Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson vividly remembers the first time she moved an audience with her words. She was a young girl, then, a member of a large, nondenominational church.
“I felt that God said something to me,” she says through my computer screen. “So, I went to the microphone, and I told the pastor what I felt God said to me, [and] the whole atmosphere of the church shifted.”
Now 39, San Antonio’s fifth poet laureate continues to make spiritual connections with the city she loves. Even amid a once-in-a-century pandemic and a climate of social unrest.
“It’s speaking a word or taking an action at the right time that can shift an atmosphere,” she says.
As Sanderson speaks, the large, shell-like light reflector in the background, along with her endless curls, remind me of Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus.
As Venus rose from the sea, Sanderson rose from her church, writing and performing her first poem for a memorial service at the age of 13.
“I feel like everything that I trained for in that church got me to this place,” she says. “I do consider a lot of what I do ministry in a sense, [but] not in a traditional thus-saith-the-Lord-standin’-on-a-pulpit type of vibe. I feel like God and art saved my life, so [I’m] trying to bring that idea [that the stage] could save your life.”
In her senior year of high school, Sanderson began a five-year musical journey with LSC Ministries, a touring gospel hip-hop group, and, in 2001, she had her first open mic experience. The rest, some would say, is herstory.
“Getting the cover of the Current
changed my life in 2018,” she says. “I was doing a lot before then, but then people’s perspective of me shifted. I don’t know what it was about that cover, but it lived on the whole year.”
In 2019, I saw Sanderson perform for the first time at a swanky poetry event at downtown tapas bar Carmens de la Calle. Then, a few weeks later, I stood five feet from her at the city’s mayoral inauguration when she captivated political A-listers with a reading of “Rosary Beads,” a poem she penned for the Mayor’s Ball.
“I didn’t get to perform it for [Mayor Ron Nirenberg], and I was really frustrated,” she recalls. “I gave him a copy of it, I think. But I wrote it not even knowing what it was for at the time.”
Sounds like kismet.
“Yes, I feel like there’s a lot of divine providence moments in my life,” she says. “I do believe that we have a destiny, that there are those moments when you feel like, ‘I am walking in my purpose. I am working on the things I was intended to do.’”
Last March, Sanderson was installed as poet laureate — just as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country.
I ask her what that juxtaposition was like.
“Let me breathe first,” she says before a long, audible exhale. “I pray that I don’t start crying but if I do, I do. I felt not ready, but I understood [that] everything that I’ve been through in life was preparing me for that moment.”
Not only is Sanderson proud to be the first African American to become San Antonio’s poet laureate, she also appreciates the opportunity to represent body positivity.
“I’m plus size, and I want little plus-size girls to grow up and see they can be who they want to be,” she says. “They can carry weight in a room, not just in a physical sense of what their body holds, but in their presence. We need more Queen Latifahs.”
Sanderson acknowledges that as a Black artist — a rapper who does spoken word and slam-style poetry — she’s been a game changer in a space traditionally dominated by literary and academic figures.
“I opened it up,” she says with a smile.
Last November, after shooting the “What Will It Take?” musical public service announcement that encouraged people to wear masks, Sanderson tested positive for the coronavirus. While she was quarantined, she thought deeply about her role during the health crisis.
“I think about the influence that I have,” she says. “If I go and get the vaccine and people see me taking the vaccine, it could influence someone else’s decision to get it or not.”
After a turbulent 2020, I ask her how she feels about Black History Month this year, which begins February 1.
“I just feel like we’ve come a long way but, right now, history repeats itself, so some of the things that were happening in the 1960s and the 1970s, they’re happening all over again,” she says. “Hopefully, things will change and continue changing.”
In the meantime, she applauds activists at the forefront of progressive change.
“Like the women who started the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “You know, strong Black women.”
I ask if she’s a strong Black woman.
“Some days,” she says with a sigh. “But I think that my strength — God’s strength — is made perfect in my weakness. I can acknowledge that my vulnerability lends itself to strength. Being able to cry, being able to be at a loss for words, being speechless, hurting and mourning, all of that lends itself to strength, because when I rise up to do something, all of my heart’s gonna go into it.”
Since our video conversation, Sanderson was inspired to write a song about the deadly and disturbing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“It was foolish and predictable, meaning it was the culmination of all that is wrong with [former President Donald J.] Trump’s infamous legacy,” she said via email.
When I asked her how she felt the aftermath was handled, she wrote that it was still too early to tell.
“But I hope everyone who participated is vilified, the way innocent Black people are vilified in the media,” she said.
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