad hip-hop sound. Lines like those from her book's title poem exemplify the strength of Booker's voice:
Never had no rhythm
But I'll switch these hips
Up and down a walkway
until my joints get tired
Of my own beat
In person, Booker's easy manner belies her hectic schedule, much in the same way that the pink cover of her new book shows no trace of the gritty ground that it covers inside.
"People ask me why I have the pink," she remarks, tilting her head to the side. Perfectly upturned curls frame her face. "Of course, it's feminine, it's woman, but I just wanted to do something young girls would want to read and women in general would want to read."
The poems in One Woman are divided into three parts, each devoted to themes of self-image, empowerment, and love. "One Life," for instance, is the section that addresses identity and self-concept; in one of its poems, "Beauty," Booker writes about her own appearance and how it plays against beauty's more commercial standards. Several pages later she reveals why she writes and gives readers a glance at the breadth of what she calls her "open mind" in one of the section's strongest works, "I Ain't No Poet."
because everybody who spits,
mouth ain't clean
and I've heard dope poetry
from men who fiend.
Likewise, many of Booker's poems in the "One Liberty" section, dedicated to sowing the seeds of activism and change, leave readers with the inclination to start a revolution rather than finger-snap in unison. In "Press Release," Booker warns against complacency within the African-American community and gives some insight into her own interest in politics by writing about the rights denied her grandfather.
But memories are meaningless to a
struggle-free generation X who painted
plastic spoons silver
So I listen to the words of my granddaddy
when he quoted to me that democracy
is synonymous with hypocrisy
he's watching me
And that's why I vote
every opportunity that I get
'cause he never had the luxury
In "Daddy," Booker addresses another issue that plagues many African-American families.
"Most of my female friends didn't have a father, but I did," Booker says, noting that he could be pesky in his demands around the house. "And even though he would get on my nerves, my friends would be like, 'Dag. I wish I had a father to ask me for ice water.'"
Booker visits the father-daughter relationship in "Thug Love," a verse about the daughter of a cop who finds herself ensnared in a love affair with a drug dealer. Like many of the poems in One Woman, Booker's flow and emphasis on irony in "Thug Love" could be set to a bassed-up track as easily as the lines of some of hip-hop's greatest lyricists.
Who knew that me
The offspring of a knocker
Street rocking copper
my gun popping poppa
would grow to love a thug
I shrug 2 'cause who knew
That my boo would be a hustler street buster
For sure, Booker's verses create a sound of their own. So it may not be surprising that Booker attributes musicians--especially those who have been instrumental in hip-hop's evolution--as the models for her distinctive voice. "Lauryn Hill is probably the greatest influence in my life," she says.
Aside from music and politics, religion has also had a heavy bearing on Booker's life. Much like the main character of One Woman's sole prose offering, "And God Said What???", Booker grew up in the church. After working as a volunteer under the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant when he was the National Director of the Youth and College Division of the NAACP, Booker soon became a kind of acolyte to Bryant. When he decided to begin his own church in 2000, Booker was one of the people he called to help get things started.
"I'm one of the original 43 members. I was there from the beginning, from before it was a church," Booker recalls of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, which now boasts a membership of nearly 7,000. The Temple is also where Booker began her career as a spoken-word poet. A casual call to Bryant to share one of her latest poems, "Endangered Black Man," landed Booker at the head of what is now the church's poetry ministry, Liberating Yourself Rhythmically in Christ, aka LYRIC.
"[Bryant] said, 'Do this in church tomorrow,' after I read the poem," Booker recalls. "I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Well, don't come to church tomorrow unless you are going to do it.'" Booker re-enacts the pivotal moment in her career with enjoyment. "I didn't have a choice, so that was the first time I have ever performed in front of anyone."
After overcoming her fear of reading publicly--and after seeing the response of the church's then-300 attendees--Booker suggested that the Empowerment Temple make poetry a part of its ministrations. LYRIC was born.
About the same time in 2000, another local poet, Myisha Cherry, heard Booker promoting the Poetry Ministry on the radio and immediately decided to join.
"Prior to [joining LYRIC] I was not writing like I used to," Cherry says. "But during the ministry, I was able to get back to writing again." That writing led to the completion of an entire book of poetry, Psalm Epic, which Cherry self-published in 2000 while also starting Mwaza Publications, a publishing outfit that assisted in issuing One Woman.
"The purpose of Mwaza Publishing is to give young writers the opportunity to allow their voice to be heard," Cherry states. "Sheri expressed to me some months ago that it was about time for her to put her work in a book. I always credit Sheri with allowing me to be where I am now, because I wouldn't have started writing again if it wasn't for her. So I had no alternative but to help her."
Though Booker decided to self-publish One Woman, she admits that getting picked up by a major publisher is one of her goals--along with becoming a freestyle rapper, and a host of other things.
"I'm kind of in a bind," Booker says. "I am interested in political journalism, but I really don't know whether or not I want to go to mortuary school, and I really don't know if I want to go to law school. I don't know what I want to do."
In the meantime, recording some of her spoken word and writing a novel, which may expand on the short story in One Woman, are on Booker's more immediate horizon. And while she asserts in the refrain of her poem "Microphone Checker" that she's "not the greatest M.C.," Booker may be on to something when she says she can affect change if she's heard--or read.
"I'm not the greatest MC," she says with a look of confidence. "But let me get someone's attention and I'll start a revolution."
For more information about One Woman, One Hustle, visit www.lyricallykorrect.com.
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