One of the most notable poets of her generation, Warsan Shire’s work has resonated across the world – particularly after she was chosen by Beyoncé to collaborate on her 2016 album Lemonade. Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Shire moved to the UK as a baby and now resides in LA with her husband and children. Her creative influences are broad, but a recurring purpose is amplifying voices often not heard, and her poetry has been used as a powerful platform to share the perspectives and stories of refugees. But, despite having been in the public conscious for years, it is only now that she is releasing her long-awaited first full collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by the Voice in Her Head, which traverses subjects of migration, womanhood, trauma and resilience.
I hope she doesn’t mind that I said this, but when I sent [Beyoncé] that poem [Chapter 4, Apathy], she called me and went, ‘Biiii[tch]’”
Warsan Shire on how she writes and who she writes for
“I’ve never felt the need to make my work palatable for everybody. I started off writing how I write: you either get it or you don’t. That’s how I’m going to continue. I have a very specific way of writing, and I write only to music and film in the background. People are probably thinking some relaxing shit or whatever, but I really write [to] a lot of grime. I’ll soak in the music, the bravado. I don’t think about the audience when I’m writing, I think about myself and, you know what? I know lots of other people like me. We’re all extensions of one another.”
I’ve always been fascinated with the inner lives, the private stuff or secret desires. [People] don’t know about the spirit of rebellion that we’ve always had”
On a career highlight of collaborating with Beyoncé
“I was given complete free rein with Lemonade. I was told to just listen to the music [and] whatever comes to you, send it. It was quite interesting keeping it completely to myself – I was quite proud of myself for being able to sit on that. I felt like I was sitting on a volcano. I hope she doesn’t mind that I said this, but when I sent [Beyoncé] that poem (Chapter 4, Apathy], she called me and went, ‘Biiii[tch]’.
“I’d recorded the poems and I was sending voice notes to her and she kept a piece of my voice saying ‘magic’ in the middle of the film. I didn’t actually know that she did that. So, in the middle of [Lemonade], you hear my voice. Andrés [Shire’s husband] loves to rewind that part. I like [Beyoncé’s] attention to detail. She’s very, very thoughtful. I think people need to know that about her. Even the gifts she gives will be references to something you’ve said at some point or a song that you like and it’s just like, how did she remember something like that?”
On dealing with pressure and expectations
“I was diagnosed with Obsessional Compulsive Disorder when I was a teenager, and I think it really kicked in [during] my mid-20s, to a point where I felt paranoid. And actually, I think a lot of people don’t know about how much pressure there is on Somali girls… How you look, how you act. You have to cook. You have to clean. You have to be funny. You have to go to school. And I think that’s why we end up being so gangster when we do actually end up doing stuff. A lot of us can completely take care of ourselves and everybody, and we learn that from our mothers.”
On wanting to expand societal understanding via poetry
“You can very easily get lost in your little world and forget about everything going on. And before you know it, you don’t even know who the hell you are. Coming from the kind of communities that we come from, where suffering is ongoing – I mean, [Somalia] is still at war – that’s going to have an effect on our culture and how we move as a people and how much trust we have in one another. I think that’s why I couldn’t just write poems about just being British; I feel like that’s where the responsibility comes in, where I feel like I can’t speak for so many people – I wouldn’t want to get that wrong. It’s not even possible to flatten everybody like that. But I know that I’ve always been fascinated with the inner lives, the private stuff or secret desires. [People] don’t know about the spirit of rebellion that we’ve always had. The refugee experience has done a lot to shift [it] because culture is obviously malleable. It means a lot to be so proud of it. This is from us, so why wouldn’t I write in both Somali and English?”
Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head: Poems is out now