by Dasha Kelly
[Dasha Kelly is the founder and director of Milwaukee’s Still Waters Collective, a writing program that has been central to the development of the city’s youth spoken word community. — Jennifer Morales]
Of the hundreds of teens my arts program has reached in the past 12 years, fewer than 20 have sat shotgun in my car. Many were bashfully grateful for the ride, murmuring turn-by-turn directions to their front door. Some were intimidated by my banter; others were uncomfortable with any silence. All of them left behind bits of their story, perhaps as fare, and I would wait for them to wave back at my car before disappearing into an open screen door. I would drive away, counting the coins of their hard and glimmering truths.
Nakila made me rich. She filled every minute of our ride with her observations, dilemmas, musings and questions. So many questions, with that one. In the early years, she asked about poems and slam and her team and how our program started and how I started and where was I from and why did I write and what did I believe in and how would she know that she’d found her voice too.
In a recent interview, artist Dario Robleto said, “I didn’t know what an epiphany was until I had one.” The statement made me think of the tender and defining years of my students, of their gallery of “aha moments,” of their inevitable blossoming, of Nakila. From that passenger seat, I watched her flights of questions manifest into poems and performances, into leadership, into a four-year college scholarship, into ride-or-die friendships, into a love affair with the boy she would love into manhood and heartily, I’m sure, beyond the day she died. She evolved from sequestering herself away from life’s uncertainties to unapologetically baring the insides of her skin to the world. Nakila wore her uncertainties as boldly as her absolutes, which made her endearing and enchanting to anyone who met her.
“Dasha Kelly, I have questions for you.” This was less than a month ago. She wasn’t in my car this time. She was sitting on a café stool in my kitchen, peppering me as I put away my groceries with queries about adult slams and self-publishing and writing residencies.
Over the next few weeks — her final few weeks — I watched Nakila coach and mentor a new branch of writers on our ever-expanding family tree. Traded text messages about the absurdity of the large outing of white children evacuating the swimming pool when her large outing of black children arrived. I listened to her long-time love make casual references to lifelong plans, wedding songs and kids’ games. I watched her beloved friends coo and vibrate at the news of her upcoming performance. I clicked “like” on the show photos. I clicked “like” on the memorial photos people posted after she’d gone, too.
I’m convinced that Nakila has merely converted into energy. She was too full of fierce electricity and love to simply transcend and leave nothing of herself behind. Our community family collapsed with her death and clung tightly to help one another back to our collective feet. As we gathered and laughed and wept and celebrated and held ourselves open to one another in my backyard, I felt Nakila turning to wave at me, letting me know it’s safe for us all to drive on.