Last February, just five days after her birthday, multidisciplinary artist Amanda Shea discovered she had two dislodged discs in her neck. She would need an invasive neck surgery through her throat, six to eight weeks of bedrest, speech therapy and an application to Social Security to pay for the treatment she was told she could not afford. Twenty minutes later, she wrote the poem “BODY” in response to the cavalier manner of the medical professionals who had delivered such devastating news to her. Now, one year later, Shea has released a video to accompany the poem.
Released on Feb. 2, “BODY” is the fourth installment of her video poem series called “Pieces of Shea.” This latest poem is a commentary of how the healthcare industry does not always treat Black and brown bodies with care, especially queer and trans bodies. After two cesarean deliveries of her children, losing one ovary to cancer, and the threat of losing her voice when she’s a full-time spoken word poet and artist, she asks, “How can I feel whole?” The other poems in the series “FACETIME,” “ENTANGLED” and “RESILIENCE” all evolved from personal struggles Shea and her loved ones experienced, but they also contain depths that expand to a greater commentary about Blackness and womanhood.
Inspired by her favorite book “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” Shea began writing a diary when she was 8 years old. But it wasn’t until she moved to Boston in 2006 to attend Roxbury Community College that she revisited the idea of writing poetry. H.O.P.E. INC. (a.k.a. “HOP ON PROPER EDUCATION”) was a nonprofit that used to sponsor poetry nights at Dudley Café near campus, where she was inspired by the poets who were giving off so much emotion through their inflection and tone. Eventually she would go on to host the open mic nights and share her own poetry for the first time since she was a teenager.
These days, it’s difficult to come across poets, hip-hop artists, or performing artists in Boston who haven’t heard of Shea or worked with her directly. In pre-COVID times, she performed everywhere from the Bella Luna & The Milky Way to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art for events like last year’s “Braveheart: Storytelling from a Soulful Place.” She has also hosted countless events like the Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest and the Arts Equity Summit. And last year, Shea organized the virtual Activating ARTivism events with JD Neinast of Sofar Sounds to amplify Black and brown artists who yearned to meaningfully protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others.
Shea has a talent of bringing people together. “I always think about the greater good and how to elevate everyone involved. How do we bridge people in the physical or digital realm to help and love each other?” she says. “Friendships look like that, art should look like that.”
Shea is perhaps best known for her spoken word poetry, but she does not want to limit her artistic endeavors to one box. “There are so many ways of consuming art, I want to be intentional with the layers,” she says. Producing videos is the next step in her journey as a multidisciplinary artist. For “Pieces of Shea,” she wrote the poems and corresponding storyboards before collaborating with directors. Next, she announced her poems through photographs over Instagram before finally releasing the video interpretations over YouTube.
As a performer and sought-after emcee, Shea has always loved the energy that comes from crowds, but now she is in a space of protecting her energy as much as possible. Post-surgery, her arms easily go numb with pain, so posing in long photoshoots for her art projects hurts her physically and mentally. It will take her days to recover her drained energy. But this obstacle happens to coincide with her artistic evolution — she no longer wants to be the face of her art. She wants her art to speak for itself. Shea says, “Image is a thing in this industry. I don’t want to have this over-inflation of who Amanda Shea is due to my resume.” If she takes a back seat to her art and lets someone else play out the story lines in her videos, she creates the opportunity for audiences to be captivated by her art first, then think about the person behind it later.
In October, Shea released her first video poem in this series, “FACETIME” (directed by Jay Hunt of Smokehouse Media), written in response to the insecurities that have cropped up during quarantine when you’re staring at your image on Zoom and FaceTime constantly. In the video, spoken word poet and makeup artist SublimeLuv (a.k.a. Amber Aliyah Williams) examines her reflection as she puts makeup on, then scrubs it off. When casting, Shea considers, “How can the artist benefit from being part of this? It’s not just about me. How can this help her artistic background?”
However, the video for “ENTANGLED” released in November (also directed by Jay Hunt) was one Shea needed to tackle herself. The video opens silently as Shea walks through a park in a wedding dress. When she starts reciting the poem, she’s suddenly draped in chains and handcuffs. “ENTANGLED” is about what it felt like for Shea to be trapped in an abusive marriage with someone who has an addictive personality. “It was significant to do that,” Shea says. “It was actually the last time I felt those emotions. I just performed that poem the other night, and I didn’t feel those emotions attached anymore. That was so unforeseen. It made it even more magical.”
The third video in the series, “RESILIENCE” posted in December (directed by Danny Reyes Figueroa of Sirreyes Films), is another example of Shea trying to take a step back from the process. Dancers Key’Aira Lockett, MzMoPhila, SublimeLuv, Tia Lites, Laura J. Cabrera, Ari Avara and Darlin Isha take center stage wearing white and yellow. Shea drew Inspiration from Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” and her own mother’s upbringing in the South. Midway through the writing process, Shea also began to think of Black and brown women globally — the strength that comes from being Black and being a woman, the generational trauma that you inherit, and the commentary society inundates you with. Not all of the women Shea recruited for the video knew each other before filming, but they bonded that day in the Arnold Arboretum over some of the universal experiences they shared.
While “BODY” addresses the physical challenges Shea has endured, “RESILIENCE” looks to the mental challenges. “How many times do we not check in on mental health? I think of my mom, me…my aunties, my grandmother,” Shea says. “…We’re supposed to be the ones to check in, we’re the matriarchs, but no one checks in on us.” In our interview, she talks about how Black and brown people die at the hands of police, yet how are their mothers supposed to be resilient when that happens? On a global level, Shea also thinks about the systemic practices of genital mutilation and human trafficking. Her poem states, “Black women overcome so many obstacles, and when asked, ‘How are you?’ they reply, my mother replies, I reply, ‘I’m fine.’”
“BODY” is not the last video poem we’ll see from “Pieces of Shea.” “The beautiful part of this series is it’s continual,” she says. “Naming it ‘Pieces of Shea’ allows me to expand, collaborate and invite others along the journey.”
Shea offers up vulnerable parts of herself in her poems, but she’s careful to not give her entire self. It can still be scary for her to be candid about those emotions. But the importance of letting other people to know they’re not alone outweighs any fears she has about sharing her vulnerabilities. “I know how I feel when I consume other people’s art, and I feel that bravery,” she says. “And I feel like I need to expose myself in the same way.” Poetry is a way of healing for her, whether it’s her first time writing a poem or the most recent time she’s spitting it.
“Art is going to heal the world,” she says. “Vulnerability touches everybody. It’s transcendent. Art is important in not-so-great times, utilized to bring people together.”