A strong sense of self is one of the most powerful things a human being can possess. Not many people fully understand who they are, and what their purpose is. In fact, life is often shaped by the search for answers to these questions and, unfortunately, this search is sometimes futile. The other day, I had the great pleasure of speaking to a young woman who isn’t searching. She knows.
“My name is Adaego Dianah Amadi. I am a spoken word poet living in London. I was born in Nigeria, came here before my teenage years and I have been here ever since. I use my experiences growing up in a traditional Igbo household to create poetry. I’m kinda that person who says things people don’t say. They think it, but they don’t say.”
Dianah performs her poetry under the stage name DYLEMA, which stands for “Do You, Let Every Man Adapt”. It is an unapologetic call for all of us – and a reminder to herself – to simply follow our hearts and passions without fear of judgment. If everyone walks their own path, Dianah believes all other things (and people) will fall into place. For Dianah, this path is poetry and she is very clear on what she wants to address through her work.
“I talk about identity. I talk about femininity. I talk about injustice. I talk about race. I talk about current affairs. I talk about self-love. That’s me.”
Dianah is driven to tackle these topics because she believes many struggle with similar issues but do not talk about them. By giving these concerns a voice, her hope is that fewer women feel alone.
“I talk about things I wish I was told. I then find that people also think this, but they don’t say.”
This process is also personal for Dianah because she feels she was once that girl who kept it all bottled up inside. Her experience growing up as the only girl in her family – she has four brothers – plays a huge part in many of her pieces because of the impact she believes culture has on women’s identities.
“Because of this traditional Igbo culture, I would say I felt oppressed. It was always pointing at me. I felt different. They would say ‘You’re a girl. Go over there.’ Sometimes my dad would single me out and say ‘Dianah, go and cook’. Even when I started performing, my dad would say to me ‘You’re a woman. You’re a woman and you’re holding microphone. Don’t you know you’re a woman?’”
The constant reminder that her femininity was a limitation, or even a weakness, was something Dianah struggled with. Above being frustrated by having to live a life different from her brothers, Dianah felt isolated.
“I didn’t know there were other girls in other households who also felt like they didn’t have a choice. There are women out there who wanted to have a choice: who wanted to cook because they loved it, not because they had to.”
The negative and often oppressive memories she has of her childhood seem to fiercely contradict the sheer outpouring of love Dianah describes when she talks about her family. You don’t have to speak to her for long to sense that they have a very strong bond. Yet, I wondered if a tension between their connection as a family and her feelings of isolation simmered beneath the surface. So, I asked her about it. She talked about her father in particular.
“Hmm… Being called a ‘daddy’s girl’… I wish I could really collect that compliment, but I don’t think I can. He would call me special names and make me feel special but, as an African man, that role would always come into play. It was like 20% daddy’s girl, then 80% ‘You’re a woman. You need to do this. You need to do that.’ Our relationship was up and down. But the interesting thing is that I was the closest to him.”
From the bitter-sweet elements of this bond to the deep connection they shared, it is clear that Dianah’s relationship with her father played a pivotal role in shaping who she is as an artist and a woman. His death last year shook her to her core. Not only did Dianah lose a pillar in her life, his passing highlighted the deep cultural biases she is committed to addressing through her art.
“My mum shared his things among my brothers and did not give me anything. No item of his clothing. Nothing was given to me. I know if my dad was alive, he would have said, ‘My daughter, what do you want?’
“My relationship with my mother is strong, but not in a way of mother and daughter. It’s more like we are sisters. She knows my dad would have wanted me to have some of his things but, because of culture, she had to do that. It’s quite deep how women are made to go against each other. This thing that women have against each other: it’s a long line of things and she’s just following tradition.”
The pain of not even being allowed to have any of her father’s possessions, because they were all distributed to the male members of her family, sharply reignited Dianah’s passion for poetry. Dianah had always had a passion for words, as she explains:
“Because of my loneliness as a child, I always went to words. Words were my oldest, closest friend. I didn’t have the tools of self-love to help me go through things. I was bullied [in school] and I took it really hard. And when I came home, I felt bullied again. I was alone. Then I started writing. Putting my experiences and poetry together, it allows me to say things in a clear, articulate and even theatrical way.”
In a way, Dianah was forced to grieve two losses after her father passed. Not only was he gone, she was unable to hold on to the pieces of him he left behind – a right denied her by her own family. This experience caused Dianah to rediscover an outlet for feelings she previously felt unable to express. What started as catharsis became a tool for empowerment, and a foundation for a community of women drawn to Dianah’s truth – which many of them saw in themselves.
“I was scared about it for a while. I was doing it for myself. To heal myself. And now I’m here, I want to reach out to other women and say ‘I know. I understand’. If there’s something that I wish I could tell a younger me, then I take it to the stage. I have my own purpose regards to what I do with poetry. My purpose with poetry is to give women a voice. That’s the short of it. I want to give women a voice.”
Dianah’s poetry has gone on to receive rave reviews, and she performs across the UK. Her stand-out poem “What If A Black Girl Knew” challenges black women to recognise their beauty and power without waiting for the media or society to validate them. This particular piece has resonated so strongly across the country that she gets invitations to perform at events, off the strength of that poem alone.
Already having such an impact on others, I wondered how her poetry had affected her family who undoubtedly shape much of the source material that goes into her art. Interestingly, there appears to be a disconnect between a full grasp of the themes she tackles and appreciation of her skills as a performer.
“My family have heard it a few times. They take it from the perspective of entertainment. They like it; they like what I do but they don’t really get the message.”
It’s a shame that Dianah’s message has travelled so far but somehow remains unable to permeate the strong cultural barriers present in her home. This is, however, by no means a source of frustration for her. Dianah has an unshakable belief in everyone walking their own path, and an unwavering commitment to placing love above all things.
“I don’t really talk to my mum about roles between men and women. I have to heal for myself. As a woman, I am a pillar of my home. If I have all these negative feelings and I take them into my home, the home will be negative.
“The balance really comes from communication and love. I really love my brothers. I don’t feel any bad way towards them. In coming to find out who I really am, not just a domestic source, I have come to see myself as a source of love.”
Love is a fundamental principle Dianah lives her life by, and it is the core tenet of her feminism.
“When they talk about feminism, they say ‘These feminists hate men’. I don’t come from that place of hating men. As women, we want to show love. I’ve come to understand showing love is important, but all this culture has taken the reason out of it.
“We’ve been told so many times that ‘This is your role’. But we do many of these things naturally anyway. It’s not up to them to tell us. And we are so much more. Men should understand to be grateful for women they have; because these things are not a right. We are more than that, we are people.”
Dianah’s rejection of forced gender roles is particularly important to her because she believes men are also limited by such thinking. She says women must discuss this with men openly and honestly, and she has even tried this with one of her brothers. When she asked him why he never thought to help her during all the times she was forced to carry the domestic burden of the entire household, she found his answer a little sad.
“He said he felt like it was wrong, but it was just the way we were brought up. He said, ‘I thought that’s just the way you have to do your thing.’”
This sense of inevitability shows that many of us in our culture – men and women – are conditioned into normalising roles we may not be initially comfortable with. Breaking this cycle so that future generations do not feel stifled by similar expectations is at the heart of Dianah’s work.
“It’s just about starting off this conversation, to make people see us as human beings. Not property.”
I haven’t met many people with as much fire in their belly as Dianah has. She knows who she is, what she wants and how she wants to get it done. Yet, this Dianah wasn’t built in a day. On her journey to becoming the confident, self-assured woman that she is, there were life-changing and often devastating moments, such as the loss of her father. She recalls another crucial experience, which she says marked “the difference between being a ‘literature’ person and a spoken word poet.”
“One day, I put the fire really low so I could write, and the food would take longer to cook. My mum came and saw that I was taking a long time to cook. She got so angry that she took my books. I thought that she was going to put them in the bin. But she took them and put them in the fire. I saw my words, poetry I had been writing for ages… Burnt. Ashes. I can never forget that. I cried for two days.
“When I got over that, I made a decision. It really hit me to see my creations destroyed. No one heard all those words I had written, so I decided to start performing. I started performing, rapping. And that’s how we got to the point we are now.”
Dianah has become pretty skilled at making lemonade out of lemons. She jokes about it almost being a secret talent that she has.
“I’m in the pancake business! I’m a flipper! When you flip things from bad to good, you realise how much control you have over things that happen to you. There’s so much power in that.”
Well, Dianah has had to do a lot of flipping. 2015 was a hell of a year.
“I had a guy who was literally the best thing. But he went to prison. Last year was terrible. My dad passed away, and my boyfriend went to prison. But that’s how I get through. Showing light and avoiding negativity. When love, or when this light, is pouring out of you, people are attracted to it. There is no joy in hating men. Once we take judgment out of it, people’s relationship will flourish.”
At this point, I was pretty dumbfounded. For someone whose day could be entirely ruined by a disrespectful WiFi connection, I simply could not understand how Dianah was not only coping with so much pain, but thriving and even transforming it into a source of power for others.
“I know people like to wallow in pity. And I had my time. But I could only do that for a while. I literally gave myself time. Even in our culture, there is an official mourning period after someone passes. So I did the same. I realised how important it is to take control of your life.
“If I’m saying this now, I am saying it because I know what it’s like to stay in that place of self-pity. It’s awful. So it’s really a choice – stay that way or get up and do something.”
Dianah has done much more than “get up”. She is soaring.