Speaking up for the voiceless
Using the power of spoken word poetry, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa is tackling social issues head-on
She walks on to the stage and occupies it. Her clear, strong voice is marked with an expressive lilt. Her presence is electric, her voice commanding, and the connection instantaneous. Suddenly, it feels like I’m sitting comfortably at a dining table, watching an old friend hold court, instead of inside a theatre, attending a spoken word event.
“The conversation started at half past six,
when my strength would be tested as a practicing Sikh.
They saw a picture posted of me, parading denim shorts:
‘This is NOT appropriate clothing, please give it some thought!!”
Spoken word poet, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa was born and raised in Perth and recently performed at Common Ground, a multilingual and multi-faith spoken word and poetry project by Multicultural Arts Victoria.
The first poem she wrote, ‘A dress/Address’ reflects the double standards applied to men and women and the gendered expectations in the Indian community. Feminism is something that resonates deeply with the 21-year-old, who moved from Perth to Melbourne six months ago to pursue a career of her own making.
“People think your 9 to 5 job has to suck!” she exclaims. “It doesn’t. If you love something and are good at it – go for it. I’ve been told that when it comes to boys and career, I have to settle. I won’t.”
Sukhjit didn’t settle and she made it into the finals of the National Australian Poetry Slam in 2014 with ‘A dress/Address’. Referring to the incident that inspired the poem, where she was pulled up by someone from her community for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ in shorts at the beach, she says that it made her realise how deep the gender divide was, and how many double standards exist.
“When you’ve been given such a loud voice, and when you have the confidence, you need to speak up for the voiceless,” she says, explaining her motivation.
Sukhjit wasn’t always the confident, self-assured person she is now.
“There’s a Punjabi word, ‘poonch’, which means tail,” she laughs. “Everyone in our community knew me as my mum’s tail because I would hide behind her clothes. I cried if anyone talked to me!”
That changed because of a teacher who encouraged her to do drama in year 6. “I hated it because it was so scary, but I realised that it was through drama that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and I started doing public speaking, became head girl, and put myself out there.”
It was this willingness to put herself out there and embrace opportunity that took Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa to a global leadership exchange in Prague, where a friend introduced her to the world of spoken word poetry. She was hooked.
“I though, O.M.G (Oh My Gosh), this is amazing. I have a politics degree – which is where all the advocacy and activism comes from – and I thought I could use spoken word poetry to address issues. There are a lot of hard things to talk about,” she says.
“Like domestic violence. It happens a lot. How do you address it without pointing fingers? Humour and satire; that’s the thing Australia uses to get messages across.”
Sukhjit also tackles issues of race. Her poem, ‘To Advance Australia Fair’, tackles what is it to be an “Australian of caramel descent”.
“Rockin’ up for my first job at Coles,
was like a scene out of Border Patrol.
Her plastic tag read, ‘Dorothy’.
Glasses corded, she hawked,
‘Do you have a VISA, honey?’
Caught in the truck’s light, I was like a squirrel, digging for my ‘MASTERCARD?’”
Speaking of this poem, Sukhjit says she was scared to perform it. “It sounded like I was complaining about people.”
She was also intruding on a traditionally male domain. “Women in comedy or theatre or spoken word talk mostly about love and sexuality. But ‘To Advance Australia Fair’ (about race) is what men tend to talk about.”
She continues, “A lot of guys get intimidated by my masculine traits. I’ve been influenced by my dad and brother.”
Her comic timing though, she gets from her mother. “My mum’s very animated. She knows how to work a room”, she grins.
Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa has already undertaken a wide variety of work for someone so young. She’s written for magazines, given talks, modelled for a body positive publication, presented her work at multiple spoken word competitions, raised funds for charity, and most recently facilitated eight weeks of workshops with budding spoken word artists that culminated in the Common Ground performance.
What’s next? “VCA (Victorian Colleges of the Arts),” Sukhjit grins. A formal qualification might seem redundant, but given her talent, versatility and passion, it will only be another accomplishment for someone doggedly determined to never just ‘settle’.