Life

How Poetry Helped Jordon Veira 'Empty' His Heart And Become The Man He Wanted To Be

"Healing is a fundamental part of everybody’s experience."

Listen: David Lewis-Peart introduces this second instalment in our series on the lives of Black men. Music: Driftnote. Audio editing: Omar Rivero. Audiograms: Al Donato.

In this series on Black masculinity, we speak to a number of Black men on what masculinity means to them, what they have learned or are in the process of unlearning, and how Black manhood reimagined has presented itself in their lives and work.

Jamaican-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist Jordon Veira was founfider of The Heard, a social enterprise that platformed the arts, working primarily with marginalized students in the greater Toronto area. Under Jordon’s leadership, The Heard delivered workshops, training and arts-based empowerment programs for youth.

While moving through chronic illness and childhood trauma, Jordon was able to champion his own story in the name of personal and collective healing. Just before his death, he completed the near final-touches on his autobiographical book and hip-hop/spoken word visual album entitled, “A Black Boy’s Brain.” The remaining work is being completed by Jordon’s loved ones. Jordon Veira died in June 2019, following an asthma attack. This interview was conducted in 2018.

What is Black masculinity?

“Black masculinity is a spectrum, and as far I’ve experienced it, that spectrum is wide and deep, much wider and deeper than, as individuals and sometimes as cultures, we allow ourselves to perceive.”

One of my favourite quotes, I think it is Toni Morrison (Editor’s note: the quote is from bell hooks), talks about some of the earliest processes of patriarchy being emotional self-mutilation in young men – that has been a process that to this day I actively am healing from. It is not an easy concept to unlearn, because it informs how you show up in the world in small ways and in large ways. As Black men, we are not given as much license to express the spectrum of our emotional realities and have to shrink ourselves into what is socially acceptable.

What did you first learn about Black manhood?

The things that informed my ideas of Black masculinity [when I was young] were Christianity and [absorbing] a lot of patriarchal ideas of masculinity and the role of men in families from the church. As well, my father is Jamaican Canadian, so, absorbing the Jamaican culture in music and in media, and in dialogue with other community members.

Those ideas of masculinity all sort of informed this perspective that I had, that as a Black man I had to be hard, I had to be strong, I had to be cold. I had to be a hunter for everything that I wanted, be it sex or power or money, I had to go out and use whatever was at my disposal to get and take and build and own and have.

Listen: Jordon Veira on how his parents divorce shaped his childhood ideas of manhood. Story continues below.

What are you presently learning or unlearning about Black masculinity?

“Throughout my entire life, my poetry has always been a tool for my healing, it has always been a tool for self-discovery.”

Jordon Viera
Jordon Viera

I remember when I was around maybe 13 or 14, I discovered Def Poetry Jam on YouTube, and I would go home from school every day, and I would watch maybe four to six hours of spoken word every day. Often watching the same poems over and over again, at the time I didn’t identify myself as a spoken-word artist. Definitely looking back, I was writing poetry back then, but it was more just out of practice of trying to empty my heart.

Masculinity was probably the earliest concept that I wrote about; I had a poem called “Violent Moments,” where I talked about when my cousin got shot, and what leads young Black men to violence. And I remember when he got shot, I felt so afraid, to the point where I was in an emotional place and I wrote this poem.

Listen: Jordon performs “Violent Moments.” Story continues below.

I remember getting to a point in my young adult life where I felt completely inundated by these ideas of masculinity. I was about 16 and I wrote this poem called,“What Is A Man?” And I put it up on my Facebook and it got like 26 likes. I thought I was famous. I think since then I’ve always had that sort of question in my art, it’s always been a sort of search or a challenge and a query: What is acceptable? What is unacceptable? Why are these lines created? Why are these ideas so pervasive within our community?

“I’ve always tried to stretch and create more room for, the spectrum of Black masculinity in my relationships as well as in my art.”

My organization, The Heard, has a project called the Black Boy Brave Project. We’ve been running it for a couple of years in middle schools throughout the GTA, and we do a lot of advocacy work with young Black youth. It has been phenomenal to create this platform that allows young Black men to express themselves, to express things that they didn’t necessarily have the space or the license to do so.

Listen: Jordon talks about the important role art plays in shaping masculinity. Story continues below.

“I recognize that whether you are a man or a woman or you are trans or you don’t identify with a gender, no matter what your race is, no matter where you come from, in just surviving this human life we incur a lot of damage. We experience a lot of pain.”

So a few years ago, I developed asthma. I got really sick, I stopped sleeping, I wasn’t eating properly. I was really depressed. I would get these episodes where I couldn’t breathe in the night up to six, seven hours at night. And then throughout the day, it got really bad.

During this time, I continued running my organization, producing events, collecting different artists, getting us together, doing a lot of arts education and advocacy work. And whenever I’m on stage, it’s like I have no symptoms, I have no anxiety, no fear, it’s just like I am pure. The same thing when I am working with youth — it is like medicine, almost, for me.

So, doing that over the years I burnt out several times, I developed a fungus infection in my sinuses and my brain area and so I had to get brain surgery. And that brought me to a point where I guess I hit a wall, I couldn’t work at all, I couldn’t create, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, and all of a sudden had to prioritize my self-care.

At the beginning of 2017 I started this project. I did a show called the Self Care Project and it sort of bled into my 2017 and I started this personal journey of self-care. I had to prioritize my mental health, my physical health, my spiritual health over the community, over my business, over my dream, over all of these other things — my family, my friends.

Everything I learned about Black masculinity got flipped upside down when I got sick and I realized I was vulnerable. I realized that I was mortal.

I gave myself permission for the first time to need myself and to say no to everybody else and everything else. That’s been a hard process, but you know, on the other side of it, I feel so blessed. I feel like when I go out and have conversations about healing, people look at me strange. Like, you are a Black man and you are talking about healing? That’s so weird.

“Healing is a fundamental part of everybody’s experience.”

Healing is a fundamental part of everybody’s experience. So that is sort of what my mission is as an artist, is to get people to realize that it is not just about succeeding, it is not just about gaining things in life or trying to be popular or trying to be rich. The richness of your life is in your health, it is in your mental health, it is in the health of your relationships.

Listen: Jordon performs a poem on the stereotypes and systems he has to face and interrogate as a young Black man.

“I’ve been planting truth in my verses, the truth that was sent to me by the greatest of orators. I hope history mentions me, but when I get to heaven I’ll ask Biggie to mentor me, tell 2Pac to his face everything that he meant to me. And if you get there first, tell Uncle Bob he can send for me, I see you on the other side because this is far from the end for me.”

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