In search of an inclusive space, Roi Wall created Mellow Soul, an open-mic poetry night where it is guaranteed your shoes won’t be stepped on.
Depressed, isolated and lacking an outlet, Roi Wall wasn’t at ease in Gainesville.
As a black woman living in a town dominated by a primarily white institution, most of the places offering entertainment seemed to cater to people unlike her, she said.
So she made her own.
It’s called Mellow Soul. The venues and the themes might change, but the mission is always the same: to provide a space for artists and art-lovers to share and enjoy poetry, song, rap and comedy that comes straight from the heart.
“We want to bridge the gap between student life and the locals in Gainesville,” Wall said. “We want to get people to actually come out and enjoy authentic art again.”
It’s what Wall calls “one mic under soul elevated.” And you could say it was born from a breakdown.
28-year-old Wall, who has bipolar disorder, sunk into a deep depression after working through internships at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. She had moved to Gainesville with her partner, A. Denèe, who was then a graduate student at the University of Florida, but Wall wasn’t studying for a degree herself.
“We really had no social life,” she said. “We either had to go to Jacksonville or Orlando to find fulfillment.”
Wall had gotten a taste of working in entertainment in Orlando and wanted to create her own show. After her therapist asked her what she was waiting for, she set out to collaborate with Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar in November 2014 and hasn’t stopped since.
“It was the thing that I think saved her from herself,” Denèe said during a phone interview.
The Mellow Soul team partnered with Rockeys for two years, but these days it hosts monthly open mic sessions specifically at black-owned businesses in Gainesville. Typically, about 50 to 100 people, young and old, will show up for Mellow Soul Tuesdays, After Work Wednesdays or the occasional Mellow Soul Friday. The open mic held in August at M.A.M.A’s Club drew a crowd over 100 strong, enough to force Wall to start turning people away.
About 15 to 20 performers sign up for the open mic either through social media or at the door the night of a show, Wall said.
“It’s raw talent,” she said. “We grab people from off the streets.”
All Wall and Denèe ask for is a $5 entry fee to cover the venue and pay their in-house entertainment, the ID Band and DJ Mellow Blendz, as well as any professional artists they spotlight, Wall said.
“I often walk away with nothing in my pocket,” she said.
Mellow Soul tries to provide an open, safe atmosphere, one where someone of any age, religion or background, including LGBT and undocumented people, can appreciate listening and speaking under the guiding principle of “respect the mic.” There’s no police present, nor a set security guard, and “interactions happen organically,” Denèe said.
“I’ve seen a woman who is a devout Muslim and a man who is a devout Christian stand on stage together in their prayer poses,” Denèe said. “That was beautiful.”
During five-minute musical breaks, people at Mellow Soul are told to find somebody they don’t know and take a selfie with them.
“You see people who may not ever talk to each other — now they’re talking,” Denèe said.
Some of Wall and Denèe’s favorite moments have been an onstage proposal and when Erykah Badu herself retweeted a photo from Mellow Soul’s tribute to her. It contained a single word: “Honored.”
“I know it was one word, but I was honored,” Denèe said.
Denèe calls Mellow Soul “a labor of love,” especially considering that the couple moved to Jacksonville about a year ago for her job as a high school english, reading and debate teacher at River City Science Academy. For every show, they drive two hours on Route 301 to Gainesville and back, passing through Starke and Waldo, which can be especially hard at night once an event is over.
“I’ve been pulled over several times,” Wall said. “More motivation to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Wall organizes the bulk of Mellow Soul, but Denèe does what she calls “the nerdy stuff,” like editing social media posts and writing letters to student and community groups.
“I don’t know anything about technology, but I can edit my behind off,” she said. “We just gathered our arts together, our skills together, and created a show.”
To Denèe, Mellow Soul isn’t just a space, but “a movement of gathering great minds, great artistic minds, and empowering them to give back to the community in an active, creative and relevant way,” she said.
“It’s not about ‘I love you instead of’ or ‘I love you despite,’” Wall said. ‘No. You just deserve love. And that’s how it is at Mellow Soul.”
Denèe is one of Mellow Soul’s regular performers. She became a serious poet ever since she saw Maya Angelou speak at the age of 15 or 16 — an experience she said “you can never, ever, ever even explain,” — but she’s been an artist her entire life.
“My mother has laminated poems that I wrote before I could even write,” Denèe said.
Before she met Wall, Denèe never considered publishing a full-length work, but in February 2016 her book “Write-Handed Poetry: A Collection of Thoughts and Writings on Faith, Family, Love, Sex, Revolution, and Blackness” went public. Denèe’s poem “We Speak of Revolution” is a favorite of Mellow Soul patrons and Wall, too. Toward the end, it reads:
“We speak of revolution.
So that this world may be resurrected. Like Jesus.
So this world may be changed. Like old clothes
and old ways
So that our dark faces no longer seek lightness
And our thick bodies no longer seek thinness.”
“She kills it,” Wall said. “I’m not just saying that because she’s my partner. I actually really love the poem.”
Denèe compares her significant other to Alain Locke and Wallace Thurman, famous figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
“The way she’s able to gather artists from everywhere, from every religion, from every background, every nationality…I’ve never met such a curator,” she said.
“Art is what drives any movement,” Wall said. “It’s a history book in itself.”
Wall brings together artists not just to entertain, but to help fund campus organizations and local businesses. In June 2015, after receiving a surprise invitation to the the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, the ‘Canes on Da Mic poetry club at Gainesville High School rushed to raise money to travel to Atlanta. Mellow Soul hosted a “final push” open mic at the Civic Media Center to collect donations for the trip, and the club managed to exceed its goal within six days.
“Art is what drives any movement,” Wall said. “It’s a history book in itself.”
Mellow Soul also collaborates with multiple student organizations at UF and Santa Fe college, including UF’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., UF’s Black Student Union and My Sister’s Keeper at Santa Fe. Each year, it partners with the Black Graduate Student Organization at UF for Black History Month, creating one of Mellow Soul’s most popular nights.
“We’re not just about sharing art, we’re about doing art,” Denèe said. “And what’s better than to do what you love and help folks?”
“It’s beautiful to just watch it just flow naturally without it being rehearsed,” she said.
Denèe “would love to see Mellow Soul expand to untouched areas,” like entertaining people in prisons and hospitals. She also wants to see more support to help Mellow Soul grow, be it in the form of word of mouth, financial help or assistance from grant writers, she said.
“I’m like, a super shy person. I’m not a performer. I’m not a slam poet in any sense of the word,” Denèe said. “But when I get up on stage at Mellow Soul, I know that whatever I have to share is going to be thought upon, it’s gonna be chewed on, it’s gonna be appreciated.”
“It’s not about ‘I love you instead of’ or ‘I love you despite,’” she said. “No. You just deserve love. And that’s how it is at Mellow Soul.” •