This was a special iteration of the Rhyme & Reason residency, with Otis using this platform to launch his incredible debut poetry collection – Safe Metamorphosis – in collaboration with Prototype Publishing.
For this event, I had the pleasure of first facilitating a 1-1 interview with Otis about the inspiration behind the collection and some of its most compelling themes – time, dreaming, and alienation- before then hosting a more expansive discussion about metamorphosis with the supremely talented writers and artists Warda Yassin (Tea With Cardamom) and Johny Pitts (Afropean).
The richness of the discussion and the beauty of the readings was palpable and just the latest example of the wealth of talent that emanates from the city of Sheffield
Reading Safe Metamorphosis makes it clear that Otis is passionate about philosophy, even if he is deeply critical of how it has been formalised as an exclusive academic field dominated by racist white men. During the 1-1 interview, Otis proceeded to explain the roots of this passion which, unsurprisingly, rests within Hip Hop; a culture and musical genre that interrogates & critiques oppressive social systems, explores different modes of being and presents alternative, expansive worldviews & identities that enrich those who meaningfully engage with it.
As well as metamorphosis, Otis ponders a series of metaphysical concepts in his collection, such as time, space, power and death. During the interview, I was particularly keen to learn more about the prominence of dreaming in his poetry. Otis explained that lucid dreaming was, for him, a way in which to break beyond the boundaries and confining structures that restrict creativity and imagination on a day-to-day basis. It is dreaming, Otis says, that allows him to play so experimentally with the philosophical concepts that are foundational to his art.
This considered and creative exploration of philosophical concepts is typically expressed by Otis in a 90s-underground-rapper’s explosion of alliteration and laced with raw emotion, which makes for a truly immersive and unique reading experience. It was interesting to hear from Otis that he approaches writing both poetry and rap in the same way; that ultimately they both stem from being inspired by a piece of music, a radical thought or interesting observation. The only difference is that poetry offers a formal freedom, where Otis doesn’t have to think so much about sticking to a melodious rhythm. As both a lover of literature and Hip Hop, these kind of insights into the writing process – which Otis explained with such clarity – were fascinating to hear.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the writing process for both poetry and music is similar for Otis, as he sees no particular difference between these two forms of artistic expression. It has long been my experience and understanding that attempts to make clear distinctions regarding rap and poetry are often enforced by formal institutions, such as universities and arts organisations, and typically underpinned by racist and classist logics. If further evidence was even needed, then Otis’s debut poetry collection perfectly encapsulates how rich, thoughtful, moving and wonderfully complex Hip Hop can be; characteristics that are often attributed and used to define the essence of poetry.
It was special to have Warda and Johny join us for a further discussion about metamorphosis. Though I’d been called into facilitate, there was really no need to as the three writers and artists effused enlightening insights and observations about a series of topics, such as language, city spaces, Hip Hop & culture, journeying, education, creativity, self-expression, identity, which they seamlessly wove together to form a unique stance on metamorphosis as an act of radical individual and social transformation.
This seemed like a particularly apt conversation considering the context of COVID and renewed energy of Black Lives Matter. The fundamental structures and systems that uphold life as we know it in contemporary mainstream society have been seriously shaken if not yet shattered by a unique combination of external bio-forces, long-standing social inequities, government (in)action, and activism. There should be no shying away from the fact this has so far seen an intensification of the routine violence and trauma Black people in particular are typically subjected to. However, it also seems that there is both scope and energy for radical social transformation, with the abolition of prisons and policing, the establishing of a Free Black University, and a fundamental reappraisal of our concept of borders all on the table for what could be conceived as a global metamorphosis.