Interview: Millennial Spoken Word Artist Nina Donovan On Her Viral Poem “Nasty Woman”
Although actress Ashley Judd went viral for reciting the poem “Nasty Woman” at the recent Women’s March in Washington D.C., she didn’t steal the show on her own. Enter Tennessee native, Nina Donovan, who penned the poem “Nasty Woman” for the Nashville-based non-profit performing arts and poetry organization, Southern Word. The 19-year-old sociology major has been interested in poetry since her high school days, and has also competed in international spoken word competitions.
Her work, which she performs under the name Nina Mariah, primarily tackles being a female in a society. Examples include her poem titled “Smack That,” a creative dissection of popular club anthems coupled with her views regarding misogyny. The poem boasts lines such as “Where would I be without misogyny in my headphones?…What’s left of my security as I walk past construction workers wanting to drill more than cement?”
Her lauded “Nasty Woman” poem celebrates the “phunky, crusty, b***hy, loud” females who the media (and our leaders) try to silence through harassment and body-shaming, while continually making it difficult for women to succeed in a man’s world. She also comments on the history of America in regards to racial and social inequality, while asserting the notion that this country is not out of the woods yet.
VIBE spoke with the bubbly Donovan, who was actually on her break at her job, Dunkin’ Donuts, to get the low-down on her aggressive-yet-necessary piece, how she got in touch with Ashley Judd and what it’s like to be a millennial in Trump’s America.
VIBE: Tell me a little about the atmosphere of Franklin, Tennessee. What’s the demographic? How was it like growing up for you?
Nina Donovan: I mean, the high school that I went to is very, very white. I think they said it was 92 percent white, and I'm half Puerto Rican, so I was a super minority there. It's very Republican out here. [Franklin's] neighboring city Nashville is more liberal, but Franklin is super-conservative, very religious. Especially my county, Williamson County, it's like a bubble. People don't escape it and they're kind of trapped here in a way. I feel that's why there tends to be a lot of ignorance here; people don't really reach outside of this Williamson County bubble. They're not tuned into what's actually going on outside of our city.
It doesn't seem like the most artsy place, so where did you go that helped spark an interest in poetry?
It's definitely not a place for the arts. Franklin is more of a singer-songwriter city, but Nashville is very artsy, so that's how I got deep into poetry. The first time I ever did a poetry slam and started gaining an interest in poetry was my freshman year of high school. We had this poetry unit in English and then the poetry slam, but I didn't get deep into poetry or spoken word until junior year of high school. I kept winning slams, and I eventually made it to the international poetry competition called Brave New Voices. It was incredible. It was not just a competition, it became a family of spoken word artists. I'm so impressed with a lot of the people that I met there. That's really how I got my interest.
Were you ever shy about reciting your poems at first, and if you were, how did you find that confidence inside of you?
Oh yeah, there's times even now when I'm doing shows and I still get terrified. I'm like, what if no one likes it? What if no one snaps for me? Even when I did this "Nasty Woman" piece, I was so scared, because obviously, it's pretty controversial, so I was afraid to perform it at one time. What if no one gets it? What if no one understands the references? But I have so much support behind me. I have family and friends who always back me up and encourage me to keep going with it.
How has your poetry evolved? Meaning, what did you find yourself writing at first, and now what are you writing about?
I kind of just wrote about myself, what's wrong with the world, but not really targeting specific issues. More like, "oh society sucks, blah blah blah," [laughs]. But now, it's less punchlines, more narratives. I've started putting the political aspect in it as well. At first I thought that I can't be funny in spoken word, but then I started adding those juicy punchlines and it works! It gets the crowd going.
Obviously, the final Presidential Debate inspired you to write “Nasty Woman.” What were some of the thoughts going through your head when you heard Trump call Clinton a "nasty woman"?
It was sort of like a "...did he just say that?" kind of moment. That was also the speech where he said "bad hombres."
Oh yeah, it was.
It was like, this is potentially going to be the President. Is this a joke? He was acting like a child throughout the whole thing. But you know, I had been waiting for some inspiration to write a new piece to perform, and the minute he said that, I was like, "that's it. That's the new piece! It has to be." At first, I was thinking that I was going to reclaim this [the phrase "nasty woman"] and it's gonna be so funny, but then it got really serious really quickly. I was hitting on serious issues, and the more I researched them, the more heated I got about this. I wanted to know why no one major was doing anything to fix these problems. Why isn't the government fixing these issues? I couldn't stop writing. It took me, honestly, about a good month to finish. Even up until the last minute, about an hour before the performance, I was tweaking things, rewording things.
How did Ashley Judd get in contact with you, to see if she could recite your poem?
It was crazy! She just happened to be at the show that I first performed it at. So, she pulled a few of us poets aside afterwards, and she congratulated us, thanked us for using our voices. And out of nowhere, she turns to me and she says, "So, I'm thinking that your piece is gonna go up at the D.C. March for Women." And I'm like "...uh, what? Me?!” [laughs]. So we started texting back and forth about it. I gave her full permission to tweak anything, change anything and recite it on my behalf. She's been incredible. She still texts me, even about other stuff. She FaceTimed me after the march, thanking me for letting her use it. She's definitely a very amazing woman.
That's crazy. I could even imagine.
She's the sweetest!
For me, knowing that this poem came from a younger woman who voted for the first time, it gave me hope for the future. It's a call-to-action for women, young and old, to come together and figure out how to get through this thing together. For you, what was the most incredible aspect of being able to hear your words being recited in front of all of those people?
This whole piece is to remind not only women, but ethnic minorities, the queer community, to remind them all that we still have a voice. I know it may seem like we're being set back with who was elected into office, but we do still have a voice. It's crazy that people are coming to me, people from all around the world wildly enough, said that my poem gave them hope for the next four years, that it brought them to tears. That truly was the whole message of the poem. It wasn't just an anti-Trump piece, it was a pro-equality, "let's unite and fight together" piece. That's been the greatest part. Even some Trump supporters have contacted me and said that even though they voted for Trump, they still think it's great that I'm using my voice and speaking for what I believe in. That's what makes America this great country that people talk about, the fact that we do have free speech and that I can use my passion and my art to make these statements.
Who are some of the millennial women in the media who you look up to for their voices and their activism?
Definitely Zendaya! She's my number one! First of all, she's a beautiful, beautiful girl, and the fact that she's not just another young face in the media. She started off as a Disney star, but she's proven that she's so much more than that. She's an activist, she's not afraid to speak her mind, and she has the most incredible clapbacks on Twitter, it's kind of ridiculous [laughs].
You talk about a lot of different issues throughout the poem: wage inequality, period shaming, sexual harassment. Why do you think that these specific examples were important to tackle in the poem?
Just stuff like period shaming and being harassed by people on the street—they're things that every woman has gone through, even if it was just once. Especially the cat-calling, that's honestly really hard for me to talk about sometimes. Knowing that I'm going to have to perform this piece, and look someone in the eyes and see that they've been through the same thing that I have. Some have it even worse. We've elected this man into office who literally said, "grab 'em by the p***y." He's been accused of rape, he's been quoted saying all of these vulgar, disgusting things about women, and it goes to show that society really isn't changing as much as we think it is. People think that rape doesn't exist, slavery doesn't exist, racism doesn't exist, but that's obviously not the case. They try to ignore the issue, or if they have the privilege, they act like it doesn't exist because they haven't had to experience it. Just because it doesn't happen to you, doesn't mean it doesn't happen to other people. That's what I feel like people need to understand: the world is bigger than your own.
What do you think is the most troubling aspect of a Donald Trump presidency as a young woman?
There's been a lot of people who have said that my poem is vulgar or that the movement is vulgar, but the fact that they voted this vulgarness and this disgusting language into office. Do they see that from him or do they choose to ignore it? I was quoting him when I said "grab 'em by the p***y." It's not like I just pulled it out of nowhere. So that's really scary to me, that people are ignoring this misogyny and this hateful speech, but the scarier part is that people are encouraging it. I've been seeing tweets that say that people hope they bring slavery back, and that's terrifying to me. The fact that people still think like that after all these generations scares me.
What other causes have you been vocal about since the election?
I've always been here for the Black Lives Matter movement, obviously for women's rights, too. My friend and I actually went to a rally in Nashville for BLM. Immigration also hits home for me. My mother is Puerto Rican, so she was born a citizen. However, when I say "I'm Hispanic," I get asked, "oh, so you're Mexican?" There's more than one type! We're not all the same. My grandparents immigrated here. Many people come here for a better life. There's problems in their own countries, they're looking for better opportunities for their families, and it's sad that people can't look at it that way. They're not here to bring drugs and rape and crime, they're here to make a home.
What is some of the advice you can give women that may help for the next few years?
I'd say to keep hope alive. Remember the millennial vote. A lot of us had voted for Bernie or Hillary. I think we're a generation that can bring third-party voting into mainstream media. I think we have so much power because we're woke [laughs]. We have so much strength and so much hope. I promise you, there is so much hope left in the world, and we just have to fight together. I think we need to sit down and have mature, open-minded conversations with others as well.