Staceyann Chin (1972-) is a Jamaican writer and performer. She has iconic status in the LGBTQ community as an openly Lesbian spoken-word poet and a human rights activist. Born in Jamaica, Chin started her career in New York City when she began to recite slam poetry, a performance folkway featured in slams, competitions held in coffee shops, poetry cafes, and nightclubs around the world. Slams are venues for poets to give three-minute, high-intensity monologues before a panel of judges picked from the audience.
Chin grew up in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Child of an African Jamaican mother and a Chinese Jamaican father, she spent the first decade of her life with her maternal grandmother. It was not until young adulthood that Chin discovered her Lesbian identity: “I was happily heterosexual until I was 21 years old,” she said in a 2006 interview. In 1997, Chin was sexually assaulted for being openly Lesbian, after which she left Kingston and moved to Brooklyn. “New York was my godsend,” she wrote in an article for The New York Times. “As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.”
Chin attended a slam poetry contest at the Nuyorican Poets Café, signed up for a stint at the open microphone that evening, and read an entry from her journal. The positive reaction she received from the audience inspired her to begin competing as a slam poet. She traveled to competitions all over the United States and beyond, from Chicago (home of slam poetry) to Providence, Savannah, London and Copenhagen. After producer Russell Simmons invited her to perform in a Broadway show, Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on HBO, Chin became one of spoken word’s most visible artists.
When she returned to perform in Kingston, Jamaica in 2005, she was heckled for being Lesbian, and men in the audience threatened to stone her if she did not leave the stage, which she refused to do until she finished her performance. In 2009, Chin published the memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, a candid and detailed account of growing up without parents, and then coming out as Lesbian, in Jamaica. When she went back to Jamaica that same year for the Calabash International Literary Festival in St. Elizabeth, her performance was well received.
Chin’s performance style on stage is outwardly casual. She often dresses in pants and a sleeveless blouse, wears no shoes, and her hair extends downward and outward from her head about a third of a meter. Her Jamaican-accented spoken word pieces reflect her performance background in slam poetry: animated, provocative, alternately speaking in a whisper and then shouting at the audience, shifting from Standard English into Jamaican Patois and American folk speech. Her body is part of the performance as well, at times still, at times moving away from and toward her audience, arms gesturing, striking, pleading, inviting.
Much of her written and spoken performance is activist-based, addressing LGBTQ issues, poverty, racism, and the oppression of women. “Every day I get better at knowing it is not a choice to be an activist,” she writes, “rather, it is the only way to hold on to the better parts of my human self.”
Chin is not afraid to criticize her own communities, whether it be homophobia in Jamaica or willful indifference within the LGBTQ community. In her spoken word presentation at 2006 Gay Games VII in Chicago’s Soldier Field, she chided the Gay collective for not uniting in solidarity with other oppressed groups.
Excerpt from “Staceyann’s speech/poem at Gay Games VII”
the companies that sponsor our events
do not honor the way we live or love
or dance or pray
our life partnerships are deemed domestic
and the term marriage is reserved
for those unions sanctioned by a church controlled state
for all the landmarks we celebrate
we are still niggers
and minstrel references
for jokes created on the funny pages of a heterosexual world
the horizons are changing
to keep pace with technology and policy alike
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America
and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
gather round ye fags, dykes
trannies and all those in between
we are not simply at a political crossroad
we are buried knee deep in the quagmire
of a battle for our humanity
the powers that have always been
have already come for the Jew
and the trade unionist
the time to act is now!
Now! while there are still ways we can fight
Now! because the rights we have are still so very few
Now! because it is the right thing to do
Now! before you open the door to find
they have finally come
Chin imagines herself as one part of a bigger picture. “I want to fuck up the political power structure in the world,” she says. “I know I cannot do that by myself. So I want to belong to a group of badass, radical, feminist thinkers who I can run with, ride with, and maybe even have sex with, all while we change the world.”
Boykin, Keith. “Staceyann Speaks at Gay Games.” http://www.keithboykin.com/arch/2006/07/22/staceyann_chin, July 2010.
Chin, Staceyann. The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2009.
Chin, Stacyann. “The Next Wave: ‘No One Cared if I Kissed Girls’.” The New York Times, November 21, 2004. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03EFD9113FF932A15752C1A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all, accessed July 2010.
Olson, Alix. Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution. Emeryville, CA: Seal, 2007.
Simmons, Russell ed. Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway…and More. New York: Atria, 2003.