In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. One of those artists is Leija Farr, a Seattle poet and student at Seattle Central University. She talked with us about the universality of music, celebrating black identity, and importance of taking time to heal during Black History Month.
Leija Farr: My Name Is Leija Farr, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. Recent graduate of Cleveland High School. Current Student at Seattle Central. I was the first Seattle youth poet laureate back in 2015 to 2016. I got a book deal with Penmanship Books from it. It's called Outweigh The Gravity. And I love poetry and I love artistry and I'm trying to encourage more people to use their platforms to create social justice movements.
KEXP: So we're celebrating Black History Month here on KEXP. And I definitely want to acknowledge that it is not just condensed into one month and that we should be celebrating black beauty and excellence all year round. To highlight the celebration of Black History Month, what does that mean to you?
Leija Farr: Well I read a quote recently on Instagram and it said, "The tools you use to survive aren't necessarily the tools used to thrive." I think a lot of time for times for black people, we feel like we always have to be fighting. But what we don't understand is that fighting makes us tired and we need to heal. And so I think it's important during Black History Month that we're remembering we need to heal and we're remembering our mental health because that's what's going to push us forward and allow more generations of black people to continue. We can't just keep fighting. Eventually we'll get tired and we can't hold onto traumas and not treat them and think that our children are not going to go through the same things.
That is such a good answer and things I needed to do. One of the things I want to acknowledge that came out of that community meeting that Black Stax participated in – your dad – was also a desire to talk about black future and not always look at the past so we're not always looking at this textbook idea of black history where there were slaves and then there was Martin Luther King and now everything's better. Because it's not it's a very cookie cutter version. What I heard was the the desire to talk about black future, just like you're talking about. Black mental health, black excellence, wellness, art – all of those things. What does the idea of black excellence or future or Afro-futurism to you?
I think the idea of black excellence in the future is just creating our own realms. I think for a long time we've been accustomed to Eurocentric standards or societal norms. And I think that black people, in our nature, we're just different and we're unique. And I think that we need to just flood the society and flood the media with our uniqueness and our realms of aesthetics, our realms of success, our realms of love. We just need to make sure that we are creating realms and making them known.
Can you tell me about an artist that has been a big influence for you? And that could be in any intersection of your identity.
I think a recent artist that I've been like really heavy into right now is Kehinde Wiley. I had the honor of seeing his exhibit when it was at Seattle Art Museum and I think what he did is what I just said – he was creating a realm. He used older paintings that featured white artists or white ideas of beauty and he put his own twist on it. And I think that he's doing amazing things with art. He's allowing black men to be seen in different spectrums of expression and emotion, because I think for a lot of times for black men they feel like they can't be emotional. And he's allowing that emotion to seep through his paintings. And I think that that's really important. That's another thing I feel like is that black men need to be allowed to be emotional. So and he's allowing them to do that.
Is there somebody musically that has influenced your art as a poet?
I would say my dad. I think that my dad has always been encouraging me to be myself through my poetry and he's always encouraged me, 'You know Leija, use your voice. You have such a great bloodline of people that came before you that really they lived through you." And I think that I actually do have ancestral energy that just encourages me to keep going forward. I think my dad, along the way with me you know learning, because when I was a youth poet laureate there's a lot of things I had to learn. I wasn't used to doing interviews. I wasn't used to speaking in front of lots of people. I didn't know how to make a book. So there's just so many things that he helped me with along the way and has helped me evolve through.
And your dad is part of the duo of Black Stax. Want to call that out. One more question for you: Why do you think music matters?
I think music is a universal language. For example, there are songs that are by Tupac from the 90s that you can hear being played in Brazil and China. I think that music touches all bases of the world and I think that it's all about rhythm at the end. There are certain songs that are in different languages, I don't know what they're saying but it's the rhythm I get to. So I think that music is just encouraging people to communicate through rhythm.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I think I just want to add, like what you said, that Black History Month – it shouldn't be just reduced to a month. I think that we need to be aware of just the milestones that black people have been through and are still going through and the amount of fighting that we've had to go through and the legacies that we're living through. We just need to be aware of, like I said, what gems are we passing on to further generations and how are we making sure that further generations aren't becoming the byproduct of our bottled up emotions. So that's why I think it's really important that you know if you need to go to a therapist go to a therapist. I think in the black community we feel a lot of times that therapy is for people that are weird or it's for people who have a sickness. But I think there's something amazing in therapy and I would encourage everybody to do it.
For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.
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