Myesha Jenkins, 1948—2020, RIP

The pioneering poet and activist Myesha Jenkins died in Johannesburg on Saturday, 5 September, 2020.

Jenkins moved to South Africa from Los Angeles in 1993, after many years as an anti-apartheid activist. In an interview with Sihle Mthembu in 2011, she said of the transition:

‘It was not really a culture shock, but I think moving here helped me look at myself because here I was part of a nation that was redefining itself and I am always sad that we don’t do that anymore. We don’t explore and revisit and redefine who we are.’

In January this year, Makhosazana Xaba (a patron of The JRB) sat in conversation with Jenkins, in which the latter elaborated on her life and career. Watch this compelling and comprehensive conversation on Jenkins’ life:

Jenkins was a founding member of the Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective, alongside Napo Masheane, Lebogang Mashile and Ntsiki Mazwai. The collective, formed in 2003, broke new ground that contributed—to borrow a phrase from the 2019 work on Black South African women poets in which Jenkins featured, Our Words, Our Worlds—to a ‘seismic shift that transformed national culture through poetry’.

Myesha Jenkins
Photo by Poetry Africa

Jenkins published two poetry collections, Breaking the Surface (2005) and Dreams of Flight (2011). She edited the 2017 collection To Breathe Into Another Voice: A South African Anthology of Jazz Poetry, and has been anthologised in Isis X ( 2006) and We Are (2010). Jenkins received the Mbokodo Award for Women in the Arts in the Poetry category in 2013.

Watch Jenkins read the final verse of her 2014 poem, ‘Where We’ve Been’, at the 2017 Poetry Africa festival in Durban:

For five years, from 2011–2016, Jenkins produced the series Poetry in the Air on SAfm, to showcase poets in celebration of South African Women’s Month. She also curated, even while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, a series of podcasts on Kaya FM, Myesha’s Memoirs—Living with Jazz and Poetry, which explore the deep connection between poetry and jazz. The podcasts are available to listen to here.

In her obituary for Jenkins, the jazz critic Gwen Ansell observes:

She was not just an observer but an integral part of our jazz scene: her instrument, rather than some machine-made construct of metal, valves and reeds, was the word. […]

When we get back to the jazz clubs again, it will be impossible not to see that empty seat, close to the stage, where Myesha ought to be—listening intently, head tilted, half-smiling, eyes closed; sometimes, when the spirit of the sounds moved her, boubou-clad shoulders dancing.

Jenkins shared a selection of her work on her website, a reminder that her words will live on.

New Being

You are the future my friend
the promise of morning rising with the dawn
Yesterday is no more
Sea foam on the beach
the ocean remembers the wave
Do you know the land of your mother?
Sing her a song of flowing rivers,
through forests, under deserts, over stones.
Dance for your father’s people
two-step around the fire
in a trance you greet the child of your unborn son.
become a dove in your sister’s house
Your future casts no shadow
to hold you
to time
or place
or space.

The JRB extends its condolences to Jenkins’s friends and family.

Header image: Word N Sound

2 thoughts on “Myesha Jenkins, 1948—2020, RIP”

  1. She is a sister/woman I knew all my life, but only met in the latter 1990s. She is a sister/warrior I knew all my life, but only danced her song in the early parts of 2000. She is a sister/mama I knew all my life, and will remember all the rest of my life as I grow old as the time of shifting sands. Myesha Jenkins! PRESENTE!!

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