“Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise,” wrote bell hooks in her enduring classic, All About Love.
The late Black feminist and author was, among many things, an advocate for love, writing candidly about what love is and isn’t, the impact of living in a male-dominated society, and its transformative power as a force for social justice in the world.
When Michaela Coel took to the Global Citizen Festival: Accra stage in Sept. 2022, it might have surprised some audience members to hear her recite a poem about love. But she was following in bell hooks’ footsteps, adding her voice to the choir of Black feminists expounding the power of love.
In true Michaela Coel style, the poem is modern, visceral, and far from lofty. She gets straight to the point in describing the kind of love she wants to see — and it isn’t a sanitized, fairytale kind of love, but a relatable, down-to-earth, realist’s kind of love. You see, the love Coel describes is unconditional in nature; it doesn’t discriminate. It’s the kind of love that ”would never depart from me even if my school girl acne resuscitated from the dead ON my face and attacked me.”
Moving through a diverse range of personas and perspectives from the “back seats of pimps and so-called whores” to “metropolitan, urban, sandal-wearing shelter-working businessman [and], a pub going east London chick with an Adidas tracksuit, fake tan,” Coel demonstrates her storytelling mastery.
Far from a mere recitation, Coel’s performance was just that: a performance in itself along with the other musical acts on the Global Citizen Festival stage.
I caught up with the Black Panther superstar to go behind the performance and get the full story on why she chose the poem and what it means to her. Here are five things I learned from Michaela Coel:
1. Storytelling Can Change The World.
Coel is the storyteller of our time. Constantly challenging the status quo and pushing the envelope, she opens up discussions on taboo and socially relevant topics including sexual assault and consent in fresh and raw ways. She urges us to: “Write the tales that scare you, that make you feel uncertain, that aren't comfortable. I dare you.”
But why choose to tell stories instead of just lobbying decision-makers or campaigning on these issues? For Coel, storytelling is a tool to envision a better tomorrow. “You know the saying, seeing is believing?” she asks, “Well that’s what poetry and storytelling is all about, it provides a picture or an idea of what society could potentially look like.” Similarly, Damon Gameau once said recently in a TED talk ‘Stories shape culture, culture shapes leaders, leaders shape policies and policies shape the system’.
Sometimes those alternate realities are not always better than the one we exist in, such as in Coel’s award-winning series I May Destroy You. The 12-part series helped bring conversations around sexual assault front and center in a significant way. Not only did the show amplify underrepresented experiences of survivors of sexual assault — including a Black woman and a gay man — it explored the importance of consent, the stages of grief and trauma survivors experience, and the injustices within the criminal justice system in the handling of cases of survivors of sexual assault.
‘Love Is’ presents us with an alternative reality, not a utopia exactly as it puts a magnifying glass up to what is already around us. “I want the kinda love that’s eclectic and addictive, the kinda love I never wanna miss another minute with.” By painting this picture, Coel presents us with the potential of a universal, irrevocable, accepting love — one that could change the world. But not in a fluffy, clichéd, Hollywood way. It’s radical and unflinching.
2. There’s No Activism Without Love and Compassion
Love. It’s a universal human experience, but is it also the answer to dealing with the social issues in the world today, such as gender inequality, extreme poverty, and racial inequalities? Well, Coel thinks it could be part of the solution.
For Coel, “we all need a love like this.” Including activists, campaigners, advocates, and every one of us fighting for a better world.
As a fierce advocate for gender equality herself, Michaela Coel highlights the need for activists to cultivate self love and love for others as a core part of their work. As Coel puts it, “I think we can be activists, we can fight, we can strive and we can stress and strain to achieve equality but without love, love of ourselves, love of our sisters and our brothers, we’re still crippled and there is still a gaping hole in a society we imagine having peace in.”
With activism burnout such a pervasive issue — is it any wonder? Despite being generally unpaid labor, for many, activism ends up being a full-time job (on top of other responsibilities) and can become mentally and physically draining resulting in a burnout which can look like feeling irritable, hopeless, helpless; disconnected from affected communities, and having trouble making decisions. Sound familiar? On top of this, there’s also a societal pressure for activists to live up to being “the perfect activist,” raised onto pedestals from which they are predestined to fall. It’s high time we realized that we are all imperfect, all learning, and all capable of messing up (yes, that includes activists).
For Coel, love (including self-love), empathy, and compassion are fundamental parts of the solution to activist burnout. “There is still a hole if we don’t have love," she says, "I kind of think it is where we should begin with anything and everything.”
Coel is not alone in this belief. It’s a philosophy that has its roots in the civil rights movement, during which time the late writer and activist Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti also expounds the importance of love. Her opening address to world leaders at COP26, the 2021 edition of the UN’s climate conference, was: “Open your hearts” — a plea for decision-makers to take bold and urgent action against the climate crisis.
22-year-old climate justice activist and artist, Daze Aghaji, also underlines the importance of love in her activism. In an interview with the podcast, Climate Curious, Aghaji was asked: ”How do you solve a problem like the climate crisis?” Her response may surprise you: “As clichéd as it sounds: love.”
3. The Importance Of Community And Sisterhood For Black women.
The world can be a very hostile place for Black women, from the systemic barriers we face to the violence enacted upon Black women’s bodies. In addition to this, societal tropes like “the strong Black woman” that depict Black women as superhuman-like hyper-independent beings that can withstand anything puts unrealistic pressure on us to act strong all the time and further dehumanizes us.
Talking about racial violence, Coel says, “Everybody is deeply traumatized. I think if you can stand there and say that you don't think racism exists, you are a very traumatized person and your trauma has made you blind to what is going on right in front of you.”
Coel’s — and many other Black women’s —answer to this is “sisterhood among Black women.” That is, the creation of safe spaces that act as a buffer against the discrimination faced in the outside world. As another young Black writer, Kumba Kpakima, contends, these are some of the only spaces in which Black women can come together to cultivate friendships and “discover and embody our authentic selves unapologetically, without the need to conform or perform” or as Elizabeth Ayoola writes, “a place to share your trauma.”
Speaking fondly of this sisterhood, Coel says: “I was lucky enough to be in a group of Black women that shared a lot of love, where the world around us was not so loving. And having that group of women made me ready to love selflessly in a world that may not perhaps have loved me back.”
Dramatizing these community spaces is something Coel knows how to do well. From Chewing Gum to I May Destroy You, she paints a rich tapestry of Black female friendships, showing their transformational healing power.
As the wizard poet Coel is, she cleverly recreates this space of Black sisterhood in ‘Love Is’ by personifying love as a woman throughout the poem, as if love was one of the women in the sisterhood. “I can’t help but call Her, ‘coz I knew she’s really there,” she writes.
4. LGBTQ+ Representation Matters
Coel isn’t just an advocate for gender equality, but also for LGBTQIA+ rights. Having recently become part of the Marvel universe through her supporting role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Coel spoke about her excitement at portraying a queer Black woman through her character Aneka because of the positive impact this might have in Ghana.
In an interview with Pink News, Coel said: “For me, it was why I took the role and what it meant to me to portray a queer character, being from Ghana, where there’s a lot of confusing LGBTQ+ laws going on [...] It was about what I represent in Ghana and putting my feet in the shoes of a queer character.”
Out of the 54 African states, only 22 of them have legalized homosexuality. In some countries, it remains punishable by imprisonment, while it is punishable by deathin four — Mauritania, Nigeria (in states where sharia law is applied), Somalia, and South Sudan. In Ghana, where Global Citizen Festival: Accra was hosted, Ghanaian lawmakers recently proposed a bill (still under review) so extreme that simply saying you are gay or lesbian could land you in mandatory conversion therapy or prison for up to 10 years.
During our interview, Coel spoke about the concepts around love that she wanted to investigate through her poem. “I am forever challenging a very traditional idea,” she said, “that love and romantic love equals heterosexual love.”’
This “traditional” idea isn’t even traditional, she continues, because “before colonisation, same sex love was very, very common and very normal.” Indeed, many anti-sodomy laws past and present in Africa are part of a colonial legacy that criminalized behaviour and identities across the continent that had previously been part of the fabric of society.
With ‘Love Is,’ Coel revisits this idea. “I think the biggest fight against love right now,” she says, “is against queer love and I am an advocate and supporter of that love.”
5. We Don’t Live In A Loveless World
In the face of a global pandemic, widespread global inequalities, gender-based violence, wars, and climate change calamities, you might have found yourself quoting the Black Eyed Peas magnum opus: “Where is the love?” Or, worse, asking yourself if love even fits into the equation.
Yet, Coel reminds us to keep hope alive: “Do I think the world is missing it [love]? You know, I don’t. I just think we need to remember it and value it. I think it’s already here and we have it and we just need to understand and believe it’s here.”
You might not know it from the onslaught of negative headlines but positive things, loving things, heartwarming things, and things that will give you hope are happening all around us — if only we take a moment to look.
Scientists have just figured out nuclear fusion, a major breakthrough for the climate movement as it doesn’t require fossil fuels like gas or oil to generate energy. Some of the world’s top bakers just published the Knead Peace project, a collection of recipes boosting the relief effort in war-torn Ukraine. Marcus Rashford got the UK government to provide kids in need with free school meals. A woman in Kenya has set up a computer upcycling company, providing tech for school children in order to bridge the digital divide.
Meanwhile, Global Citizens across the world also strive for a loving world each time you take action on issues that matter to you, being the change you want to see with a shared vision and love of humanity.
As Coel says: “This is the kind of love that my mind says don’t exist but my soul disappoints my flesh and proves her existence every day.”