Former University of Wisconsin-Madison student and slam poet Shasparay, had a goal — she knew she needed to create a platform to be able to showcase, celebrate and engage with contemporary black artists.
To achieve this dream, she formed and hosted the first Black Arts Matter Festival (BAM) in 2019. This year’s festival, the third-ever BAM, will be held at Memorial Union and will include a plethora of different events such as discussion panels, performances and a high caliber poetry slam competition.
The festival began March 23 and will continue until March 26.
During her time as an undergraduate in The First Wave Scholarship Program at UW-Madison, Shasparay was given a platform to develop and explore her art.
“I was privileged enough to be in that program,” Shasparay said. “There were other artists in the community that weren't getting that platform because they weren't [in the program].”
This lack of access for Madison artists and other artists across the country is why she decided to establish the Black Arts Matter Festival.
“I wanted to engage with community artists here that weren't a part of First Wave and also engage all of the world arts community,” Shasparay emphasized, noting that she wants to help artists “leave an imprint” in the community.
Shasparay is a jack of all trades when it comes to art, but she specializes in slam poetry. Her passion for slam started as a teenager when she stumbled upon a suggested YouTube video that showed someone performing spoken word.
“I immediately wanted to see more,” Shasparay said. “So, I did a deep dive and kept watching and watching and watching. I just saw all these amazing poets, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
The poetry competition at BAM will include a series of rounds where artists present poems of activism to a panel of judges.
As the rounds continue, artists will be eliminated. Eliminations will be extremely difficult as all of the artists are of a high degree of talent and were handpicked by Shasparay herself, she said.
“Everyone in this slam is dope and respected in the art form,” Shasparay noted. “If you were invited to this slam, it means that you've done things for your community or the slam community — you've shown up and you've been recognized as someone who is constantly working and honing your craft.”
Memorial Union has been selected as the location for the festival as the goals of the Union perfectly align with Shasparay’s inspiration for the festival: celebrating Black art and culture.
“The union is all about supporting students and building community,” Wisconsin Union Theater Director Elizabeth Snodgrass said. “The goals the Union Theater has set forth in the last couple of years around making space for our Black community and Black artists is perfectly aligned with this festival and Shasparay’s reasons for founding it in the first place.”
Both Snodgrass and Shasparay explained why they believe holding this event and advocating for Black arts and artists is of the utmost importance.
“Unfortunately, this country is rooted in and built on a history of oppression of Black people,” Snodgrass said. “Historically, the richness and beauty of blackness, Black culture and Black art is too often overlooked.”
Snodgrass highlighted her belief that the Union Theater should “represent and present arts of many disciplines and cultures, but Black art is a priority,” given the institutionalized racism Black community members face.
“This is a time where I think more people, maybe not enough people, but more people are listening, paying attention, and wanting to make a difference and make change,” said Snodgrass.
Shasparay reiterated this view, emphasizing that to her, it is crucial to provide opportunities and spaces for Black artists, especially given the pain and suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Questions of, ‘what is necessary?’ have led to theater spaces closing down and arts communities taking lots of hits,” Shasparay stated. “Prioritizing Black artists and Black art is my way of responding to the climate and the conditions that we are in now."
“We artists have suffered, there have been losses, so it's important to continue to have these platforms for artists,” Shasparay continued.
Aside from the slam poetry competition, Shasparay will be performing a portion of her one-person show for body politics followed by a discussion regarding fatphobia, body image, identity and self-love.
There will also be features of interdisciplinary artists including comics, music, dance and more. The music headliner for the festival is the Grammy-nominated female rapper CHIKA.
“I want to reiterate, this festival is for everyone,” Shasparay said. “We are celebrating Black Arts and artists, but everyone is welcome.”