“To be woman and black is to be born knowing your beauty does not belong to you… Is to know you’re not desirable to your own kind,” Crystal Valentine thunders on the stage of the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.
The force of the power of Valentine’s voice, pushing those words out, imprint the rhythms and sounds into any listener’s brain.
Play just a few seconds of Valentine’s performance of “To Be Black and Woman and Alive” with fellow slam poet Aaliyah Jihad, and it is no surprise that Valentine won the competition to be New York City’s Youth Poet Laureate.
What is surprising is that the 20-year-old who pierces audiences with brutally poignant lines, like “Black privilege is me pretending I know Trayvon Martin on a first-name basis,” describes herself as a “painfully shy” child.
“I never knew how to interact with my environment. I didn’t know myself. I feared rejection. In middle school, I was bullied a bit,” Valentine recalls to the Daily Beast. “I realized people didn’t really listen to what I had to say.”
Valentine grew up in the Bronx just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. She says she realized she could change the alienation and silence she felt as a child when she performed poetry.
Valentine wrote her first poem in third or fourth grade (“It was about springtime and how everyone should love it as much as I did because flowers blossomed,” she remembers).
But it wasn’t until she started reading her poems to others when she was 13 years old and just starting high school that she realized the effect it could have.
“The first time I read a poem of mine was at an afterschool program sponsored by Urban Word [a non-profit devoted to encourage youth to write poetry, prose, and music]. I was like, ‘Wow. This is amazing.’ Not only are they listening, but they are understanding me,” she says.
It would still be a few years before Valentine entered the world of slam poetry, the form for which she has become best known.
“I would always go to slams, but I didn’t really start until my senior year because I was so afraid,” Valentine remembers. “There was an Urban Word slam event and I thought ‘I’ve been watching these amazing people for years, and I want to do that. I’m ready. It’s time.’”
With the first step, Valentine realized that slam poetry offered a unique opportunity to get immediate feedback and gratification from the audience. “In slam culture, when you hear something you like, you either snap your fingers or say ‘wow’ or ‘oh’ or ‘ahh,’” she explains. “I would get that same reaction.”
The best for Valentine, though, was when people would come up to her after a slam poetry event. “They would say, ‘You tell my story with your poem. Thank you.’ That’s how I knew I was doing something worthwhile.”
Valentine has made it her mission to use her poetry to connect to others and inspire change. Since winning the poetry competition to become the New York City Youth Poet Laureate, Valentine has had the responsibility of promoting youth voting.
Under 20 percent of Americans ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 elections, according to CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement).
I asked Valentine if she really believes the spoken word can actually improve such a dire civic situation. She had no doubts about it.
“I think poetry is extremely effective. When they hear my poetry, they can hear the emotion behind it. They really understand the circumstances and what’s at stake. It may hard to hear a ten-minute speech, but poetry is a very hard, intense way to get my message across.”
Today, Friday, Valentine will bring her powerful slam poetry to the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange, an event that brings together more than 200 world leaders to “explore how art and culture can become even more effective in fostering healthy citizens, vibrant cities and strong communities.”
Valentine will be featured in this elite milieu along with Michael J. Fox, legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear, and chairman and chief executive of IAC (The Daily Beast’s parent company) Barry Diller.
Hobnobbing with titans of industry and world-famous celebrities is a far-cry from Valentine’s life as undergraduate at New York University.
She is currently a senior, majoring in psychology and double-minoring in child mental health studies and creative writing.
Perhaps because she has spent so much of her college studies examining the way human minds work, Valentine has developed an exceptionally keen eye for highlighting the prejudices she faces as an African American and as a woman.
With her sharp observations, she has also cultivated her courage.
“Every time I go on stage to talk about my experiences as a black woman, there’s a fear. But, I still feel like being a black woman in America is a political statement, and it feels like it is my job to advocate for people who look like me and share my experience,” she says.
“The need to have my story told and to inform other people of my situation is more important and stronger than my fear.”
Valentine says she hopes to pursue an MFA in writing after college, either in poetry or creative writing. She remains especially committed to performing, so she can serve as a poetry role model.
“I wish when I was younger I saw someone like myself, who talked like me, who came from a similar background,” she said. “I want to keep doing what I am doing, so I can keep inspiring others."
Tonight's performances from the event can be watched here.