Guiding Light: Yolanda “Yogii with 2 i’s” Barnes

Photo Credit James Bass

I first heard Yolanda “Yogii with 2 i’s” Barnes do an extemporaneous motivational speech at El’Ja Bowen’s 3:10 book reading at the Arts Council downtown. Her stories trilled, dipped, pushed, and pulled. She was mesmerizing. So it was no surprise to find out her background with Toastmasters and she was obviously ingrained into the local slam poetry scene. But the more you talk to Yogii, the more expansive you realize her artwork is. And her community. And her heart.

El’Ja was kind enough to provide her intro: Yolanda A. Barnes aka Yogii With 2 I’s is an award winning Spoken Word artist, painter, and workshop facilitator. She is credited for being the first Fayetteville poet to compete in a major regional slam competition that in turn brought the city of Fayetteville visible to the Poetry Slam world. She is also the author of the book, “Y Aren’t U Listening” and the owner of Inspired Ink Creative Consulting.

What does success mean to you?

Success to me is definitely being able to not only grow myself, but to have the ones around me grow as well. So if there’s no growth in me and there’s no growth for the people around me, I’m not successful. I love being able to walk around and see all the seeds that have been planted–whether they were intentional or unintentional–and everything they have produced in the harvest; it’s been amazing. Success to me is just being able to not only do well for me, but to do well for the people around me and my community: as big as slam coming to Fayetteville on a national scene and to as small as my daughter passing her EOGs, and everything in between. 

Success is definitely not just a singular thing for me. It’s a group effort. I can’t tell you how many babies –I call all the poets, babies–how many poets I have named, or how many poets I have given counsel to, or how many poets have just come to just sit near me at a show just because, they didn’t want anything, they just wanted to sit there. Then they grow out and branch off into these trees, these teams, they leave the state, they go do other things, but that stem is still rooted, what they learned. And those are things that are beautiful to me. 

Becoming a mother with a preemie baby– now a vibrant creative tween– changed how Yogii thought of success and her own artistic practice. 

I was no longer Yogii the poet that I had been prior. My complete and utter life flipped on its head. I felt the death of me. I felt like my voice was no longer the same as it was before. I honestly was grappling with how do I become this mother? And how do I continue to live in the shell of what I was? And there’s no real way to do that. The butterfly doesn’t have a choice of staying kind of in. And so I had no choice but to become that butterfly. It’s still every day deciding to be that butterfly and not go back to the Caterpillar.

But I got a chance to see myself and to deal with me in a way that helps me grow and become more successful in the process. It was different; my poetry was different. I was everything from angry to sad to hopeful and yet melancholy at the same time. It was just a mix of things that I hadn’t felt all at one time. Some days are better than others, but I’m better for that process everyday.

Photo Credit Eric L. Brim

What changes in your audience do you seek to make with your art? 

I love being the person that teaches without people knowing I’m teaching them. I don’t want to be the person that’s like, “Hey, you gotta do this and you gotta do that” because people don’t learn that way. But if I can get you to laugh and we can talk and have a conversation, and then I can hit you with a question every now and again, and then I can give you a long pregnant pause for you to think about some things, and then we come back and talk about it again later. If my art does that, in a poem or on canvas or my mannequins or different avenues, various techniques and skill sets, to make you look, and then look again and then make you wonder. I think if my art doesn’t make you wonder, if my art doesn’t make you sit quietly and reflect, then I’m not doing something right, because I need you to go within yourself and say, “how do I feel about that?” Or even just want to think about that. Cause a lot of people don’t have time and don’t make time. And that is one of those things that I want for my art to do, if it’s singing, if it’s rapping, if it’s painting, if it’s drawing, whatever it is that I’m doing, if I can get you just to say, “how does that relate to me?” That’s when I’m hitting on something.

How have you constructed the bridges of your career?

Honestly, I was doing a certain thing by accident back in the day: categorizing people. So if you know me from poetry, then I’m not going to put you in my art realm or I’m not going to put you in my music route. But I didn’t realize the six degrees of separation is real. And because it is so real, when I would put people in those different categories and people would know each other from those different categories, they’d be like, “well you mean Yogii the poet?”

And they’d be like, no, I mean, the artist, 

no, you mean the singer, 

but like, no you mean the girl that works at Belk.” 

Somebody told me “you wrote a book, I don’t even know why you didn’t tell me.” Well, you’re not in that box, you know? But that’s how that works and now people want to know more about my work.

Another thing I did was I wanted to prove things to myself. When I went to Southern Fried Poetry, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know it was the second largest national poetry festival. I had no idea. I just put my money up and decided to go. I didn’t tell anybody. Finally, I told El’Ja, “You need to see this.” It was like the last two days of competition, the day before the final stage, and he knew a lot of the people there. I didn’t hardly know anybody, but I wanted it that way. I was trying to prove to myself that I was not wasting my time by writing poetry, by being just who I was. I was proving to myself that it wasn’t a waste of time. And I think for me, a lot of things that I have done and still do to this day are just to prove a point to myself. 

A lot of times, too, for me, it takes a contest. When I wrote my first book, I put it up for a contest. So Fried, that was a contest. The wire dress was for a contest. Sometimes that extra push of a contest makes it even more exciting: just being able to know that it can be done, even if I don’t know anything about it, makes it even more amazing.

And I pivot myself into positions that have always been able to bridge me into the next thing. People don’t believe it, but sometimes you just gotta go, you gotta do. Because if you’re in that space, they will see you and they will wonder about you and they will make room for your talents. I continue to put myself in places that most people wouldn’t even dare, just because they thought they wouldn’t make it in that space. I’m in that space and you’re going to see me. 

Photo Credit Eric L. Brim

Who do you consider your present artistic cohort? 

I have been going to writing workshops during this whole pandemic: Cultivating Content, Craft, and Conversation by Christine-Jean Blain and Kimberley Gaubault. It’s open with donation for anybody to come to the workshop. They are amazing: they push and they question and they give the best prompts. When I’m there in that virtual space, I feel free. I can write, I can really just put pen to pad: whatever comes out comes out. I give them a lot of credit for creating that space. There’s other workshops I’ve gone to and I have my own artists’ retreats where I work with people. But for me, for that release, yeah, that does it. 

Right now I’m focused on writing, but when summer hits, I go back into painting because I can be outside. I can’t wait to get on canvas cause I want to practice more with watercolors. I have lots of visions in my mind, so I want to get those down. Usually I cycle a year creatively, so when I can get outside, that’s usually the time I paint and when it’s cold outside is when I’m inside, working on next year’s plans or writing and doing things. 

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