Straight Out The Box: The Review

Writer and blogger Kaysha Woollery takes us through an evening of box fresh words and music as she relives the first ever Straight Out The Box at Pop Brixton…

When I first heard “Straight Out the Box”, I pictured a Jack-in-a-Box and envisaged an evening of being terrorised by clowns – the very essence of my worst nightmares. I went anyway because I had a free ticket, and I’m glad I did. Let’s set the scene. We’re in a shipping container, fairy lights are twinkling, the sound check is checked, Pop Box Brixton is chock-a-block and for a very good reason. We’re tipsy on the beats provided by Resident DJ, Mr Trouble, waiting for Charlie Dark to take the stage and warm us up for Apples and Snakes’ Straight Out the Box, a pulsating mix of grime and poetry.

The sold out event had a bit of a 90s house party feel; any DJ who can whack out a fistful of pre-show Garage anthems is my kind of DJ. And, most importantly, there wasn’t a clown in sight. Comfortably seated and Red Stripe-d, we were broken in with Charlie’s crash course in how poets became poets:

Photo credit: Camille Mack

Photo credit: Camille Mack

“Poets wanted to rap…but you couldn’t rap in the early 90s with this [English] accent…you’d get bottled off stage.”

Fair enough. He went on to school us about his work in education and reminisce about “The one kid [you see] in the classroom of chaos and think ‘that one is pretty special.’”

It could have been too easy to get absorbed in the nostalgia but, little did we know, that one such kid was in the room. Hailing from Nottingham, the first act, Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson was discovered in a schools project before starting her journey with poetry at the age of 16. She’s been busy ever since, going on to perform poetry all over the world, lecture at the University of Nottingham, get involved with the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme, get published by Louis Vuitton, Holland Park Press and the Oxford University Poetry Society and develop her debut collection, Pigeon Party, with Flipped Eye Productions Ltd. Notably, she founded The Mouthy Poets in 2010, giving young people poetry, writing, performance, event coordination and general life skills.

Her first poem of the night definitely took home the prize for the most entertaining back story. The most prominent lines resonated through the room like a mantra:

“If East London happened to you,
Your trust would hang in the road like shoes.”

Photo credit: Camille Mack

Photo credit: Camille Mack

She soon fessed-up to having pinched the lines from a rap her friend wrote. It occurred at a street party when a little boy approached her asking for a rap. After panic-pinching, she ran home and locked the door.

As she stripped off her leather jacket for the second poem, it became clear that with every layer shed, with every performance, we were being taken deeper into her world and how poetry provides a cathartic process of dealing with that world. A trained Zumba instructor, Deborah is often found raving sober and alone at least three times a week, which really showed by her final performance. Performing to a pre-recorded track, she broke up her lyrics by dancing in silence like no one was watching. My favourite poem of hers was her third performance, based on Sir Ken Robinson’s quote: “All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them…ruthlessly.”

She expertly dissected the pre-conceived notion of academic success and how the classroom grading system can set us up to fail, something I can definitely relate to, as I’m sure most others can. This was the poem where you could feel her passion the most, for her work educating, inspiring and uplifting young people through the very art form that helped her navigate dyslexia. She left us with a line that sticks with me to this day:

“Test score low, educate high.
Let talent wind down in your mind.”

As we were winding down from her set, I was left feeling slightly emotional, as I realised how much the 16-year-old me could have done with a Deborah Stevenson in her life.

After a 10-minute break, Charlie introduced us to our next act who was, as he said, “…back with new music after she went AWOL.” This was swiftly met with guitar-toting Speech Debelle effortlessly gracing the stage and with a cool, enviable confidence, re-framing her recent hiatus as “not AWOL, but drunk.” This woman is an inspiration to me, for two reasons:

  1. She’s immensely talented, with her album, Speech Therapy, beating out the likes of Florence and the Machine, Kasabian and The Horrors for the 2009 Mercury Prize.
  2. Her journey proves that even the immensely talented are human beings who go through rough patches and can still turn things around with enough rest, reflection and work.

Debelle’s album, Before I Breathe, comes out in September and is named after her anxiety attacks, which she realised she’d suffered from for most of her adult life after having quit drinking. Her acoustic set proved an uplifting wake-up call that not only reflected her experiences, but told the terrified, panic-ridden side of us all that all is not lost. She didn’t faff about either, getting swiftly down to business with an almost military focus that was reflected purely in the drumming of her first acoustic performance, The Work. It’s the musical equivalent of that one brutally honest friend who gives you tough love when you’re down, reminding you that there’s still work to be done and there’s still life to be lived, so get up, dust yourself off and get on with it.

Photo credit: Camille Mack

Photo credit: Camille Mack

Her next two performances featured a breakdown of relationships. She penned ‘Terms and Conditions’ in response to all the seeming stipulations and requirements of a functioning relationship and, my favourite of hers, ‘Running’. The latter is about unrequited love which, oddly enough, she doesn’t believe in as much as “unrequited lust.” I don’t usually make assumptions on behalf of entire audiences, but the unanimous head-bobbing to the intoxicating beats suggested a clear winner for the most relatable piece of the evening.

Afterwards, Charlie pointed out that we were a “Very West London and polite crowd…” What he didn’t realise was that it wasn’t the politeness that had us in silence. It was through being so chilled out by Debelle’s set, that we forgot we were in a shipping container in South London and not in bed, surrounded by incense, a lavender pillow and a masseuse.

Another break later and we were launched into the last but much anticipated set with a simple instruction from Charlie: “Remember where you were the first time you saw Kojey Radical.”

Kojey Radical. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it definitely should, as his album, 23Winters, recently made the Top 5 in the Hip Hop Charts and broke the UK Top 40. He took the stage with his first performance, ‘Ophelia’, and showed off his distinctive singing voice; raspy, velvety and buttery but rounded off with so much power, pain and general oomph. I was already hooked. By his second performance, Bamboo’, he’d endearingly admitted that his 82 year old father had never heard his music until recently because he swears a lot. He also revealed that if he was ever nominated for a MOBO Award, he would either skip it and throw a party at home instead, or he would turn up in full African Cloth. Either way, we would all be invited. I’ll be holding him to that.

His third performance, Preacher Preacher’, had familiar remnants that show his nod to The Fugees, ramped up with his voice, which became more powerful with each performance. By this time, I was fully assured that Kojey’s work allows for a wonderfully raw, human experience.

Photo credit: Camille Mack

Photo credit: Camille Mack

If I didn’t have the balls to get up and dance for his third song, the final performance of the evening had my inhibitions melting away. Again, this was another performance that showed an insight into the deepest passions that inspired the work. Kojey named this song after Ghana’s first prime minister and president, Kwame Nkrumah’, and dedicated it to none other than his dad. I was glad I waited for this one, as this was the song where you could feel the energy pulsing with every beat of sweat as he illuminated the stage with a presence it will be difficult to forget in a hurry. It left me thinking one thing and one thing only: A shipping container in Brixton. That’s where I was when I first saw Kojey Radical.

If you missed the chance to come to Straight Out The Box first time round, be sure to make it to the next one coming up on Wednesday 11 May, featuring Caleb Femi, Dean McCaffrey, Kayo Chingonyi and MOOZ. As England’s leading organisation for performance poetry, Apples and Snakes really does its job to produce amazingly unique events and opportunities and keep them accessible. Keep supporting the work artists and young people are doing. I’ll leave you with a simple request from Charlie at the end of the show:

“If your foot is in the door, let some people come through…Support people who are doing real things, as opposed to people we are told are doing real things.”

Now that’s something I can definitely get behind.

Kaysha Woollery is an upcoming writer and blogger based in London. She is passionate about art, literature, theatre, live events and performance and enjoys reading and writing about topics including, but not limited to diversity, feminism and navigating the world as a young person. Connect with Kaysha here: @kayshawoollery

NEXT EVENT: Straight Out The Box | Wednesday 11 May, 7.30pm doors | Tickets