More important than air

Shane Koyczan trumps hate but not vice versa

Spoken word artist Shane Koyczan is keenly aware that there is an elephant in the room on his current U.S. tour.
Courtesy Shane Koyczan/the Feldman Agency

So what’s the first word that pops into your mind when you hear the name Shane Koyczan? For me it’s “naked.” 

No, not birthday-suit naked or naked-Trump-sculpture naked. That would be Webster’s definition number 1. I’m talking about Webster’s number 2, as in “undisguised, blatant, open, unashamed.”

By that definition, Koyczan might just be the nakedest person I’ve ever encountered. And I’m not alone. Thanks to his remarkable success as one of the world’s best-known spoken word artists, there are now millions of people more familiar with Koyczan’s most intimate personal experiences of pain, love, anger, triumph, sadness and joy than they are with those of their closest friends or even family. 

We have empathized to the point of tears listening to Koyczan channel the pain of his early life as a shy, bullied outcast in Yellowknife, a small Canadian town a couple hundred miles below the Arctic Circle. We have laughed at his antics both then and now. He has made us shake in anger at our capacity for cruelty. And we have looked on and listened in wonder at his unique ability to see and feel and perfectly describe the smallest, nearly invisible acts of kindness that go unnoticed by so many of us everyday.

His poems let us in on the secret: To experience and properly appreciate something so simple and profound as the touch of a hand, a kind word, a smile, eyes that don’t turn away, the lone Valentine in our bag, we must first need such things more than air. And then he helps us realize we are all grasping for that breath.

This is Shane Koyczan’s gift.

The first time I spoke with him was for a story I was doing called “The Hard Road.” I was having conversations with a number of creative people about how their most difficult times in life had shaped their art. When it came to Koyczan, it seemed nearly impossible to separate the two. You could say his hard times are his art, either directly influencing his works or as the lens that allows him to see the good in someone or something that might otherwise slip past humanity’s notice.

If you want to know how hard it was for this overweight, introverted kid abandoned by his parents in a small town where bullying the different was a full contact sport, just watch his TED talk titled “To This Day… for the bullied and beautiful.” You won’t be alone; it’s now been viewed more than 20 million times.

One of the many lines from that video that I just can’t shake from my head is when Koyczan says, “When I was 10, I was told that my parents left because they didn’t want me. When I was 11, I wanted to be left alone. When I was 12, I wanted to die. When I was 13, I wanted to kill a kid.”

What he’s describing is his own transformation from being bullied to being a bully. After years of being on the receiving end, at 15, Koyczan fought back, literally. Suddenly people were scared of him. School officials told Koyczan’s grandparents who were raising him that he was a bully. He remembers laughing at the irony when he heard those words. But then he realized that his new reputation would cause people to stay away from him. He decided the isolation of being a bully was better than the attention he received being picked on and humiliated daily as a victim of that same crime.

He says the loneliness was really nothing new to him. He’d always felt disconnected from people in many ways aside from the love of his grandparents. And he credits this feeling of aloneness for his early connection to books and poetry.

“Words were just friends,” he told me the first time we talked. “Books weren’t there to judge you based on what you looked like or what kind of clothes you wore. So I liked that escapist element of books and poetry.”

In order to keep his newfound bully rep alive, which gave him more time to read and write, Koyczan says he turned on nearly everyone at his school and his aggression was indiscriminate. 

Then came his life-changing break. Because of his dysfunctional behavior, they decided to stick him in a drama class. Take that, mean kid.

“They just wanted to stick me somewhere because I was a troubled kid,” he recalls. “They didn’t care where. In that one little twist of fate, it sort of turned my life around. They ended up putting me in the one place I actually needed, because I needed to know how to express myself.”

Later, in college, he was drawn to creative writing but he says he never finished any of the stories he started. So what’s a creative writer who can’t finish a story to do? Write shorter stories, or in Koyczan’s case, poems.

But making a living writing poetry is no easy task, even in Canada where literacy is a revered trait.

In the early years, even though he was gaining recognition for his work, the money was not nearly enough to live on, so he had to make that hard, inevitable decision to get a job. It was a sad day but one that eventually confronts most creatives and all poets.

Well, Koyczan pretty quickly figured out his new life as a working stiff sucked. So he decided to make one last desperate attempt to write and perform his spoken word art for a living. He gave himself one year to be self-sustaining from his words. What would have been the plan 12 months later we will never know, because against all odds, he made it.

By the end of that year, Koyczan was doing more than making a living at poetry. He was making a difference. His knowing words of compassion and his empathy and encouragement for those who are different, ostracized and picked on struck a chord — a really loud chord. Kids and adults who had never found their voice found one in his. The bullied and ignored — by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions — began to soak in and reshare Koyczan’s themes: No more; I have value; I have dreams; I will be heard; I will not die by your hands or my own; I will dance to the tune of my choosing with no regard for who is watching or what anyone thinks.

Courtesy of Shane Koyczan

Koyczan spread like wildfire.

And then he exploded onto the international scene in 2010 when he stood atop a raised round stage while performing his piece “We Are More.” It was the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Vancouver and tens of millions from around the world watched as he defined the humility, inclusiveness, hopes and dreams of his nation.

The first time I experienced Koyczan in person was at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons in 2015. I was sitting at the front and when he finished his first piece, I found myself on my feet, swamped with emotion. When I turned around I saw 5,000 people standing, many of them with tears rolling down their cheeks. I had never experienced the power of the spoken word in such a way. I suspect that was true for many of us that day. It was Koyczan’s first performance in the U.S.

There is no doubt that through his art, Koyczan is changing and even saving lives. He admits it’s a heady responsibility that can be overwhelming at times.

“[Knowing I’m making a difference] is one of the rewards of doing what I do, but it can take you to some pretty dark places. I get letters from kids who are living on a ledge, and I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any training in that kind of thing. I’m a poet.”

And he has no illusions that the pain so many feel will stop any time soon, if ever.

“My grandma says, ‘We’ll only find equality in our number of tears.’ And she’s right. I don’t see it happening any other way. There’s all these things, all these differences that keep us apart. But it’s mostly all these physical things, packaging. You don’t buy food for the packaging it comes in. You buy food for the food. I think people forget that there is sustenance in their emotions, and your honest connection with other people.”

And so here we are in 2017 and Shane Koyczan is heading south across the U.S./Canadian border for a multi-state tour. At least he plans to cross the border, though he admits he’s concerned “they won’t let me in.” He says, “What if they demand to see my social, check my phone, things like that? I can’t just agree to surrender my privacy. That would be wrong.”

This tour, like his previous forays into the states, will bring his messages of love and acceptance, environmental protection, living life in the moment, anti-bullying and standing up to the haters to a number of venues including Planet Bluegrass’s own Wildflower Pavilion in Lyons. 

And yes, as his border concerns illustrate, Koyczan is keenly aware that in 2017 there is an elephant in the room that makes his job and his art perhaps more important than it has ever been.

One of the world’s most outspoken, best-known critics of bullying will be delivering his spoken word art in the shadow of the most powerful political leader in the world who just happens to be arguably the world’s biggest bully.

Koyczan doesn’t think of his art as political but he understands that these are unusual times and many of his work’s themes can and will likely be interpreted in a political vein. One can’t help but think of his poem “Instructions for a bad day,” wherein he encourages us to speak and be heard and be loud.

It only makes sense that immigrants and refugees now living in fear would find hope in Koyczan’s words — as can people of color, Muslims or anyone who is simply considered different for any multitude of reasons, who now find themselves routinely bullied in our new environment of intolerance and hate.

“It’s terrifying to watch even as your neighbor,” Koyczan says. “It’s like living next door to someone being abused. I have to decide what to do. I have to decide… did I mean what I’ve said? I can’t bend a knee to this stuff now.”

In many ways, Koyczan is perplexed by what he should do, or not do, about that elephant in the room that he notes, “looks a lot like the one the GOP uses.”

He says, “I want to encourage people but I think maybe they are sick of thinking about this guy so maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.” Considering his gift, I’m sure he’ll find the right words. 

After all, the messages laced into Shane Koyczan’s art have always “trumped hate.” So much so that the opposite is not true.

“I can find compassion for anyone. [Trump] makes it difficult. But we have to keep that compassion because that’s what separates us.”