“I don’t want to be living in a ‘box’ – only to be seen as a spoken word artist. Being a spoken word artist is not my end goal. It’s a tool. Something that I start using as a way to communicate. I use it as a strategy because if people aren’t listening to you, you need to try other ways to make them listen.” — Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa
I first met Sukhjit at a multicultural networking event at the beginning of this year. When Sukhjit told me that she’s a slam poet, the only image that came to mind was the slam poetry scene from 22 Jump Street. But I was wrong.
I got goosebumps when I watched her performance in Australia’s Got Talent. In her poem To Advance Australia’s Fair, Sukhjit shares about the racial discrimination that she and her family had experienced in Australia. It’s powerful and controversial because she really tells it like it is.
SUKHJIT KAUR KHALSA
I’m a full time performer and workshop facilitator. So what that entails is I’ll be called in for very versatile gigs like MC-ing at an event, performing or featuring as a spoken word artist, or just being a panel member for issues that are ranging from arts to representing a Sikh community.
My current project this year has been about travel – hitting as many cities and events in order to get as much exposure as I can get – both overseas and in Australia. This July, I headed off to the US and I was working on some Sikh camps where I became a facilitator. Through these camps, I was helping kids discuss issues that are hard to talk about in their communities and to express themselves by using spoken word poetry.
Do you still remember what you wanted to be when you were a kid? What were your interests back then?
When I was a kid I did a lot of performances and plays in my house for my family. For example, every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I converted my living room into a theatre, I’d sit every one down and give them a ticket.
So I have this love to perform. But as soon as I left the house, I’d hide behind my mum. I was a very shy girl and I’d cry if anyone talked to me. I had this anxiety when it came to talking with people. I noticed that I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I knew that my appearance is different compared to other people at my school and neighbourhood who were majority white.
However, when I was in year 6 I had a teacher who pushed me to step out of my ‘shell’. I think he saw the potential in me and he knew that I wasn’t being my true self. He saw that there’s ‘someone’ hiding in myself. So he forced me to do drama and public speaking.
At first I really hated him, but now I’m so thankful for him because he’s the biggest reason why I stepped out from my comfort zone. I think all you need is to know one person who sees your potential, believes in you and challenges you.
After that I realised that through acting I can be whoever I want to be. I could pretend play while still being true to myself. From then on I started to build my confidence. I had become this happy and bubbly kid who wanted to talk to everyone at school.
And how’s your career journey going?
I went to uni and studied politics. But I’ve always had this passion for drama and acting. I knew that I wanted to be an actress, but I also knew that I wanted to do something with social justice. Frustratingly, I didn’t know how to do both.
I also realised that I wanted to do acting but I don’t want to fall into this tokenism – getting into roles as an Indian who is eating curry, driving a taxi, getting an arranged marriage and those kind of stereotypical roles. There are also a lot of competitions in the acting industry and it’s pretty hard to get in and being noticed.
So I was in Prague for a study exchange when I met these two girls who were wondering whether I have heard about spoken word poetry or not. I actually had no idea what it was about and they said, “You seriously look like doing it!” I was so confused and asked them what they meant by that. And they said it was from the way I talk.
So I looked spoken word poetry up on YouTube and I instantly fell in love! I told myself that this is amazing because this is how I can merge the arts and advocacy. I can share my stories. I can ‘slap’ people with my words. Of course I’m not there to hurt people’s feelings but I know that I’m gonna speak up and share my truth!
FIRST COMPETITION AND PERFORMANCE
I just got back from Prague and I knew that I really needed to do something about my burning desire in spoken word poetry. I was in an English literature class at uni doing a creative writing course when I met this guy who is a poet. So I asked him, “Hey, do you know what a poetry slam is?” He said yes and he asked me to go to a slam poetry competition in Perth.
I was very excited when I came to the event. When I walked in, my friend asked me to put my name down for the competition and I was very hesitant to do it. Although I had one piece prepared, I didn’t want to compete. I didn’t know what to expect.
But I ended up following my spontaneous spirit and I signed up for competition. The ‘best’ part is my name was called first! So I didn’t have any time to run away or to watch other people and judge them. But that situation really gave me the push. So I got up even though I was very nervous.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I won and went for the next round where I had a chance to perform and compete in the Sydney Opera House. So that was my very first experience in competing and performing in public. After that I started performing so much and I graduated from uni.
THE GOLDEN TICKET
After I graduated, I realised that I needed to move somewhere where I felt more challenged. Many people suggested that I move to Melbourne. They said my personality would best suit that city. So I did and I bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne.
After I booked my ticket, I told my parents straight away, “I’m leaving. I need to leave.” My parents didn’t talk to me for three months. The year 2015 was the toughest year of my life. I had no money. I struggled so much but I fell in love with Melbourne.
During May last year, I was in Perth and stayed in my best friend’s house. At that time I checked my email and received the invitation to apply for Australia’s Got Talent from an acting agency that I used to be involved in. I thought it was a joke.
My friend knew about it and encouraged me to apply. But I didn’t want to apply because I don’t have the kind of talents like dancing and singing. And my friend told me, “You can do poetry!” But I was hesitant to use my poem because so much of them was controversial. And I didn’t think Australia would be able to listen to it.
After that I went back to Melbourne and I had a lot of tough times. I went into depression because I was trying to discover who I really am while trying to start meeting new friends. So then I got an email again for the audition in Australia’s Got Talent, but I just ignored it because I was so depressed and I had no confidence.
One day I got a phone call from a private number. I was in bed all day and when I picked it up, it was actually the producer of Australia’s Got Talent. She told me that her team really wanted to meet me and have me on the show.
She also started asking me why I didn’t reply to the email and I told her, “I’m not interested. You don’t understand how much pressure it is for the minority to step up on TV. You’re gonna make fun of me. I know what your show is all about and I don’t respect that. And I don’t think you’re gonna respect me.”
She tried to convince me. She said that it won’t happen and she won’t make me feel uncomfortable – she’ll respect me fully and won’t take me as a joke. Also the reason why Australia’s Got Talent got me is because my poem was so controversial. It was something different.
So I gave it a go and went for the audition in Melbourne. It was six months full of intense stuff before the actual show was published on TV. When the show was shown on national TV at the beginning of this year, I received so many responses from different communities all over the world.
“I told myself that this is amazing because this is how I can merge the arts and advocacy. I can share my stories. I can ‘slap’ people with my words. Of course I’m not there to hurt people’s feelings but I know that I’m gonna speak up and share my truth!”
THE WORLD OF A SPOKEN WORD ARTIST
So this is me at 22. I acknowledge that I keep learning, growing and evolving as a human. I don’t know what I’ll be like in 10 years or even next week. No one knows.
I don’t want to be living in a ‘box’ – only to be seen as a spoken word artist. Being a spoken word artist is not my end goal. It’s a tool. Something that I start using as a way to communicate. I use it as a strategy because if people aren’t listening to you, you need to try other ways to make them listen.
I used to think that stepping into politics is the only way to change the world. I remembered coming to a lecture with around 500 people and we all wanted to do that – working at the United Nations. At that time I thought it was my own, unique dream. But apparently everyone else has that dream.
It was a wakeup call for me. That’s when I realised, “Am I going to wait until I’m 50 to get into that position in the United Nations?” I’m an impatient person and right now, the only way for me to change the world and to do this fast is by using spoken word poetry.
For example, To Advance Australia’s Fair on Australia’s got Talent has been shown around 200 times in 200 cities around the world through social media. If you think about it, how many people are finally able to learn something that they’ve never heard of?
Besides using my emotional strength and passion, joining Australia’s Got Talent didn’t cost me anything. You can always start from yourself. You don’t need anyone to tell you, for example, that you need a degree on blogging. If you want to start a blog, then you just do it.
Yunita Dewiyana is the founder of the blog, Your 3AM Call. Growing up with a mixed background, she has learned to embrace her identity as someone with many interests – cooking, singing, writing, politics, social justice and personal development to name a few. She believes in the power of personal narrative because each of us is unique and we have a beautiful story to tell, be it about our hopes or fears.