ASU graduate student Lady Caress uses poetry to address social issues

Caress Russell delivers powerful spoken-word poetry that integrates theatrics and beatboxing

Standing in the center of a coffee shop, surrounded by Phoenix locals and artists, was a woman with a gripping performative energy. She was beatboxing, singing and performing all while delivering lines about racial inequality and women’s empowerment. 

The crowd smiled, moved and snapped in unison with her. The room’s mood was light and engaged, curated by this performer.

The woman I'm talking about is performing arts graduate student Caress Russell, the spoken word poet who goes by the stage name “Lady Caress.” 

A warm smile and boisterous “Hello!” greeted me at the door of the Lyceum Theatere in Tempe. Russell welcomed me in to talk to her, maintaining a smile on her face and an energy similar to her on-stage presence. 

Russell takes a lively approach to her artistic work. Through interlacing poetic takes on social reform with beatboxing and theatrics, she creates a stage presence that is both engaging and enlightening to the audience. 

Caress has been on tour for five years, hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop, sharing her words with listeners of all backgrounds.

However, the stride of her life was not always gaited with the success she now enjoys.

Looking at me with a calm smile, Russell began to tell me about her experiences growing up and reflected on her shy childhood when she could barely speak to others. 

“I notice the person in the back of the room who no one is paying attention to because that was me,” Russell said.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Russell spent her early years moving, often because of intense bullying. Friendless and alone, Russell struggled to find the sanctity of inner peace amid environments that were often hostile toward her.

“The first few years of my life I was trying so hard to fit in” Russell said. “I struggled a lot with finding out who I was.” 

With no one to lean on beside her parents, it was in those low moments that she began to find an escape through writing, Russell said. 

“I started writing poetry as a way to have friends, because I did not have any outside of the pen and paper. The pen and paper were my friends,” Russell said. 

As a budding youth, Russell wrote a song about a book her class was reading in the third grade. Her teachers and peers noticed her talent, and throughout the years Russell garnered an impressive reputation for her ability to write and get her thoughts across in a strong and unapologetic manner.

In high school, Russell joined her school’s debate team, but instead of debating with facts and statistics like most would, she debated with poetry. She ended up winning a debate competition and won a full-ride scholarship to Wiley College in Texas.

When talking about this, Russell’s tone lowered to a more serious note, and she opened up to me about the struggles she faced as an African American woman fearlessly speaking her mind in a debate setting.

“I was the only black person in an all-white arena,” Russell said. “I was called the n-word so many times. We were debating about ideologies and ideals, and I was the only African American person. We were talking about these marginalized communities, but I’m talking about it with people who don’t necessarily understand it.”

Russell said she was often mentally and physically harassed by her peers for her ability to speak her mind on issues she cared about.

She said she was a victim to racist remarks and attacks simply because she chose to never silence herself. Despite some shaking moments, like getting a glass thrown at her or repeatedly getting called the n-word by white peers, she said she rose above it and used those situations as an outlet to make herself and her writing more powerful.

“There are so many perspectives that have not had the chance to be heard. If I have to be the person who gives the voice to those perspectives, I won’t run from it,” Russell said of how she sees her role as an artist.

Though writing and debating have always been a part of Russell’s life, she initially never thought to use those skills. She always had her mind on becoming an attorney. That is, until she got to law school. 

Russell reflected on her time at law school as one of most defining periods of her life. It was there where she began to gain a new perspective on law and its sharp contrasts to poetry. 

“What I like about poetry is that it gives people a voice who don’t necessarily get to say what they want to say,” Russell said. “Law is a part of why these people have not gotten to say what they want to say.” 

The more Russell went through law school, the more she realized law was not the path meant for her. She said she hated it for multiple reasons, but ultimately saw it as a major reality check. Once she accepted that this was not where she belonged, she saw that she was meant to be an artist. 

“When I started to realize that law isn’t always about what’s right — it’s about what you can prove — I started to detach myself from it because morally I wanted to put myself in a position where I could empower people and speak on things that mattered,” Russell said.

Despite the negative impact it had on her, law school ended up introducing Russell to her best friend, attorney and manager, Heather Greenmiller.

Greenmiller arrived at the theater late, and Russell excitedly led her to me. The two shared some jokes, and the mood was lightened. 

“Making people feel good, that’s one of the biggest things about her,“ Greenmiller said, mid-chuckle.

Russell went through a period of depression after leaving law school, and she stayed on Greenmiller’s couch for a number of months to collect her thoughts on what her next step in life would be.

Greenmiller suggested Russell give poetry a try on a more established level.

“When I saw her perform, she just captivated the audience. There’s something about the way she delivers the poetry,” Greenmiller said.

At first, Russell said she was reluctant, but she eventually took the advice and searched for performance opportunities, hoping to find anything to help her get her feet off the ground. She looked online for anything performative she could do to fill her artistic void.

She stumbled across a McDonald’s amateur talent competition and decided to enter one of her pieces for the next year’s competition. 

What came next, she never expected. 

“I went down there, and they loved what I did so much they wanted me to compete that year,” Russell said.

Slowly but surely, Russell found her hope more robust that she could make her artistry a full-time job. She used her time while Greenmiller was away at class working on her craft. 

“It was a good time for me because I had nothing else to focus on. I had no other distractions,” Russell said.

Russell ended up recording her first album, titled “Behind The Curtains,” out of Greenmiller’s living room. Russell and Greenmiller would go back-and-forth on what was working for the album, and what was not. This was the first time the two would collaborate so closely on Russell’s art, and Greenmiller said it brought the two of them closer as not only friends, but colleagues.

“I watched her build the album from scratch, from the beat to the vocals to the words,” Greenmiller said. “I would be there while she worked on the beats, and she would always ask for my opinion.” 

Russell joked that Greenmiller often gave advice that she did not want to hear. 

“I would play her something, and she would be like, ‘No you have to change that,’” Russell joked. “You need that honesty sometimes, though.”

This bond only grew stronger as Greenmiller became Russell’s attorney. They worked together to build Russell’s career. 

Russell has developed a distinctive performance style, touring coffee shops across the country and teaching guest workshops to students of all ages and backgrounds. She crafts her writing to illuminate the aspects of life that often go unspoken and unseen. 

“When you really look at life, the things that I value are not the things that are black and white. They are not things that patriarchal systems have put in place," Russell said, "they’re everything else. And that’s what my poetry illuminates."


Reach the reporter at mmbarbe3@asu.edu and follow @meganbarbera_ on Twitter. 

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.


Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.