When poet and spoken word artist Ms. Lala DeVille steps on stage in her trademark Chuck Taylor All-Stars, what comes next is nothing short of an experience.
Real, relatable and talented are just a few of the words DeVille’s friends and fellow artists described her work and her character.
And that was when DeVille first stepped into the poetry scene in 2016.
A few years ago, Bernard Irby was at a spoken word venue when he heard DeVille perform.
Irby, who has been writing for 35 years and been performing spoken word for around 16 to 17 years, grew up in Watts and South Central Los Angeles. He’s an observer he said, capable of knowing good people when he sees them and figuring out what someone is about.
He recognized the hurt and anger in DeVille’s performance and wanted to coax out the other side of that poet within her.
“I just saw potential in her and I knew that there was something else besides what we were seeing,” Irby said. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew that there was something else, I knew that there was something wonderful behind all that anger and frustration. And it actually was.”
DeVille, who grew up in Compton but now lives in Long Beach, started writing poetry at an early age, transitioning into rapping and was known as Latta Dee up until 1992. During that time, she made a mixtape on a cassette and sold it out of the trunk of her car.
That affinity for writing and for words remained, returning in the form of journaling as a way to write out her feelings when DeVille began having marital issues.
It didn’t hit DeVille until she attended a poetry event where poet Dominique Christina shared her piece called “The Period Poem.”
“‘Oh, my God, I could do that,’” DeVille said, recalling her thoughts when she listened to the poem. “So my journal entries turned into poems and I’ve just started writing from there. I just kept writing and kept writing and next thing you looked up, I had probably a hundred or a couple hundred poems that I had written. And it was just very therapeutic.”
Poetry became a way for DeVille to build her self-confidence. She saw the way people responded to her work and said that when she performed a piece, people would tell her that she told their story. That knowledge, that she was not only becoming a skilled writer and performer, continued to grow her confidence that trickled into her everyday life.
And DeVille’s everyday life is a busy one as CEO of the publishing company Everybody Publishing, a co-producer with Diverse Verses LA, a collective of Los Angeles-based artists who produce events meant to uplift the community, and as someone who engages in art including drawing and crocheting.
“She has an energy of just non-stop movement,” Michelle Williams, a creative and “goddess” as she called herself, said. “There’s a strength in her that emanates from her and everything that she does.”
Williams met DeVille at a poetry slam for women, who recalled being “blown away” by DeVille when she took the stage, then announcing to the audience that she had just begun writing. Now the pair are friends, and Williams said she considers DeVille to be a sister.
“And now she’s just a powerhouse,” Williams said, referring to all the work DeVille has done since.
One memorable experience for DeVille was her first feature, an open mic at Spoken Word, Art and Music, a Los Angeles-based open mic festival. DeVille not only performed her poetry, she performed an old rap of hers called “Wrath of a Black Woman,” a song DeVille said was “very 90s” about not being played by anyone.
The crowd went crazy, DeVille said.
“I just start floating like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t believe I did this,” DeVille said, laughing as she explained how she’ll watch the video when it reappears on her Facebook memories. “It’s almost like having an out of body experience, like who is this person? I just never thought that I would be that well accepted, that appreciated, that admired and loved. And to see all of that in this room full of people that came to see me, that was really exciting.”
Poet Crystal Melton, whose pen name is Wildflower, met DeVille at a poetry event three years ago, where DeVille was celebrating her birthday.
“I just remembered feeling like this warm, magnetic energy that she exudes, and I just had to walk up to the table and talk to her,” Melton said.
Melton explained that DeVille is a “dynamic spoken word artist” who can take something “ugly” and turn it into something “beautiful,” and added that she loved her unusual cadence and writing style.
One evening at a poetry event, Melton recalled herself sifting through her notebook, telling DeVille she wanted to read something more relatable for the audience. Melton said she did not want to get on stage and possibly bomb.
“[DeVille] said, ‘Crystal, we don’t do it for the snaps and the claps,’” Melton said. “‘Read it from your heart. And if they accept it, fine, and if they don’t, fine. You liked it.’”
For DeVille, the news or something she saw on Facebook can spark a poem, where she’ll sit down and let it flow out in under an hour before going back in and fine tuning it. Other times, DeVille said, she’ll have an idea that lingers. But when DeVille writes a rap, she needs to hear a beat first.
“Reason,” a poem by DeVille, was written within a few minutes. It’s part of her latest book of poetry that is dedicated to the man DeVille is in a relationship with.
It’s a piece that, according to DeVille, is one that she believes she’ll never top, nor would try. It’s one she cherishes most.
“Hearing it and knowing that I’m actually speaking on something that I never thought I would have ever experienced [which] is a healthy relationship, someone who makes me feel important and makes me feel that I can do things that I never thought that I could do,” DeVille said. “And that one is just letting everybody know, this is how I feel about him. This is how he makes me feel.”
Another important piece is “Don’t Call Me Strong Black Woman,” inspired by actress Taraji P. Henson who discussed how people expect Black women to be strong, to have to carry the world on their shoulders and are taught that anything less would be weak.
DeVille’s “Don’t Call Me Strong Black Woman” gives Black women the permission to fall apart when they need to, something that DeVille said is important in order to build oneself back up. She explained that the phrase “strong Black woman” is not a compliment nor an expectation.
“It’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be human,” DeVille said. “So don’t let people put that ‘S’ on your chest. So I guess you could say that is a poetic anthem for Black women.”
The poem has only been performed once, and at the time, DeVille said the women in the audience felt connected to it.
But DeVille has plans to perform it again when the coronavirus pandemic allows venues to open back up and audiences to gather. It will be one of many DeVille has planned, who has been working on new poetry and digging through archived pieces since stay-at-home orders kept her away from her work as a driver.
Currently, DeVille is also working on releasing a project that intertwines rap with poetry. She is also co-hosting the 2021 Pan African Film and Arts Festival, which was established in 1992 and showcases “Black creative works.” The festival, which will continue through Mar. 14, is virtual and produced by Diverse Verses LA.
It’s the same festival that featured a poet whom Irby and DeVille were watching clips of, a poet who Irby said “wanted to knock some holes in a wall.” He told DeVille that was how he first saw her. DeVille responded that she knew Irby was going to say that.
But it’s because DeVille sees it now, Irby explained.
DeVille has grown as an artist and transformed, as Irby called it, into a “beautiful butterfly” who has accumulated an audience made of people who have been with her since her debut to people now just discovering her.
“And a lot of people have come to me and asked, ‘How is it that you’re able to write and you get up there and you perform, I would never be able to do that,’” DeVille said, explaining how writing and art can be helpful for people dealing with any type of mental health issues. “And I have to remind them, it’s just baby steps.”
This story was updated on Mar. 5 at 9:37 a.m. to include a pen name for one of the sources.