University of Wisconsin student Shasparay Lighteard was 14 when she watched her first slam poem. She had written stories but never performed poetry in front of anyone. After watching countless videos on the Button Poetry YouTube channel, she decided slam poetry seemed like something she could do and found a local team in her hometown of Austin, Texas. At the “They Speak Youth” slam, she performed for the first time. She got nervous and cried on stage.
Seven years later, Lighteard carries a myriad of slam competition titles on her belt. She has been a featured performing artist on TEDxYouth, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and multiple times on Button Poetry. Lighteard’s poems, including “Black Girl Magic,” continue to gather thousands of views on YouTube. She joined University of Wisconsin’s First Wave scholarship program last year and is studying in theatre and Afro-American Studies.
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Lighteard is currently producing Madison’s first Black Arts Matter festival, an interdisciplinary arts festival celebrating Black artists around Madison.
Part of the reason for the festival’s creation was the lack of a Black artist community Lighteard discovered when she moved to Madison. Switching from Austin, Texas, to the predominantly white university was not an easy transition, Lighteard said.
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“It was definitely a culture shock,” Lighteard said. “I was so used to people being blatantly racist in Texas. But here it’s kind of everyday microaggressions, and people don’t even understand, and you can’t begin to unpack it. It’s hard to be around microaggressive people or people who just want to be around you to prove that they aren’t racist.”
Having to learn how to navigate Midwestern microaggressions, on top of leaving town regularly for poetry gigs, added up to a difficult first year for Lighteard.
The idea for the Black Arts Matter festival began while Lighteard was practicing grant writing for a class. The original festival concept was a two-day event with a poetry slam and a concert. To her surprise, after applying just to receive feedback, the theoretical event received an actual grant through the Madison Public Library Foundation.
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After a year of preparation and collaboration with various mentors and Edgewood College, the festival became a week-long event with a poetry slam, panel, film screening, a play and a one-woman show by Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola.
In planning the festival, Lighteard emphasized the importance of not scheduling the festival in February, during Black History Month.
“I think a lot of people only want to consider Black artists during Black History Month … I get the most requests for performances during Black History Month,” Lighteard said. “I exist and I am an artist outside this month.”
Lighteard is particularly excited for Olayiwola’s one-woman show called “Black and Ugly As Ever,” March 6.
The free show is a “choreopoem” combining theatre and poetry, exploring “what it means to move through reality as a queer, fat, dark-skinned woman.”
“I want to see a queer Black woman occupy space and be a main character, not a supporting character, but a main character,” Lighteard said.
While the festival is only in its first year, Lighteard wants to continue to prioritize Black art in Madison. She envisions a future association where Black artists can go to receive headshots, resume help and support.
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But as a full-time student with a job and rehearsal for shows, it’s hard to do alone.
“I’m definitely busy,” Lighteard said. “I’m definitely overworked. But I’m grateful to at least be challenged in these ways. If something that you want or need doesn’t exist, I believe you should be the person to create it.”
The festival will run this week, ending with the “BAM Poetry Slam” Finals Saturday at the Madison Public Library.
For an extensive list of all the events, visit the Black Arts Matter Festival website.