Brave: Michelle Myers and Yellow Rage confront race head-on

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Asian-American poet Michelle Myers combats racism with her blunt, straightforward verses.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Asian-American poet Michelle Myers combats racism with her blunt, straightforward verses.
Posted: March 11, 2013

NO ONE'S immune to Yellow Rage's biting commentaries about race. The two performers in the Asian-American spoken-word duo - Michelle Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh - are aggressive. They're in your face. They're fearless.

Squirm, and it will say more about you than it does about them. The core of Yellow Rage's message is that black, white, Hispanic and Asian people don't want to be put into racial boxes. I was blown away by their lyrics:

Listen a------

Stop trying to guess what I am

Stop trying to tell me what I'm not

I was born in Seoul which makes me Korean

these slightly slanted eyes ain't just for seein

b----, I see right through you

you expert on me with your fake Asian tattoo

you expert on me with your taebo and kung fu

So what you tried Dim Sum and den some on the menu

So what you a fan of Lucy Liu

So what you read "The Joy Luck Club" too

that makes you an expert on how I should look? - f--- you

What the f--- do you know about being Asian?

I'm about to put you in your place, son."

See why people are paying attention? These ladies are on point.

You may have caught Yellow Rage's breakout performance back in 2001 on HBO's "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam." Originally a trio called Black Hair, Brown Eyes, Yellow Rage, the group downsized to a duo after Sapna Shah left to concentrate on medical school. They've traveled with Def Poetry Jam College Tour and performed in venues as far away as Hawaii. Locally, they host an open-mic night the third Friday of each month at the Asian Arts Initiative at 12th and Vine Streets.

Now, Myers, 41, is branching out into a solo career, performing selections from her 2010 poetry collection, The She Book, volume 1, in which she broadens her lyrical scope beyond her race to focus on women in general. You can see her perform pieces from it on March 22 at 7:30 p.m. , a special fourth-Friday gig that's also at the Asian Arts Initiative.

A rager, offstage

I caught up with Myers last week while she was on spring break from the Community College of Philadelphia, where she runs the Central Learning Lab and Student Academic Computer Center. (She's also the adviser to the school's spoken-word club.)

Not surprisingly, she was frank - but nowhere near as hyped as she appears onstage.

Myers' father is white, her mother Korean. With her long, dark hair and pale, freckled skin, she looks racially ambiguous. "Every single day I'm dealing with someone asking me, 'What are you?' I feel like race is something that's placed in my face constantly, whether I want it or not," she said.

When she tries to explain her heritage, she inevitably hears, "You don't look Korean."

"Well, who asked you whether I look Korean?" Myers asked, rhetorically. "Who's to say what Korean is supposed to look like?"

Didn't I say she doesn't back down?

A smash-mouth poet's past

Born in Seoul, Myers spent her formative years in Salem County, N.J., where she often felt alienated, she said. "I dealt with a lot of racism when I was a child," she recalled. "The first time I was called 'chink' was when I was 5 years old."

At the same time, she said, "I didn't feel accepted by Asian Americans."

"The place where I did feel accepted was in the African-American community," she continued. "When I was in high school, they showed me I shouldn't be sorry for being who I am. They were always trying to tell me to clean that up."

Myers went to college at what's now Rowan University, and earned her doctorate in English from Temple University. She's married to Tyrone McCloud, an African-American information-technology specialist. They and their three children now live in West Deptford, N.J.

Where poetry dares to go

Her book, she says, "is a project I took on because I wanted to try to compose poetry that testified to the strength and beauty of women, just women in general."

She also takes on community issues. One of her poems, "Take it Back," confronts poisoned relations between Asian- and African-Americans:  

In Philly

In LA

in DC

Based in part on the shocking racially motivated assaults in 2009 at South Philadelphia High School, "It's kind of like a call to heal, but also a call to take a step back at the common history that we share," she explained.

Some of Myers' poetry explores the darkest corners of humanity, including human trafficking and sexual slavery. She fears that merely writing about these societal ills might not be enough, so she has pledged to donate all of her profits from The She Book to anti-human trafficking efforts as well as community-building in Haiti and Cambodia.

Admission to the March 22 event is $10, (half goes to the Asian Arts Initiative) or free if you bring in a copy of The She Book.

"Ultimately, what I want people to learn from this is that we're all human," Myers said. "On a very fundamental level, we all want to be accepted. We all want to belong. We all want to be loved."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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