By Danielle Modica | February 28, 2021
Nineteen-year-old spoken word poet and University at Albany student Fanta Ballo is making her way to the top, thanks to her perseverance and writing talent.
Ballo is the first ever winner of musician Shawn Mendes’ Wonder Grant in December, which she will use to finish her first book, For all the Things I Never Got to Say. She plans to release the book in the summer of this year.
The Shawn Mendes Foundation created the Wonder Grant for “young changemakers and creatives using their voices, visions & abilities to make positive change in the world,” according to a post on Mendes’ Instagram account. The announcement of this grant catapulted Ballo into the spotlight.
“All I can do is be grateful,” said Ballo. “They could’ve chosen anyone else, but they chose me. I always knew I was going to do the things I’m doing now, but getting this Wonder Grant is unreal and something I could’ve never predicted.”
“A couple years ago I could’ve never predicted where I am now. But everything came so fast, everything happens for a reason,” she said. “The announcement [of the Wonder Grant] really put me out there for more people to see, but I’ve been working for so long to be here that I don’t feel pressure. I’m doing the same things I’ve been doing since before the exposure.”
The award winning poet knows a lot about getting things done while she is young. At only 19 years old she has graduated with her associates degree in economics from Bard College, was the commencement speaker at Bard’s Graduation in 2019, performed at various events with her poems, and is currently a senior in the UAlbany economics program with plans to graduate this May.
Ballo plans to use her economics degree to give back to her community. The Harlem native wants to create financial literacy classes that will teach young people how to file taxes and budget money.
“Growing up, I didn’t really learn much about finances, and the importance of saving, so I want to create that opportunity for those who come after me.”
Ballo’s next milestone that she is anticipating is for her poetry collection book to come out.
“I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time.” She said. “There’s no more excuses, now I got what I needed to finish. I can’t wait to see how my words look on paper instead of just hearing myself.”
She mentioned this collection will consist of mostly new, never-before-heard poems with a mix of some she has performed before.
“I’d say about 90% of the poems included are ones I’ve never performed before,” she said. “I really had to work on changing my spoken poetry to poetry on paper. I had to keep in mind that not everyone is going to read the poem like a poet would. I really stepped out of my comfort zone with this.”
Fanta Ballo writing a poem Courtesy of: Fanto Ballo
Ballo found her love for writing at a young age, using rapping as a creative outlet. Her poems shed light on topics like sexuality, social justice, current events and self-growth. Now, she has over 6,000 followers on Instagram who listen to her poetry recordings daily.
“At first I didn’t [write and perform] to inspire people,” said Ballo. “But knowing that my truth could help you speak up, made me realize that my work is bigger than me. This is for people that are sitting on hundreds of words and don’t speak them out loud because they don’t know how people will react.”
Ballo began performing at an arts camp called BroaderWay, founded by Broadway stars Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs. Ballo also mentioned she began slowing down her raps at 14 years old after becoming interested with spoken word through YouTube videos.
While performing at BroaderWay, Ballo discovered that a fellow camper drew inspiration from her words and decided to perform because of Ballo’s confidence on stage.
“When I heard another camper go up on stage and say, ‘One of the people that inspired me is Fanta,’ I was like what?” said Ballo. “Me and this girl didn’t have much conversation before and I’m inspiring her to keep writing?”
Soon after, more and more fans wrote to Ballo, expressing their gratefulness for her. She realized how much her words affected strangers, and how humbling it is for people to see her as a role model, especially when she is still looking up to her own mentors as well.
“It’s like a feeling,” said Ballo. “Like a rush of good energy. It’s a feeling you don’t want to go away.”
Ballo is determined, even after gaining a large audience, to only write about the things that are important to her. She is proud to maintain her true, authentic self.
“If I can speak in my authentic voice and resonate with you, I’ve done my job,”she said. If I change to write for other people, I feel like I’ll lose my voice in the process - and I don’t want that to ever happen.”
Looking towards the future, Ballo does not see her career confined within her home state of New York.
“I want to tour - I really want to see different parts of the world,” she said. “I’ve lived in New York my whole life and I want to step foot in different areas while I’m still young.”
Throughout all of these accomplishments, with many more to come, Ballo’s proudest milestone to date is that she stuck to her goals.
If she had any words of wisdom to share with the UAlbany community, it would be, “don’t be afraid to break your own heart, don’t be afraid to fall, because you can never get up if your body never hits the ground.”
For more information about Fanta Ballo’s journey and details about her upcoming book, check out her website at FantaBallo.com.