Knowledge of Self: Spoken Word and Identity

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The four elements of hip-hop are rhyme, disk jockeying, breakdancing and graffiti.

While these elements are most prominent, spoken word artist and professor Dr. Crystal Leigh believes that there is an unacknowledged fifth element that ties everything together: knowledge of self. The knowledge of self, Leigh explained, is being able to share your experience, to be aware and critical of one’s culture and to simply have an understanding of your identity. 

As a person of color and first-generation college student, Leigh said that carving out her own identity was challenging. Writing, however, helped her express this conflict and became a way for her to create her own identity. 

With her roommates’ encouragement, Leigh performed for the first time at an open mic called “Etymology.” With that experience, she realized that by passionately conveying deep sentiments, she could invoke certain emotions in people and help others realize that they are not alone. Since then, Leigh has been using spoken word poetry and performance to not only explore the knowledge of self, but also as a tool to practice social justice activism.

With a passion for activism and a devotion to education, Leigh is a part of several projects that advocate for women’s rights. On an international level, Leigh is part of Long Live the Girls!, a nonprofit project that empowers girls through creative writing, based in Hawassa, Ethiopia. According to the organization’s website, the nonprofit works to “create safe spaces for girls and women to speak out and write with freedom,” and their “unique approach demystifies gender policies through the literary arts in a creative cycle of reading, writing, analyzing, performing and publishing original works.” 

This project has enabled her to hear and share the voices of women and girls who have been silenced and teach them that creative expression is a potent way to speak out on discrimination and other issues due to gender. Here in the United States, Leigh performed in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum for the Commision on the Status of Women in the United Nations. 

Through spoken word, Leigh has become an activist by sharing her own experiences and connecting with others in gigs or by actively being engaged in communities. 

Her advice for budding spoken word artists? According to Leigh, there are three things everyone should do: write, revise and reflect. 

“You have to tell your story, someone else is writing about you, who do you want them to believe?” she asked her audience. “You, or the person writing about you?” 

Revision refers to not only revising one’s writing but also to revising oneself, including examining one’s actions and determining how to best reach one’s goals. And lastly, to reflect on ourselves and our relationships is to really see how we speak about others and how we treat ourselves. 

Sociology professor Peter Kaufman introduced Crystal Leigh at the event. Along with others on the Writing Board, Kaufman chose to bring Leigh to speak on Wednesday, April 5 at the Student Union Building. Spoken word, Kaufman explained, is very personal, raw and real.  

“I think that spoken word is a powerful format for discussing issues on social justice because it comes out of people’s oppression, inequalities and injustice,” he said. 

Leigh’s words came from a place of isolation in her search for an identity, one that could be suitable for herself, her family and predominantly white spaces, a reality that too many marginalized students face. Through artistic expression, individuals with marginalized identities can grapple with these realities and carve out spaces and identities of their own.