Sydney artist and author Guy James Whitworth chats to activist and creative Mel Ree about how her monthly spoken word event, Revolution Renegade, came into being.
The title of the Gil Scott-Heron poem and song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is much quoted – and with the dire current state of Australian TV (and its lack of Indigenous and marginalised voices) there’s certainly very little chance it would be.
The antithesis of this indifference is an exciting new spoken-word night that happens the last Thursday of every month at the Giant Dwarf in Surry Hills. Revolution Renegade is the creation of Mel Ree; one of Sydney’s most incredible, inspiring artists.
We met up in the bohemian hinterland of Enmore for a quality vegan breakfast and chat, so I could get the background, lowdown and masterplan of this glorious, plant-based poetry pioneer.
I started by asking her to tell Sydney Sentinel readers a little about herself.
“My name is Mel Ree. I am a performance artist. I trained as an actor at WAPA. However, poetry chose me. Dance chose me too – obviously because I’m black, haha! I am the daughter of a woman who is a warrior chief of Papua New Guinea, so I have a royal blood line to Papua New Guinea. I’m a passionate woman, I’m an activist, I’m a sister, I’m loud, I’m proud and I am a conscious creator.”
When did you have the idea for Revolution Renegade and how long has it been running?
“So, Revolution Renegade was divine alignment because I was doing an interview on air for the Australian Poetry Slam and the incredible people at Giant Dwarf heard it. They had an idea to put on a poetry night and they called me straight away and I was immediately excited because I’d already had the idea to do something at the Red Rattler. I wanted to create a space where black people, people from out west and Inner West queer people could come together and realise that we are all fighting the same fight and create a unity within those circles. It started last November, and it is going strong!”
At the latest Revolution Renegade you read a poem by the utterly awesome Candy Royalle. Tell me about your connection with her and how much of an influence she has been?
“When I say the name Candy Royalle, I picture my creator. Because she basically led me to the pathway of the Mel Ree that [people know]. I randomly went to a poetry night with friends who have their own theatre company called Black Birds and I’d written a poem. I’d never even read a poem out in real life before! I got up. I read the poem, it was Candy’s night to host, she looked at me straight in the eyes and said ‘Sister, you have to do this!’ I kept going to all her events at Word in Hand (an open mike poetry night in Glebe), I kept getting up to read, but more than anything I watched what she was doing, who she was, what she stood for, the quality of her work and I saw the type of person I wanted to be and also the type of impact I wanted to make in the world.
“She asked me if I wanted her to be my mentor and I screamed, ‘Abso-freaking-lutely!’ When she passed away six months later, she passed the reigns to me and I became the MC at Word in Hand. I was also producing it and that’s really where I learnt all of my craft. That’s where I grew up as a performer, that’s where I found my feet, found my voice and also realised my power. I will say her name forever!”
The last Revolution Renegade fell on the Transgender Day of Visibility and it was amazing to hear so many diverse opinions and stories. How important is it to you to give space to the voices of those ‘otherised’ by mainstream society?
“To me there’s nothing more important than to give a space and a microphone to voices that are ‘otherised’ because from the moment I was born I have always been a marginalized person, however I found my community within ‘otherised’, black, queer, trans communities. I know now as an artist [that] pain is power and the more pain we have felt the more ability we have to maximise that pain into power. My mission as an artist for the rest of my life is to show this to people who have felt immense pain and let them know they are not trapped in it, they have the power to change because of it.
“Healing in an ongoing theme in my life and work, and honestly, I don’t feel like I chose to be this person in this position, it was the divine order of what had to happen, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right moment in time, where I had a stage, a voice and a presence. I think this whole thing would have happened regardless, but I think I am the right person for this job, right now.”
Tell me a little about some of the amazing poets who have performed at Revolution Renegade so far?
“I have been incredibly fortunate to host some incredible voices at Revolution Renegade. Starting with the iconic and legendary Lizzie Jarrett who is gonna go down in history as putting her body on the line for her people and Indigenous rights, obviously Kween G, another spectacular member of our community, Nancy Denis, rising star Maina Doe, Dobby, who is an awesome Indigenous rapper and activist; these are really people at the forefront of change for Australia. There’s Spvrrow, who is a rising icon and Ayeesha Ash, the creative director of Black Birds. Also Che, a trans indigenous performer from Turtle Island I’ve just recently discovered, whose work I just love. And also, one more, someone who always comes on our open mic is Chrissy, an incredible trans sister who has very raw poetry and who is really fun. Honestly, the stage is a blessing and everyone is so amazing!”
Let’s play a version of fantasy dinner party! Who would be your dream line up?
“Oh wow, that’s a question, let me think … Barkaa, Archie Roach, Candy Royalle, Maya Angelou, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Ocean Vuong, Raymond Antrobus, Joelle Taylor, Suheir Hammad, Kate Tempest and Ali Cobby Eckermann, just to name a few.”
What are your future plans for Revolution Renegade?
“Well, obviously I would like to be sold out every single night! But also, and just as importantly, I would really like it to be the epicentre for marginalised voices and I want to bring people together who are not usually together. And, you know, this is hugely important to me; black people who live out west, who may be immigrants or first generation, I want them to come over to the queer centre of Sydney and realise we are all in this together. I hate the separation of all the marginalised groups; we need to realise we are all in this together and nothing is achieved by the fighting between all the people at the bottom of the ladder.
“I want to write a book, I want a podcast and I want to go on tour, maybe even a TV show. I want to make it happen! My biggest plan for Revolution Renegade is that I want to be at the front of the revolution and all these ideas, all the voices, all these people, I want them to be meaningful and I want them to matter. I want people to talk about what is happening here.”
Well, if that TV show happens, perhaps the revolution will be televised after all – but in the meantime, Revolution Renegdade is held from 7pm on the last Thursday of each month at the Giant Dwarf, 280 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills. For tickets and further info, visit https://giantdwarf.com.au/events/revolution-renegade/.
Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist and author. His book Signs of a Struggle – is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.
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