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In Conversation With: Sydney Lowell

Sydney Lowell is becoming. “The poet knows the power of the word,” she says before adding, “it’s the spells we conjure that make up what we believe and who we become.” After years of spell-making on stage with her spoken word, Sydney wants something tangible of her own. A poetic triptych to honour her journey thus far. We caught up with the poet to talk about the process of creating and releasing her debut poetry EP WORD; spirituality, love and the environment that shapes her art; as well as her writing process and the collaborations that inform it.


How are you feeling about your EP coming out?

I'm feeling good. It's been a bit of a tumultuous ride, though. It's my first time doing something like this, and naturally, when you're the one in charge, you're wearing a lot of different hats. So it's been a journey, but I am excited that I get to share a bit more of myself with the world.


What made this the right time for you to finally drop an EP?

Well, I feel like it's been a really long time coming. I have been writing for about 13 years and I started performing 6 years ago. And at one pointI realised that I don't really have anything to show people. If you didn't go to my performance, you don't know what I did. I just felt this urge to create something tangible that was mine.


You mention wearing different hats when putting this project together. Tell me a little about that. What was the process like?

So, I applied for funding a couple of months ago just to get started and because I really wanted to be able to pay people and go about it strategically. The goal was to challenge myself in different areas. I'm already a poet but how can I challenge myself further. So, I thought to bring poetry to music and incorporate movement as well. I’m making my own album covers, using images from a photoshoot that me and a couple sisters have done. It’s been a lot of collaborating with different people to make it happen. I released two singles in the run up to the EP drop, which is set for the 28th on Saturday. It's been a really rewarding process, because I now finally got to work hard for myself. And that feels really good.


Photo by Tirza Lempers

What can we expect from the last release of the EP?

People can expect what they haven't heard from me as much yet. I feel like the first two singles are very much- and I don’t mean to sound cheesy here- flowy and meditative. I think that's the kind of sound that people have heard from me before. It’s what is recognisable for me, which is very valuable because these are messages that I want to get across to people when it comes to introspection and reflection. They're more soft, I guess. But I wanted to explore different sides of myself with the rest of the release, and show people that there's more to me. So, there will be more lyricism and more experimentation with different genres. Just more play.


How did you go about picking the music to accompany your poetry?

It was a very intuitive process, I'd say. I’m blessed to be around a lot of creative people, a lot of musicians. So it's not hard to come by really talented people to work with. When it comes to this EP, I already had some people in mind whose music I really admire. And they really blended with the kind of sound I had in mind, and the kind of genres that I’m inspired by like jazz and R&B. But also, they love to experiment as much as I do so we can create something new. So, I would show them a poem and they would let me know what kind of emotions that evokes in them, and then we kind of just go from there.


You talk about spirituality a lot in your first two releases, and even the name of the songs allude to those themes. What role has spirituality played in your art?

Introspection has been a very big theme for me in recent years and so it made a lot of sense for me to put that into this project. Especially with it being my debut. Also, symbolically, the first song I released, Prayer is exactly the way I wanted to make that debut. Whenever I embark on a new adventure, or something that I'm excited about creating, it starts with intention, and that's what Prayer is all about. It’s about when you’re in a time of chaos, when you can't see through the mist yet, so you pray for clarity. And you pray optimistically, because you already know you're gonna get through it, but you just need that guidance. And then Testament is an answer to that. Now you have that clarity, what are you going to do with it? What will you leave behind? Those are really important topics for me because as an artist, sure, I want to be seen, it's nice to be seen, but I really just want to be felt and have people recognise themselves in me. I want everyone to feel confident and be aware of the power they have in leaving something behind. And as Testament also says, I'm choosing to leave behind traces of love.


How writing has influenced how you think about love?

Oh, I love that question. I think that writing has actually helped me understand my love. I had a definition of love, I have experienced love, I'm lucky enough to be around love. But I think through writing, I was able to deconstruct my own patterns in my experiences with love. There was a time where I didn't even think I was worthy of receiving love in a romantic way. It wasn't like I was insecure in myself, but I just didn't think it was possible. Like maybe it's not for me. But through documenting my journey in poetry, I actually saw, “hey, you need to give yourself some credit. You are capable of a lot of love.” And maybe also in activating my writing by performance, I was able to directly give it to people as well, like here is a piece of love for you. What’s beautiful about being a spoken word artist is the reciprocity; you put the energy out and you get it right back. It has helped me understand and appreciate love more, I think.


Have you got a writing process?

I don't, it's all very organic. Sometimes I go weeks without writing. But when I do, it's when I feel called to. I might be on the metro or on the bus and this word might come to me and I might write it down on my notes. And who knows, maybe a month later I might expand on it. There's no actual process, it just kind of flows. I try to write down everything that comes to me and I try to be as accepting of it as possible. So, I hardly ever edit my poems, for example, or scratch off lines. I just try to leave it as is.


What happens when you read the poem back and a line just doesn’t quite fit?

Yeah, that happens. But it's all about acceptance. I see poetry as a way to communicate with people and even now in my conversation with you, for example, I wouldn't mute myself if I said something that sounded a little less nice than I would like it to be. I could apologise for it, or rephrase it, but I have this philosophy where I feel like all of my words are valid. And for me to scratch something off completely, it almost feels like I'm doing them a disservice. Of course, there are some words that I try to avoid but I just try to be accepting you know?


What other kinds of art do you find inspiration from?

Music is primary inspiration. Not only because I write to it but it's meditation to me. It's really primal. When I can't speak or when I don't want to speak, I go to music. I don’t have a few favourite songs or artists but I have a deep love for jazz from all around the world. I love free, experimental music. Music that brings me a feeling of ecstasy. And neo-soul, also a fan of that. I also love to dance and just move. I'm not a trained professional dancer but dance is definitely a way for me to communicate in a similar way I would with poetry. Certain things you can't say with your mouth so, you communicate them with your body. Also, visual art. Drawing, painting, photography really inspires me as well. And I actually used to draw and paint a lot as a child. I guess those are the big three.


How has living in Amsterdam shaped your art?

I think it has had a really big impact through the privilege that comes from living here. I have a lot of access and a lot of liberties that have allowed me to create freely and live off my art. It has allowed me to write as much or as little as I want to perform, and to organise in places that I feel accepted and loved. Now, it's not all roses, of course, especially as a Black queer person. And that was a common theme in my work in the beginning because as you're growing up, you notice all the inequalities and discrimination and so, I incorporated a lot of empowerment in my work. Now I try to speak life, or the answer to the wishes, the answer to the prayers, the answer to the protests. For example, I’d incorporate things like spirituality and self-love because I feel like when you're susceptible to bias and discrimination, in predominantly white industries, it's easy to think that you're supposed to write about survival and pain. I felt that my role had to be different. That’s how I’ve dealt with being here. But there’s definitely good sides, there’s people from different cultures in the part of Amsterdam where I grew up and still live. There's so much richness in where I come from, and I try to put that in my work as well.


Tell me a little about “We the People.”

“We the People,” is a cultural and creative, Amsterdam based platform that I co-founded in 2018. So, a year after my start as a spoken word artist. It was born from this need to create a space that would be a home for POC and Black people. Especially because the writers’ world here is predominantly white, and you hear a lot of the same narratives. And in spaces where they allow you in, you either feel like a token or you don't feel supported in your storytelling. And I guess that's the most important thing. You want to be accepted and received just as passionately as you give. So, we focus on POC in our line-ups, and we curate for POC, as well, because we don’t want to end up with a room full of white people watching us. It's mostly been poetry nights, open mics, and a couple of exhibitions. Sometimes we'd have like visual art exhibitions during our poetry night. We’ve also done collaborations with other platforms in Amsterdam.


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