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School of Arts and Sciences

Hear Her Now

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Spoken Word Artist Amber Rose Johnson, A15, Voices the African American Experience

Amber Rose Johnson

By Molly Keady, A14

Amber Rose Johnson, A15, at the Africana Center in February, 2014.

Amber Rose Johnson, A15, (center) meets with fellow Black Student Union members, Courtnie Phillip, A17, (left) and Darien Headen, A15, (right) at the Africana Center

(above photos: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Amber Rose Johnson delivers the delivers the Footnote on MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perrry Show. View video >

Spoken word artist Amber Rose Johnson, A15, has accumulated more experiences and accolades in her 20 years than others do in a lifetime.

Encouraged by her English teacher, the Providence, Rhode Island native competed in the 2009 Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest during her sophomore year of high school and won the state title. She then went to Washington D.C. for the final stage of the competition, but failed to advance to the next level. Johnson came back in 2010 seasoned with practice and experience. Winning the state title once again, she returned to Washington to compete on the national stage. Johnson finished in first place out of an original pool of 325,000 student competitors with her recitation of Margaret Walker's "For My People."

A whirlwind of experiences and performances has followed her win. Johnson, now a junior at Tufts, started writing poems and doing slam poetry after friends teased her and challenged her choice of expression. "They would say, ‘Anybody can do recitation!'" she remarks with a laugh. "So I actually got into slam for competitive reasons."

Johnson ended up winning the National Youth Poetry Slam in 2011. That same year, she joined celebrities Meryl Streep and James Earl Jones, among others, in recording "Words for You," an album of famous poems read by notable personalities and set to classical music.

For the young poet, the journey has never been about the recognition, the run-ins with celebrities, or the prizes. Johnson's passion for language and her belief in the power of poetry, especially its ability to speak of and for the African American community, propel her. "I am obsessed with language and the violence of language against people of color. I explore it in several ways. I love writing poems because it gives me a space to manipulate language… It lets me add that story to the atmosphere."

Does Johnson get nervous in her many high-profile performances? She admits that the Poetry Out Loud championship was a nerve-racking experience, but otherwise she remains calm. The spoken word artist feels at peace performing before a crowd: "It feels like what I'm supposed to be doing… It feels like where I am supposed to be."

Johnson's cool demeanor proved valuable when the she was chosen to present a series of poems she wrote at the Anna Julia Cooper Project's Gender, Sexuality, and Hip-Hop Conference in December 2013. She describes the winning series of poems as "giving voice to black women who haven't told their side of the story in history."

Johnson's conference performance impressed Melissa Harris-Perry, Cooper Project founder and television host, so much that she invited Johnson to perform on her MSNBC show a few days later. The spoken word artist performed a piece about the representation of colored bodies in the media. The piece opens with the line, "The news reminds me that bodies like mine are beaten."

Associate Professor of English Christina Sharpe, Johnson's advisor and mentor, emphasizes the powerful impact of Johnson's spoken word performances: "When performed, the work comes to new life and it is about the word and also about her black female body performing in space, about her voice, about the connection with the audience." Sharpe notes that Johnson lives and performs with the awareness that "there are real things at stake and lives in the balance."

This "urgency," as Sharpe defines it, the awareness that there are people to help and changes to make, drives Johnson. As the youngest member of the National Advisory Committee on Violence against Women, Johnson worked with other members to create policy recommendations on how the federal government could better address violence against women. On campus, she helped found and now coaches the Spoken Word Alliance at Tufts (SWAT), providing students with a creative and emotional outlet. Katrina Moore, Africana Center Director, lauds Johnson and her work with SWAT: "She is giving voice to a lot of students who don't know where or how to express their feelings. She is a teacher. She has a need to give back."

Johnson has also served as a peer advisor with the Africana Center and currently serves as Artistic Director of the Tufts' Black Student Union.

Johnson is quick to acknowledge the immense impact that supportive parents, professors, and mentors have had on her life. She falls silent upon thinking of her mother and father. "Every time I think about my parents, I feel like I could cry," she begins. "My parents keep me centered, they keep my grounded, and they teach me about love and what it really means."

The Tufts junior insists that she would not be where she is without the fight of others on her behalf. "Professor Sharpe fights for me. Katrina Moore fights for me. I'm here because of Professor Sharpe and Katrina Moore and other men and women of color."

What does the future hold for Johnson? "I want to get several Ph.D.s," she says. "And I want to open a school. It's going to have an Afro-centric curriculum and be heavily based in the arts. It's going to be a school primarily for students of color, and it's not going to be structured like any other school we've seen before."

Regardless of what she chooses to do after graduation, Johnson will never stop working to improve the lives of others. "I'm not just here by myself or for myself. I am here by and for my community, and I will never forget that."