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Posted by Kylee Roberts at 12:53PM
Jaylene Clark Owens Smiling

Blog written by Kylee C. Roberts, Communications Management and Design ‘19, FLEFF Intern, New York, New York.

A black woman with short 4C hair stands in front of a yellow brick wall. She introduces herself in a high pitched, shrill voice:

“Hi/My name is Jaylene Clark Owens and this is not my voice/ This is not my normal register this a choice/This cadence creeps unconsciously into my vocal-box cavity and um/all of the sudden my voice begins to lift.”

Owens has dedicated her talents to artistically formulating the black experience through spoken word and theatre. In this poem, she describes the distress of code switching: A tactic subconsciously used by minorities to seem more approachable to white people.

Jaylene Clark Owens is a writer, poet and actress performing spoken word at FLEFF 2019’s DISRUPTIONS concert. The Ithaca College Alumna received a BFA for acting and was the founder of Spit That: The IC organization dedicated to forming community through spoken word.

“It was definitely a change coming from New York City in terms of the town itself, the public transportation and being a minority on campus,” Owens reminisced. “It was a cultural adjustment.”

After graduating IC in 2010, Owens was more aware of the changes happening in Harlem.

“I began to understand more about what gentrification was and what it was doing,” Owens said. “I guess I really started noticing around High School, when I would see, ‘oh, there’s a GAP here now and an H&M.’ Even seeing white people in Harlem I was like, ‘Wait what?’”

In an attempt to express herself and make sense of her environment, Owens wrote a Facebook status analogizing the killer whale to gentrification:

“When I looked at that image it looked [like] the white was coming through the middle and pushing the black to the sides,” Owens explained. “And I was like, ‘huh, that kind of feels like what’s happening in Harlem,’ in which white people are coming in and black people are getting pushed out.”

Shortly after the post went up in 2010, Owens was contacted by her former teacher Alfred Preisser from the Harlem School of the Arts. He asked her to create a play based on her comparison for a performance at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem.

Owens teamed up with Hollis Heath, Janelle Heatley and Chyann Sapp to write the play, Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale and further creating the Harlem KW Project LLC. The company vowed to focus on “preserving the rich culture and history of Harlem through the arts.”

“When we started writing this play three out of four of us lived in Harlem and now none of us do” Owens said in regards to gentrification. Due to property value increases, returning to Harlem is  an expensive goal for Owens. As it affected all four women, the creation of the play was collaborative:

“We decided on what stories we want to tell, and once we narrowed that down each of us went home to write poems and scenes based on these stories, topics we wanted to talk about,” Owens explained. “Then I wrote the script to connect them.”

After the play’s premiere in 2011, Owens continued her artistic endeavors which included one of the best memories of her life: Performing spoken word at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night.

“Spoken word is not typically done at the Apollo and it’s very rare that it will win,” Owens explained. She performed a piece called SoHa, based off the attempted rebrand of South Harlem since it’s gentrification. With a large push from the community, SoHa was cancelled.

“To be able to get into the competition and then to do a poem about Harlem, being in Harlem, being from Harlem; so many layers of Harlem-ness and it just made me so happy,” Owens exclaimed. “When they said I won it was just — amazing.”

Eight years later, Owens  published a collection of her poetry in a book called AfroPoetic.

AfroPoetic used to be my AOL screen name,” Owens laughed. “It’s a bunch of poems that I’ve written over the years about the black experience. I often write about being black and things I deal with as a black woman, so a lot of my poems have a social justice feel to them.”

This year will be Jaylene Owens’ first time at FLEFF, performing three poems including “My Voice, My Choice” at the FLEFF DISRUPTIONS Concert. Owens is excited for this year’s theme as she has seen disruptions intertwined with so much of today’s culture.

“While, no, we’ve never been post-racial, I have never seen this level of blatant racism on display in my lifetime. That is a disruption of peace,” Owens explained. She added, “there’s a lot of disruption in terms of women disrupting the patriarchy and having their voices heard.”

To learn more about Jaylene Clark Owens, head to her website here.



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