Award-winning artist virtually performs social justice poetry collection

By Sarah Siock

Spoken word artist Akeen Olaj presented audience members with a powerful poetry set that covered topics from Black Lives Matter to mental health at a virtual performance on Oct. 16.

Olaj performed at an event titled “Poetry Against Injustices” that was hosted by the Student Entertainment Council (SEC). The event gave students space to creatively express their feelings regarding the social unrest that continues to take place across the country. Olaj was chosen as the headliner of the event due to his activism and poetry writings that address social injustices.

“I chose Akeem for the event because looking at his past spoken word performances, they impacted me the most. I love the way he conveyed his messages through his poetry, and how powerful his work was,” said junior digital marketing major Alyssa Unciano, who organized the event as the cultural chair of the SEC.

“I truly thought the way he spoke and delivered his poetry would impact and educate students, opening their minds to the injustices people experience and how it affects those who are targets of discrimination and racism,” Unciano added.

Olaj has performed across the country and was a past opening act for rappers Kendrick Lamar and P. Diddy. Today, he uses his platform to raise awareness for topics including domestic violence, HIV awareness and LGBTQ rights.

“I am going to tap into what we have been going through at the moment. Because recently, it’s been a rough time to be Black in America. So I’m going to talk about that,” said Olaj to the audience before beginning his performance.

Several of the poems Olaj shared were created from his thoughts and repressed memories that resurfaced during the coronavirus stay at home orders. He began his set with a piece titled “My Blackness as a Haiku.” The poem tackles timely issues and addresses Olaj’s experiences as a Black American.

“A not dead angel will make it so Black people can wear a mask during a pandemic and not be confused for a criminal. For a Black person to exist period and not be automatically confused for a criminal,” Olaj recited.

At the halfway mark of the event, the floor opened up for audience members to share their poetry pieces. Olaj offered advice to each of the student poets.

“From attending the event I gained a greater perspective from those who are different from me. At times, it is easy to get caught up in our worlds and forget to look at the people around us and remember we are all dealing with our struggles,” said junior arts and entertainment industries management major Courtney Lynn Povero.

Olaj continued his set with a piece titled “Tokenism.” He said the piece was inspired by his time as a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. The poem described the many incidents of racism Olaj faced while intending the university.

“So that must mean you’re on a scholarship because black skin can’t afford to be here without one unless they came to the black back door you know, all our tokens here are just little affirmative action whores all with over $125,000 in debt,” Olaj recited.

While all of the poems Olaj performed covered real-world issues, they were also personal to his own experiences. For example, one intimate poem Olaj shared described the complex relationship he has with his mother.

Audience members asked Olaj how he can be effortlessly candid in his poetry.

“When I write it is mainly from a personal perspective but it is also about interacting with society. And what I’ve learned is that those personal poems, even though they are inherently personal, those are probably the poems that most people will connect with,” said Olaj.

Olaj’s poems allowed the audience to come together to understand societal struggles while leaving them hopeful for change.

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