When I began writing this story, I was under the impression that Coffy Davis was only an author, but I was wrong. Coffy Davis is an all-around artist and creative. Since she was a child, Davis has illustrated pictures, and has eventually gone on to create more pictures except instead of using paint brushes or pencils, she now uses words. In addition to being an author, she is a poet, playwright, and teacher. And before self-publishing her first book in 2019, Davis has also indulged in many other endeavors.
In 2004, Davis decided to start an initiative called The Underground Railroad Neighborhood Project (TURN Project) which helps underprivileged youth and adults unite through literacy and art—it is an initiative that still thrives today. She was a spoken word artist that competed and won many slams. Davis was also a founding member of a troupe called Foreign Tongues. Additionally, she was also a radio host for a Saturday night program called “The Urban Hang Suite ” on KABF. She served as the assistant editor for the Localist Magazine, a publication that intertwines Hip-Hop and Punk Rock. Davis was even asked to teach an after school program that uses Hip-Hop to teach life skills, which was featured on CNN’s “Black in America”.
Her extensive resume and hard work have been recognized on many occasions—seeing as she has won several awards. Davis was awarded the Senator Pryor award for community service (2009), the Nan Snow Emerging artist award (2018), the Arkansas Arts Fellowship award (2017), and many others.
However, before she found her way as an artist and relocated to Arkansas she was just a regular girl growing up in Oakland, California in the 1980’s/1990’s. Her years as an adolescent became the muse for her latest project, a self-published book titled MEdusa: Reflections of an Angry Black Girl. The book, released in the summer of 2019, tells a coming-of-age story based on her life growing up in the ghetto of Oakland. It is honest, unapologetic, and poetic—making it powerful. I had the pleasure of speaking with Coffy Davis to get an insight on her creative ways.
On your website it says that before anything you are an artist; do you feel like having this artistic mindset sets you apart from other writers?
Yeah, I think so because I dabbled in other aspects of the arts like writing plays, books, and movies. I got really good at visualizing and being able to paint pictures.
I felt like a lot of times we are encouraged to go to school and work hard to be something that’s outside what our passions may be in life, and I wanted the younger people to realize that they can monetize their gifts and their talents.
What inspired you to create the TURN project and what are different things that the initiative has done?
I started the TURN Project in 2004, and that’s when the idea first manifested. My family owned an abandoned house that was in a community that I felt didn’t have much art and the kids didn’t have a lot of access to art, so me and a group of poets, dancers, and artists decided to create this space where everyone in the community could come and utilize [the arts] to manifest their gifts. I felt like in a lot of times we are encouraged to go to school and work hard to be something that’s outside what our passions may be in life, and I wanted the younger people to realize that they can monetize their gifts and talents. I just wanted to give them a vehicle to be able to put their gift on a world stage.
And does the TURN Project have any showcases or opportunities to showcase their gifts to others?
The main thing we did was a play. It was a play called Freedom and it had a huge cast and ensemble of musicians, artists, dancers, singers, rappers, and poets. It was actually a play that was in verse. Long before Hamilton or anything like that, it was created in 2004 and the first time we put it on was at the Robinson Theatre and we would travel around. So the idea was to incorporate everything everybody did so that the play was filled with all those elements, and we would travel around regionally to preform it. We did it in many places in Arkansas and outside the state. We also did smaller showcases around town. A lot of those artists matured, grew up, and took over a lot of [creative] spaces that’s going on now.
Even though the book is based around your life, did you have some outside influences and inspiration for the book?
I did. I have been an avid reader since I was a little girl so I was definitely influenced by all those writers. I wanted to write like Ralph Ellison, Nikki Giovanni, and the author of For Colored Girls. I wanted to write like, real rhythmic, and dialogue heavy. Langston Hughes uses dialect a lot and doesn’t have to conform to use correct grammar in his writing. I also like a lot of current writers like MK Asante. He did a book called Buck and I like to think that’s the male version of MEdusa [laughing]. His writing style is what inspired me to write in first person. Also D. Watkins who wrote The Cookup, which is about a really brutal life in Baltimore, inspired my writing style. I wanted my writing to be honest. Also I wanna say Hip-Hop, because I have a lot of musical influence in my life.
Were there any topics or details in your book that you were hesitant to write about?
At the time I wasn’t hesitant. I just wrote about it. I just felt like I had a mission, I was like “I want to write. I’m going to write brutally honest. I don’t care. I don’t care what my family thinks, I don’t care what anybody thinks.” I wanted to tell the black female story, particularly the black female story of the 90’s, generation X. I know there is a time and space right now for millennials telling their story which is important but I feel like to have that story you also have to have the generation X story which gives a little bit of understanding of the crack era, the whole “baby mama” thing because I look at the millennials as the extension of what we were. Just like generational trauma you have to understand the source and where a lot that and anxiety come from.
I wanted to just be honest, I didn’t want to sugar coat anything. I think a lot of times nowadays you have to be politically correct and it’s like a cover up that doesn’t detail exactly what happened so I wanted to explain what actually happened [to me].
After I finished writing it, I was like “maybe I shouldn’t have told all that” [laughs]. But I had to stick with the original mission and the mission was just to be honest.
Reviews of your book describe it as a roller coaster of emotions, what is something you hope readers gain after they get off the ride?
I didn’t write it to be a roller coaster ride, that’s just what life was. Also, the time period I chose was between the ages of 16-24, which is the most hectic time in anybody’s life. So, I hope they gain wisdom and understanding and some empathy.
Your book integrates hip-hop lyrics to tell your story. I also noticed that you were an assistant editor of the Localist magazine that fused hip-hop and rock. What influence does music have on your life and creative abilities?
Music is definitely everything because it was always around and when I think of certain songs it brings me back to where I was at that moment. I don’t know if it was a huge influence on my life or if it is like that for everybody, but I definitely love hip-hop. Hip-hop was started in ‘73 and I was born in ‘76 so I’ve been there for the whole ride of hip-hop. I love it all, the past and the present.
When I wrote for the Localist magazine, it was a magazine that showcased rock and hip-hop which are two genres at the time that were kind of like the voice of the disenfranchised people. I was pulled into the magazine by the owner and he just wanted me to bring my hip-hop expertise into it and also the hip-hop community around Little Rock.
I just have always loved music and we ended up doing a hip-hop after school program. And we brought a bunch of kids from Central High School and took them to this warehouse and taught them about a bunch of life skills through hip-hop. It was a good run and a way to reach the community but it eventually got phased out.
So, there are some painful parts in this book, how did the writing process for these parts mentally and emotionally affect you?
For me it was easy because it was kind of a release. Also, I was a poet for many years before then so I was used to talking about those things publicly and I went and talked to a lot of women who were in terrible situations, or had just got out of them. So, I was very comfortable with the content. I was probably more shocking to people than they were to me. Also, this was years ago. It’s all retrospect so it didn’t really impact me. But after I wrote it, I thought about how it would impact other people. Also, poetry is much more abstract than a book so you talk about heavy topics and it sounds all pretty and people are snapped. But with a book it’s much more concrete and it’s really hard to digest, so it felt different at the end.
From the moment I saw the cover of this book, I fell in love with the concept of MEdusa, the mythical greek character, personified as a black woman. How did you come up with this concept?
One of my biggest poems that people always requested was called Medusa. I don’t even recall what made me come up with that title. I think it was the parallel between Medusa and black women. The stereotype of the black woman is we look a certain way, which is in some people’s eyes monstrous. Or we may have a look on our face that’s mean or stone cold. Our hair is either coily or in locs. So, in their eyes, we may seem scary or unapproachable. Also, in the actual myth of Medusa, Medusa is actually raped in the castle and Athena punished her for the rape and turned her into this hideous monster. You can either take that directly or symbolically, them turning a black woman into a monster, thus punishing and oppressing us. Also, the sexual abuse was something I resonated with.
I used the subtitle “Reflections of an Angry Black Girl” as a play on the phrase we often get called: “angry black woman”. So, when they said Medusa could turn you into stone, a stone could be like “stony” demeanor or what they perceive you to be, but in actuality in African mythology Medusa was a goddess.
So, do you feel like Black women from all walks of life could relate to this book?
I think so. There are some things in this book that they might have not experienced, but they might know somebody who has. I’m sure they can relate to some of the misunderstandings, relationship problems, mother-daughter relationship problems, or even struggles with self-worth. It probably most relates to people who grew up in the 90’s with the music, the drugs, and the overall culture.
How was the process of self-publishing and do you plan to do it again in the future?
Definitely. I would love to have my own publishing company.
I look at it like the rap game, like back in the day everybody was waiting to get a record deal and ending up signing these shady deals. But you were happy because ‘you made it’ and ‘you’re famous’. It’s kind of the same deal with self-publishing. You can hope to be discovered but there are no promises.
I would love for a big company to reach out to me and kind of clean me up and put me out all over the world but a lot of us don’t have that kind of opportunity right now.
Self-publishing is cool though because you have absolute control and you don’t have anybody telling you what you have to do. I also found a good company to sell my book through. It has its advantages and disadvantages.