When she began writing her final poem, ItsreaLight already had a clear sense of her worsening health, a feeling that time was running out.
The local hip-hop artist was visiting relatives in North Carolina and had been participating in the popular National Poetry Month challenge of 30 poems in 30 days. "When Eye'm Gone," written on April 30, was too prescient to leave anyone comfortable:
"There's so much pain in my heart," she began. "No EKG, Blood Work, or X-ray / Could explain / This emotional pain."
The following verses go on to address the vulnerability of love and the heartbreak of solitude. This is how it ends:
"Avenging your heart with revenge in your heart
Has turned it to stone
Pretending you prefer to be alone
You're going to miss me when eye'm gone."
ItsreaLight passed away last week, early on the morning of June 9, two days after returning to Colorado from North Carolina. She was just 34 years old.
When Light arrived at Denver International Airport on the evening of June 7, she needed a wheelchair to transport her from the jetway. In the months prior, she had been hospitalized with a variety of pulmonary complications from lupus, and the rigors of travel were more than she could take. "Light looked like she needed managed care from the moment I saw her," says Phaedra High, a friend in Denver. "But she wouldn't hear of going to the hospital. We suggested it several times."
High monitored her friend in a Denver hotel room that night. The next night, Monday, Light stayed in Colorado Springs with another friend. She was found in an armchair early Tuesday morning, and EMTs were unable to resuscitate her.
Although Light moved from Denver to Colorado Springs just three years ago, she rapidly became an integral part of the local hip-hop and spoken-word communities. According to High, Colorado Springs was the one place Light truly considered home.
She was the special guest vocalist on A Black Day's debut album, Undercast, as well as a finalist in the annual Pikes Peak Arts Council Awards. She was also the featured storyteller at a We Are Women Colorado retreat and patiently trained the poets who became part of the Hear Here national slam teams. She also displayed her culinary talents as a chef through her downhome Light's Delights catering projects.
And then there were those breathtaking live performances. Her singing would draw upon influences dating back to Bessie Smith, while her lyrics echoed themes from the previous day's headlines on police violence and race relations. She often hollered with her own righteous indignation over the indignities suffered by women and by African-Americans.
But foremost, Light emphasized forgiveness, love, and breaking the cycles of abuse, addiction and the mistreatment of others. Her generosity always shone through, even as she delivered rhymes that drilled into the subconscious and stuck to the neurons like glue.
"We all cracked up, ain't nobody laughing," she declared one evening in April 2012, her voice overpowering the small front room of V Bar on Kiowa Street. "These be the jokes you can't get from under your skin."
Colorado Springs musician Xanthe Alexis remembers Light crashing with her on a subzero night after Light's heater broke. The two spent hours singing and storytelling before dawn. Alexis recalls Light as an artist who was unafraid to show the world her talent, as well as "a great soul whose joy is illuminating the greatness in others."
Light was born in 1980 in Far Rockaway, New York, as Natasha Spence, the child of two Caribbean-born parents. As a child, Light experienced the horrors of crack and cocaine epidemics in New York and Jacksonville, Florida. Those early difficulties empowered her to become self-sufficient by her adolescent years, and she began performing beatbox and poetry before she was 20.
After attending Eaglecrest High School in Centennial, Colorado, she sought out relatives in New York and established herself within the Brooklyn poetry scene.
Light returned to Denver in 2009 and became a fixture at poetry venues like Owsley's and Café Nuba. High says she and Light often appeared at the same open mic events, and Light taught her how to be brave and consistent with her voice.
Denver performance artist Inocencia Ox Mendoza says Light treated any stage appearance as an opportunity to collaborate. She would often ad lib to the works of Denver writers like Lady Speech, and the results were much greater than the sum of the parts, incorporating "vibrations that came from a place long ago."
In the end, much was left undone. Light had always intended many of her a capella musical works — such as "The Walls Came Tumbling" and "Chicken, Bread, and Corn" — to be more fully realized as musical pieces in which her soaring voice would be accompanied by traditional instruments and laptop electronica.
Sometimes such arrangements would happen spontaneously at various Denver clubs and even at a jam session at Stargazers Theater two years ago. At the 2013 Indy Music Awards showcase, Light stood out among the dozen performers who took the stage, distinguishing herself with structured lyrics, as well as free-style scat singing to the accompaniment of bassist Charlie Milo and turntablist DJ Gravity.
Sadly, her songs have few surviving representations outside of amateur live footage. Light's Soundcloud albums include some lo-fi music tracks, but she never recorded her own music in a formal studio with other musicians. But that didn't stop her from taking charge when she went into the studio to record with Colorado Springs' A Black Day. Emcee Kevin Mitchell, who is organizing one of two benefits in Light's honor for the end of June, remembers one such session with his band, Fidel RedStar, of which Light was an occasional member.
"I had just finished my verse when she stopped everything," recalls Mitchell. "She looked around at everyone and said, 'Did you hear anything he just said? I didn't. Man, you need to speak up and be proud of what you're saying, now do it again!'
"Light," he adds, "was more than just a talented singer and emcee and poet. She was an inspiration for others to be better. She was all that was genuine."