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Meet the Leeds-based spoken word artist, Rheima Robinson

Lippy Magazine meets spoken word artist and Guinness punch queen, Rheima Robinson.

Virtually zooming in to our meeting from Leeds Docks, on set for Steph’s Packed Lunch, Rheima Robinson’s voice commands the screen. She has a strong northern charm to her tone; assertive and tender in equal parts which makes for easy listening to her spoken word. Last summer at a Black Lives Matter protest, Rheima told the audience at Hyde Park (not the London version, but the Leeds one notorious for all day partying and epic snowball fights), “We are literally fighting for human rights in big, old, DUTTY, stinking 2020. Can you imagine.” Since then, Rheima has appeared on our TV screens doing interviews for the likes of ITV news, has a creative endeavour with the BBC and is putting Leeds on the map as a guest on Steph McGoverns live lunch time show at Channel 4. This is a northern artist you should get to know…

Rheima’s love affair for poetry began around age 13 when she would tag along to Leeds Young Authors, a creative writing project founded by her mother and established writer, Khadijah Ibrahiim. “I started writing poetry and going to all the events and performances that Leeds Young Authors would bring in and get booked for,” she says, before going on to explain how her mother paved the way for a younger generation of northern and racially diverse creatives. Reflecting on daughterhood and when asked if her mother was a role model for her, she simply replied “I am my mother with a bald head.”

During her coming-of-age years writing was a life saver for Rheima, from journaling in high school to now keeping dream diaries, she says “in all the ways writing was able to help me, I’ve been able to transfer that over into my adulthood [but] it got to a stage where I was writing for performance and I did kind of lose my way a little bit.” Rheima continues “I had to remember that it is for me, art is always for you first and share what you want… that’s the mind space that I had to return to.” It is clear that Rheima views words on paper as a vital self-help tool and a project of passion.

Despite independently producing shows in major cities, including Miami and Amsterdam, Rheima is a true northern soul with a love for ‘Gods Own County’ that makes any native glee with pride. After spending much time travelling to perform, Rheima tells us “it took an outside eye for me to appreciate Leeds, it wasn’t until I started coming into my twenties that I started to appreciate home.” A friend of Rheima’s from Los Angeles came to our northern city for a three-month stint and fell in love with the pace and what it had to offer. When pressed about representing Leeds, Rheima explains it is actually “about putting down roots as well and finding some content-ness in who you are and where you come from.”

With Jamaican heritage, good food and drink is essential at the family function. Rheima gives us insight into an elixir known as Guinness punch - the Irish had a massive influence in the Caribbean and “we took the drink and spiced it up, as you do,” she adds: “you mix up some ice cream, condensed milk, nutmeg and then you throw like four pints of Guinness in.” The sweet alcoholic beverage is testament to the mashup up of cultures so prevalent in the Caribbean diaspora.

Following in her mothers footsteps, Rheima provided space for performance art and creative expression in Leeds through The Sunday Practise, a monthly event held at Sela Bar on New Briggate. After nearly six years, the coronavirus pandemic threw a spanner in the works and like all live events, The Sunday Practise came to a natural pause. “I did try doing the Instagram live events like everyone else when covid started last year, but it really just wasn’t the same vibe,” Rheima says. When asked about the future of The Sunday Practise, Rheima decides that “it is a chance to rebrand or take a different direction… I could maybe start doing one off or bigger shows… I just want it to be organic.”

Championing northern creativity has been central to the work that Rheima has produced. This is noted in her past collaborations with Yorkshire-based arts institutes including Phoenix Dance Theatre and The Hepworth Wakefield. In terms of future projects, Rheima tells of a commission landed with New Creatives North for a short film, “the finished product will go on one of the BBC channels… it is based on one of my own poems [and] I’m really looking forward to getting my director credits.” My Body Is A Gun, will go live on BBC later this year and speak to women’s rights, specifically exploring exploitation of the female body.

Asking Rheima whether she considers herself an activist is met with “all artists are activists whether we choose it or not, we are all doing some kind of social work.” On her moving BLM speech last summer, Rheima explains how she was originally invited to perform and instead turned up with a personal essay to read, adding “It felt really important to be involved in that moment and not turn it into a segment of entertainment, I didn’t want it to be a spectacle.”

Representation matters in all industries, and finally space is being made for northerners. As Channel 4 has set its plush new headquarters in Grade II listed The Majestic on City Square and the BBC are planning to move many national journalism roles up north, alongside the vibrant independent media hub that already exists here, it really is an exciting time to be a creative in Leeds. Rheima’s final message to those from underrepresented groups trying to break into the arts is “just be yourself - you are always looking for something outside of your identity but no matter how marginalised you feel, when it comes to the arts, people want to hear your voice.”


Words by Zaide O'Rourke

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