ONI THE HAITIAN SENSATION

Oni the Haitian Sensation has a larger-than-life presence, both on and off-stage. Born in Montreal, she traces her ancestry to Cuba, to Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers), and to Anacaona, a Taino queen who lived in Haiti when it was called Ayiti, Bohio, or Kiskeya. Anacaona was reputed to be a composer of ballads and narrative poems. According to Oni, “When Christopher Columbus came to Haiti, she and her brother actually sunk one of the ships, so La Santa Maria never went back to Spain.... So I come from a long line of warrior poets.”

 

Oni began performing spoken word poetry in Toronto with the Young Poets of the Revolution in 1992. Her career lapsed when she started a family, and relocated to Los Angeles. Soon after returning to Canada, she began her career as a slam poet in January 2001, when she won the first Step Up Slam in Ottawa, and became Ottawa’s first slam champion. Of her early formation, she said, “I’m self-taught, I’ve never gone to school for poetry. I was mentored by George Elliott Clarke. He’s been working with me since high school, and I’ve only worked with him.” Oni’s education as a performer grew exponentially at the first slam to showcase her skills. “Yeah, Step-Up Slam was awesome, that was where I got to meet a lot of other Canadian artists.”

 

By 2002 she was curating the Festival Slam, as part of the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival. She travelled to Chicago in 2003 as part of Ottawa’s slam team to complete in the American national slam competition. “That year there were three teams from Canada,” Oni explained. “There was Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver. There was 63 teams in total at the National Poetry Slam in Chicago.” Oni caused a sensation (naturally) by performing ‘Niggers Are Scared of Paying Child Support’, a scathing answer to Umar Bin Hassan’s famous Last Poets poem, ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’. According to Oni, “Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets is my son’s father.... I performed that poem at my first performance in Chicago. You know, there was Marc Smith – everybody was in the room! I had a score like, I had a ten, I had a two, I had a seven, my scores were everywhere because they thought that I was plagiarizing him or ... they didn’t make the connection. Like, ‘Who’s this chick from Canada touching this material?’ After my performance there was a huge meeting with me, Ms. Oni the Haitian Sensation from Canada. And that is when I disclosed that Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets was the man who stopped my puberty (laughs). Well, by the time I left Chicago everybody knew who I was, where Ottawa was, it was just a hot ghetto mess.”

 

Her notoriety (and her undeniable skills) quickly brought new opportunities on the international scene. “I ended up performing at the Austin International Poetry Festival, which is the largest poetry festival in the world.... As a result of that, I was scouted by some literary scouts from the Commonwealth that were at that festival (laughs). I came highly recommended, and a week later I got an email from Australia. It said ‘The government of Australia requests that you speak at the Queensland Poetry Festival.’”

 

Along with multiple visits to Australia to the Queensland Poetry Festival, the Australian National Poetry Slam and The Dreaming, the world’s largest Indigenous Arts Festival, Oni toured France, Germany, Holland and Belgium in the summer of 2004 as part of the Wordlympians European Tour. “I fell in love with Germany, I loved Germany so much,” Oni said. “It was quite different. France and Canada had their first national slam in 2004, but Germany was doing slam since 1989, three years after the US.” That fall, she co-organized the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics with Drek Daa, inaugurating an annual festival that has seen more teams competing every year.

 

2006 saw the launch of a CD of erotic poetry, The Bedside Booty Book, and the publication of a book of poems, Ghettostocracy. 2007 added another continent to the list of those she has conquered, when she performed at the eleventh Poetry Africa Festival at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “I got to perform, do my HIV work, work in rural schools and work as an arts educator, which is another facet of my work,” Oni said. Her initial work in South Africa led her to apply to the 2009 Chalmers Professional Development Grants, a program of the Ontario Arts Council. When she received the grant, she was able to return to South Africa to study ‘praise singing’ with South Africa’s Poet Laureate, Zolani Mkiva.

 

Oni explained, “I worked on some projects with [Zolani Mkiva] on my first trip, and I won my Chalmers Award to work with him. Working with him ... he said, ‘If you are a praise poet, you will find out at the end of this trip if you have the gift.’ Meaning, it’s a gift, you don’t study to be a praise poet, you’re either a praise poet or you’re not.”

 

Through Mkiva’s connection to Nelson Mandela, Oni found herself spending much of her time at Mandela’s house. “Nelson Mandela’s grandson called my mentor and requested that I stay and do my writing in Nelson Mandela’s house. So I ended up staying in Nelson Mandela’s house for two weeks, cooking in his kitchen ... it was beyond my wildest dreams.” Her relationship to the grandson, Mandla Mandela, led to a return visit last year as part of his wedding party, during which Oni met Nelson Mandela himself. Currently she’s looking for a publisher for the poems inspired by her experiences in South Africa. “I’m very fortunate and blessed and thankful. I’ve had really amazing and unique experiences doing poetry. My goal is to do all seven continents, and I’ve done four. I have to go to Asia, I have to go to South America and I have to go to Antarctica.”