Lip Service - An interview with Jessica Holter
edited: Wednesday, August 01, 2007
By Jessica Holter
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007
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Oakland has always been a place to speak the unspeakable. From Huey P. Newton to Too $hort, the Bay Area is home to creating all types of controversy.
The Punany Poets serve it up raw
By Gabriel Serpa
Oakland has always been a place to speak the unspeakable. From Huey P. Newton to Too $hort, the Bay Area is home to creating all types of controversy. So, it is fitting that Jessica Holter, founder of the Punany Poets, is an Oakland native. Holter made her mark in the early '90s by speaking about the uncomfortable topic -- sex -- with a nasty, raw, eloquent, up-in-your-face twist.
The name, Punany, comes from the Afro-Caribbean euphemism for female genitalia. The Punany Poets form a diverse talent troupe of singers, rappers, journalists, and social workers. The diversity comes from hand selecting the 13-15 member troupe. "I try to get people that represent different styles," Holter explains. "Bee is kind of S&M; Amber is soulful 'love you real good, feed you first' southern debutante; DJ Blackmon knows that diversity is also a key to talking about sex." Especially, Holter says, when most health care material is so dry and uncomfortable. "For example, [Blackmon] has learned to put a condom on with her mouth. That leaves the audiences screaming for instant replay." Parenting the Punany Project are the sister companies A-FACT (Artist Fighting A.I.D.S. Creatively Through The Arts) and GGB (Ghetto Girl Blue) Literary Entertainment. The companies are woven together by their artistic work promoting safer sex practices such as abstinence, monogamy, and use of condoms; they produce stage plays, cabaret performances, books, safer sex instructions, and distribute condoms.
Hailing from the streets of East Oakland, Holter had to face circumstances that directly relate to the emotion in her poetry, especially the A.I.D.S. epidemic in the black community. Holter says it was the untimely death of Eric "Eazy E" Wright that served as the catalyst to get her to act on her emotions, and she needed to express herself in some way beyond just writing. But in 1995, the plethora of Bay Area spoken word and poetry slams had not yet taken over. Holter found herself rounding up all the poets and artists she knew to read poetry together. Her motivation led her to Dorsey's Locker, where she started one of the first spoken word events in the East Bay. The response was overwhelming: Holter was not only a poet, but also a performer. In no time she found herself putting together a book of erotic poetry, Punany: The Hip Hop Psalms, which featured Bay Area artists Mystic, D'Wayne Wiggins, Money B of Digital Underground, and others. She ran with the support and energy of the book, eventually forming the Punany Poets.
"In the black community, a lot goes unsaid," Holter points out, "like homosexuality in prison." The Punany Project began as a combination of plays and poetry to deal with as many uncomfortable and unspoken issues as possible. "You might see me rolling around on the floor, or you also might see somebody crying," Holter ex-plains. "And we give testimonies about everything, from the emasculation of the black man during slavery to problems in black male/female relationships to being open verbally about your sexual activity and preference."
The Project's mission is to "open the channels for com-munication about personal revolution and [to] force love and lust to face off in the center arena of mind, body, and soul." Predictably, it has been criticized for its straight-forward content. "I won't lie," Holter says about the criticism, "people were tripping off of me at first. I could sit here and give you thirty reasons for it: my hair, my skin color, my ghetto/standard American-English speech patterns, the fact that I was married and talking about sex so boldly ... people, especially black people, are uncomfortable with it. It's funny when you think about it, since we make up fifty percent of the new A.I.D.S. cases in the states -- obviously we aren't afraid of fucking!"
The Punany Project became a necessary forum. And while for some it was hard to deal with, there was no escaping the excitement and buzz the poetry and performances were creating. Keeping her vision true did not prove an easy task for Holter; people wanted to change the Project's focus from sexual awareness to plain sex. The countless battles she went through even landed her in the hands of HBO where her project was featured on episodes 24 and 26 of "Real Sex." Holter's vision continues to grow. Privacy II (directed by Sammy Styles and starring The Mack's Max Julien), the current Punany project, is touring the U.S. for the next couple of months.
Holter's vision has always been to communicate with people. As a child she aspired to become a minister in the Baptist Church, but the death of her mother and molestation by her foster father put those dreams to a halt. In the end Holter found her voice and through her work she strives for communication. Whether she has to mind-fuck with her poetics or love you with tongue and flesh, getting inside of your head is her goal. More important than being a performer, she is an activist that penetrates the minds of people, forcing them to listen to words that might just save someone's life.
"Talk about your issues, especially the sexual ones," Holter offers her seasoned advice. "People can say that relationships are more than sex, but honey, if the sex is bad, it's all bad. That's the truth right there!"