sounds of the city.
At any given time, board a city bus in Detroit, and you may encounter a bright young woman named Imani Nichele — Detroit’s Youth Poet Laureate — at work, diligently tapping on her phone, mind flowing deeply in thought.
“I get around the city a lot. I’m always in Midtown, and Downtown isn’t a far stretch from there. I’m in Southwest a lot because that’s where I do my music recording. I’m always around. It’s always fun to look up routes and discover new things.”
Discovering her voice in a city that prides itself on hustling harder and living reality, her artistic pursuit of poetry is both an unexpected outlier and the logical continuation of a rich tradition of urban creativity. From Diego Rivera’s immortal brush to Motown’s iconic rhythms, Detroiters have long wielded the arts as a cathartic expression of raw, real-life experience. Imani is no different, fearlessly imbuing her pieces with the truth of her own life.
“I think it means a lot to me to be forward. I feel like it gives me a chance to attempt and articulate the things that go on inside of my head. There’s not a lot of time for that in the real world. You kind of just accept that something is bad. But writing forces yourself to consider ‘why.’ You take a step back and look at everything. I think poetry is the best way to understand what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it... Or at least have it make sense to me. I’m just beginning to break down those barriers of self-exploration. I think it’s a way to explore yourself in your head in a way you wouldn’t normally.”
Imani courageously dives into this self-exploration in her work. Infusing her poetry with both her stories and those of her peers. Raising up the Detroit experience in brave new ways.
“I feel like I have friends that grew up in the middle of the city. That have seen things that I’ve never seen before. If nobody is telling these stories, then nobody is ever going to know them. I think it’s important to tell these stories. To push different narratives, because a lot of them aren’t at the forefront. Poetry puts them front and center. It’s in your face. It’s hard to ignore.”
That her 18-year-old voice has such an impactful platform at such a young age isn’t a fluke. It’s all thanks to the InsideOut Literary Arts Project; a creative writing prep program that has stepped up to fill a much-needed role in a city that has long struggled to give its children the quality education they deserve.
“InsideOut does in school and out of school residencies at different locations all around the city. The department that I work with, the Citywide Poet Afterschool Program, brings in established writers from all over to do workshops with Detroit’s youth. Giving them opportunities to be published and become more established as artists.”
While the program gave Imani the spotlight, InsideOut wasn’t her first foray into poetry. Growing up in the Conant Garden area, life in Detroit Public Schools set her on the path of a storyteller from a young age
“It gave my childhood a homey feel. I went to a neighborhood school in a tight-knit community, so everyone knew everybody. It gave me stories to tell.”
But her poetic mind really blossomed when she transferred to the Creative Learning Center, an alternative school.
“The change helped me because going to alternative school was definitely my choice. I came from a family that was serious about education. A creative school was an untraditional decision to make. It was my first step of taking hold of my life completely. Deciding that this is what I want to do and this is the route that I’m going to take. It allowed me more artistic freedom. I felt more independent.”
With wisdom beyond her age, Imani credits her path and the city that guided it, as a major inspiration.
“Environments tend to mold and affect your craft in many ways. It’s all relative to where you are and who you are as an individual.”
Gazing through the bus windows, absorbing the rapid change in the city that has both raised and changed her, Imani ruminates poetically about the transformation she sees in her hometown.
“I don’t like to say it’s making a comeback, because I feel like it never left. But I do feel like there’s going to be a lot of different faces here. I definitely think it might not feel as much like ‘home’ anymore — seeing Midtown being constructed into something completely different. Maybe it would’ve had a lot more new faces anyway because it was already awesome, but I think that people are just finally ‘discovering’ it.
After traveling the country in her role as Youth Poet Laureate and hearing the stereotypes about her hometown, this newly hatched discovery of Detroit’s awesomeness is a welcome change. One that, perhaps, she can continue to encourage through her work.
“There’s so much kickback when you hear the word ‘Detroit’ wherever you go. Everyone questions where you’re from. It gives me a sense that I have to tell my story to add to the narrative behind what Detroit is. Or where Detroit is. What you feel about Detroit. I feel like when I write a poem, it’s what Detroit sounds like in a piece.